Earl Mitchell

How 49ers' D-line has grown in eyes of returning veteran Earl Mitchell

How 49ers' D-line has grown in eyes of returning veteran Earl Mitchell

SANTA CLARA -- It had been more than a year since veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell played for the 49ers.

It did not take him long after re-signing with the club after the conclusion of the regular season to notice a difference from the past two years.

“It was awesome just to see how much these guys have grown,” Mitchell said after playing 11 snaps in a backup role in the 49ers’ 27-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Mitchell, 32, a 10-year NFL veteran, came out of retirement to add depth to the 49ers’ defensive line after not playing a down for any team during the regular season.

Now, the 49ers are moving on to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

Mitchell started 28 of the 30 games in which he appeared for the 49ers in 2017 and ’18. He played with Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, and he can clearly see how much the players he lined up alongside have come along in their careers.

“It’s a totally different team than what I witnessed down the line from Solomon, Buckner, Armstead,” Mitchell said. “They’re playing fast and free and they’re comfortable and they know themselves. It’s really just a great atmosphere.”

Mitchell was particularly impressed with a sequence he saw from Thomas early in the fourth quarter.

“That screen play that Solomon made that play on, he called it out before he even made that play,” Mitchell said. “I can’t tell you how proud of him I was, just as a vet to see these guys grow and actually be able to see something and capitalize on it is just growth.

“We knew what they were going to do, but literally right before the play started, Solomon called it. He gave me the word. ‘This is going to be a screen. Be prepared.’ We were both were on top of it.”

Thomas lined up at right defensive tackle with Mitchell to his left. As soon as Vikings running back Dalvin Cook started to leave the backfield, Thomas changed course to track him. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw also knew what was coming, and he dropped Cook behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble with Thomas right there.

“Just the confidence, to be able to call out something and look me in the eye, like, ‘All right,’ rather than being apprehensive and being slow, and being able to play fast and trusting what you’re seeing,” Mitchell said.

Thomas had three tackles and a sack while playing 14 snaps.

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Mitchell also credited 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and first-year defensive line coach Kris Kocurek for having the defense properly prepared for the Vikings. Mitchell said he remembers communication on the sideline being an issue the past two seasons. But he was impressed with the efficiency of making corrections between defensive series Saturday.

“They came out with their normal game plan,” Mitchell said of the Vikings. “I think we were just well-prepared. Coach Kocurek harped on them trying to run to our weak side on our defense, and we keyed on that pretty much and we stayed true to our keys and got after it. We knew what they were going to try to do and kudos to Saleh and everybody.”

The 49ers held Minnesota to just 147 total yards of offense, including just 21 yards rushing. Cook had 18 yards rushing on nine rushing attempts and just 8 yards on six receptions.


Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 5:30 p.m.

49ers Mailbag: George Kittle not slowing down with extra rib padding

49ers Mailbag: George Kittle not slowing down with extra rib padding

If there is one thing you should know about 49ers tight end George Kittle, it’s that nothing seems to impede his progress.

Whether it’s fractured ribs cartilage or a defender having a firm grasp of his face mask while others are jumping on his back, Kittle has proven to be a virtually unstoppable force.

Kittle has fashioned a different look in the 49ers’ Week 16 and 17 games, catching the attention of some viewers. But his production remained unchanged.

And that’s how this playoff bye-week edition of the 49ers Mailbag kicks off ...

Sure enough, Kittle was not wearing additional ribs protection in the 49ers’ Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

But he wore the extra padding in the 49ers’ regular-season games against the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks. The padding is very similar to what Kittle wore last season after he sustained fractured ribs cartilage in a Week 9 game against the Raiders.

Kittle wore the padding for the remainder of the season but did never talked about it.

Again, he is not talking about it. (But, also, I don’t know that any reporter has asked him about it.) He has not missed any practice time, according to the 49ers’ practice participation reports. He has not been listed with any kind of injury requiring medical attention.

