© Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — On his second carry of the season, and ninth in four years in the NFL, Raheem Mostert fumbled.
It happened early in the second quarter of San Francisco’s 30-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5. Mostert took the outside handoff to his right, hit the hole, and coughed up the ball when Cardinals defensive tackle Rodney Gunter wrapped up Mostert a couple yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals recovered.
Mostert, a harsh self-critic, beat himself up over the mistake. Only to magnify it, the following week, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan challenged Mostert in front of the team to take better care of the ball. Shanahan told Mostert he had to make the most of his limited reps in practice.
“I accepted the challenge,” Mostert said at his locker Wednesday. “That’s something that I needed, and that’s something I wanted to look forward to. That’s what I did.”
Mostert has starred in his role as a gunner, asserting himself one of the very best in the NFL. But the rushing opportunities came at a premium prior to Week 6. Mostert has been stuck behind Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, and Alfred Morris from training camp and throughout the season. That’s why, when he fumbled his first rush in Week 5, he took it personally.
Mostert entered last week’s practices ultra-focused on securing the ball. Shanahan told the 49ers defense to try to pop the ball loose whenever Mostert carried it. They did not succeed. After practices, Mostert strapped on his shoulder pads and went through fumbling drills.
Mostert says protecting the ball is both a physical and mental process. He has to constantly remind himself to keep the ball high and tight. “Hold onto the rock” when you are in a crowded area, he tells himself.
“When it comes to the mental part, it’s like I am not going to fumble, I am not going to fumble,” Mostert said. “Just keep it tight, keep it tight. You have to train yourself so there is a lot of repetition.”
Mostert prepared to see snaps at running back in Week 6 because Breida’s sprained ankle threatened to sideline him. He was listed as doubtful early in the week. He played Sunday, yet Mostert assumed a major role in San Francisco’s 33-30 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football.
Mostert ran the ball 12 times for a team-leading 87 yards. Breida, who started the game, ran 14 times for 61 yards and a touchdown. In one of the more surprising developments of the night, Morris did not record a carry, one week after he had 18 rushes.
The Mostert-Breida combination worked. There was no drop-off in speed, as there is when Morris, a bruising veteran back, enters the game. Mostert ran a 4.28 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2015. He showed off that burst Monday night, ripping off the game’s longest run, a 26-yard gain on the play before Marquise Goodwin’s 30-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Only one of Mostert’s rushes yielded negative yardage.
The 26-year-old had his most productive rushing game since his senior year at Purdue. In the seventh game of his final college season, he ran five times for 115 yards. That was one of just two college games in which he eclipsed more than the 87 yards he compiled Monday night.
Mostert still feels he could have played better. He says he made some mental errors of which he isn’t proud.
“I left a lot of yards out on the field,” Mostert said. Especially with my speed, I feel like I could have gotten to the edge a little bit faster. I watched the film, and I was really hard on myself.”
To Shanahan, as with any coach, he proudly watched a positive week of practice translate into a live game.
“The way he practiced, it was extremely obvious to all the players and coaches how locked in he was, how up for the challenge he was,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “I know he was down on the fumble from the week before. The best way a guy could respond to a week of practice, he did. It carried over into the game.”
Shanahan said all year long that he would eventually involve Mostert in the running game. It’s possible he will be named a Pro Bowler because of his special-teams specialty. But he also has developed a role within the 49ers rushing attack that ranks third in the NFL in total yardage (855) and tied for second in yards per carry (5.1).
Shanahan affirmed that Mostert’s workload Monday night was a product of the matchup. He is not necessarily the de facto No. 2 option moving forward.
This is nothing new to Mostert, who, despite being buried in the depth chart, has had to stay ready in case of injury. He tried to not take the lack of opportunity early in the season personally.
“I just got to be in my zone and be focused at all times,” Mostert said. “You never know when your number is being called. Kyle called my number last week and said, ‘Hey, I challenge you.’ That’s one thing I had to do: step up to the challenge.”