Of course, Kittle set the all-time, single-season record for tight ends last season with 1,377 receiving yards. The ribs' condition did not impact his performance. And it has not slowed him down the past two games, either.

It is my understanding the 49ers will wear their traditional home reds for as long as they remain alive on the NFC side of the NFL’s postseason bracket. But that does not necessarily mean we have seen the last of their alternate, all-white uniforms.

The AFC champion will be the home team in the Super Bowl, and the representative from that conference will have their choice of jersey.

Each of the six teams from the AFC wears their dark jerseys at home. Therefore, it is expected that the team representing the NFC must wear their white uniforms. Teams are allowed to wear alternate jerseys up to three times a season. The 49ers did it against Carolina at home and in Week 17 at Seattle.

I’m not 100-percent sure that it would be allowed for the Super Bowl, but if the 49ers advance that far, it is a possibility the 49ers could pull out the all-whites one more time.

The 49ers signed veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell this week to provide depth on the defensive line. General manager John Lynch reached out to him a week earlier to begin the process that led to the reunion.

Mitchell appears to be in OK shape. He is certainly not in “football shape,” but the 49ers are not expecting him to step in and play a whole lot. My best guess is that he is on the field for approximately 15 plays in the 49ers’ playoff opener on Saturday, Jan. 11.

Robert Saleh is reportedly interviewing with the Cleveland Browns on Saturday. Up to this point, he is the only defensive coach to receive an interview with Browns. He went in with a plan for putting together his offensive staff.

It seems logical that he would want to bring some of the 49ers’ coaches with him to fill more-prominent roles. But any assistant coach who remains under contract to the 49ers through 2020 would have to be let out of his contract.

A year ago, Kyle Shanahan declined permission to Green Bay and Arizona to hire Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel. LaFleur is the 49ers’ passing-game coordinator, while McDaniel is the run-game coordinator. Shanahan said neither young coach would have received a promotion. At Green Bay and Arizona, they were still going to be non-play-calling coordinators.

Shanahan does not want to lose good coaches, but he also does not want to stand in the way of career advancement for anyone on his staff. His first priority is to surround himself with the best people for the 49ers.

When the season started, Dre Greenlaw was the starting strong-side linebacker, with Kwon Alexander starting on the weak side and Fred Warner playing in the middle.

So when Alexander comes back, Greenlaw will still be a starter. But, here’s the difference: Greenlaw would be on the field for only on base downs. When the 49ers shift to five defensive backs, K’Waun Williams enters the game at nickel back and the strong-side linebacker goes to the sideline.

If you consider Top Five “elite,” then elite they are.

The 49ers ranked second in the NFL in points per game (29.9) and No. 4 in total yards. I’m not sure I would consider the 49ers’ offense on the same level as some other teams, but maybe I should.

At first thought, I just don’t think the 49ers have the kind of game-breaking offensive players that you associate with elite offenses. But there’s not a whole lot wrong with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing or handing off to Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Raheem Mostert.

Kittle deserves to be paid more than just the top five. He deserves to be No. 1 and reset the tight end market. The sooner they can do that, the more it benefits both sides.

There just are not enough touches for four running backs. Really, there are not enough opportunities through the course of a game to satisfy three running backs. That’s why Jeff Wilson has not been active. He did a good job in short-yardage situations, and he might be the best route-runner among the team’s backs. But, right now, there is no room for him to breakthrough in a backfield that consists of Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida. The 49ers need their game-day depth in other spots.

I see what you did there. . . .

All things being equal, I think the 49ers would be wise to continue to invest in their defensive line. That is the one position where you can never – NEVER – have too many good players.

If everyone on injured reserve were healthy, the 49ers’ offense would look a lot different right now.

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Slot receiver Trent Taylor would be their best third-down receiver. Jalen Hurd would be on the field in two-minute and no-huddle situations to create all kinds of issues for defenses as they determine whether to go with base personnel or nickel packages. And Jerick McKinnon would be the team’s third-down back because he is much better route-runner than any of the team’s other running backs.

Taylor and Hurd, if healthy, will be back in 2020. It is possible the 49ers will try to bring back McKinnon on a low-level, one-year, prove-it contract. But Verrett signed a one-year deal, and it seems like a stretch that the club would be inclined to re-sign him.

49ers' Earl Mitchell to wear D.J. Jones' jersey number in NFL playoffs

49ers' Earl Mitchell to wear D.J. Jones' jersey number in NFL playoffs

SANTA CLARA -- Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell wore No. 90 during his two seasons with the 49ers.

That number now belongs to rookie Kevin Givens, whom the 49ers last week promoted to the 53-man roster and has appeared in just one NFL regular-season game.

Mitchell, 32, a 10th-year NFL player, could have easily pulled rank. But he did not even consider the possibility of getting his old number back upon re-signing this week to provide depth on the 49ers’ defensive line for the playoffs.

“I didn’t want to come in and mess up anything these guys have going on,” Mitchell said. “I was not going to strip Givens of his opportunity. I talked to Givens about it, I told him, ‘I’m not here to ruffle feathers. You earned your spot on this team, and I’m just here for the time being.'”

Instead, Mitchell will wear the number of the player he helped mentor -- the same player he, in essence, replaces on the 49ers' roster.

Upon Mitchell's return to the 49ers, team equipment manager Jay Brunetti issued him No. 93, which nose tackle D.J. Jones wore before he sustained a season-ending ankle injury. It is fitting that Jones' number, though he is unable to play in the postseason, will be worn by a veteran player who provided him a great example during his first two NFL seasons.

“D.J. saw me with it on,” Mitchell said of No. 93, “and he said, ‘Go rock that thing.’ He was happy for me.”

After the 49ers declined to pick up the option on Mitchell's contract in the offseason, he signed with the Seattle Seahawks. He was cut before the start of the regular season. Mitchell had in-season workouts with the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs before determining his career was over. In November, he announced his retirement on social media.

After a period of time, Mitchell took down the Instagram post that included news of his retirement because he did not want to be constantly reminded that such a wonderful period of his life was over.

Then, last week, 49ers general manager John Lynch gave him a call. Lynch wanted to inform Mitchell the 49ers might need some depth on the defensive line and he wanted to gauge Mitchell’s interest in a comeback.

“I’m telling you, I was pretty content,” said Mitchell, who makes his home in Houston, where he grew up and played the first four seasons of his NFL career with the Texans.

“I was on the last step of acceptance. But to get that call, it was just an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. That’s something you’d look back on forever and be like, ‘I wish I would’ve gone back.’”

It was the perfect opportunity for Mitchell, who signed with the 49ers in 2017 and experienced only 10 victories over two seasons. Mitchell was on the ground floor of the 49ers’ building with Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

He enjoyed the 49ers’ success this season from afar. He said he is proud of what he saw from the 49ers, not only as a whole, but from the defensive line, in particular.

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“I was here when we were really working our way up, so it’s nice to really see the hard work these guys have been putting in and be part of something special,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell meant something special to the organization, too. When the coaching staff felt it was time to give Jones a chance to show what he could do, Mitchell was nudged to the side. He did not play in the final four games of the 2018 season and was inactive for the final two.

Mitchell realizes how he handled himself during that difficult time likely is the reason he received a call from Lynch. The 49ers knew exactly what they are getting with Mitchell. The club hopes he can see action as a run-stuffer and help the 49ers gear up for a run deep into the playoffs and, potentially, the Super Bowl.

“Had I responded in a way that some think, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Mitchell said. “I could’ve thrown my helmet and gotten mad. That’s not my style and I don’t see the point in being negative."

“I knew if I had an opportunity to play again, me being upset would’ve gotten around and that would’ve ruined everything I’d done my entire career. That’s all people would’ve remembered. I’d rather have a ring than negativity.”