Few could knock Samuel for his confidence, the last rookie WR to win ROY was Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014. A player who is in no short supply of confidence. However, back in July, there was still a lot of work to do on the field for the former South Carolina pass-catcher.
Flash forward to Super Bowl week and Deebo Samuel and the 49ers are on the eve of fighting for what would be the sixth Lombardi trophy in the franchise’s history. Samuel has been a key part of his team’s ascent to the Super Bowl.
As Pat Kirwan writes in his best-selling guide to football Take Your Eye Off The Ball 2.0, typically, most NFL WR corps consists of an X receiver, this is your Michael Thomas‘ and Mike Evans‘, Z receiver, think Golden Tate or Jarvis Landry, and a slot receiver, Taylor Gabriel or Cooper Kupp. Z receivers, the group in which Deebo Samuel finds himself in, tend to be smaller than X receivers, although this is not always the case, they also tend to be thicker, stouter and more adept at accumulating YAC (yards after the catch.)
Well for the San Francisco 49ers this year, Samuel has cemented himself as one of the top Y, or no.2 receivers in the NFL. Samuel amassed a total of 961 yards from scrimmage this year. 802 yards receiving with 3 touchdowns, 159 yards rushing with another 3 touchdowns to match. Samuel’s impressive offensive output made him just the type of unique, adaptable and versatile player that Kyle Shanahan, one of the best offensive masterminds in football, loves.
Let’s look at some highlights of Deebo Samuel’s impressive rookie year.
As with most other skill positions, the shift from college to the professional level takes time and can be challenging. Earlier on in the season, Shanahan was more focused on getting the ball in Deebo’s hands first and foremost, rather than make the rookie run routes against NFL level defences and defensive backs.
In the blow-out victory against the Bengals in Week Two, 41-17, Samuel showcased a little of what he can do as a pure runner.
Here we see San Francisco on 1st & 10. This specific down and distance presents the optimum opportunity for play-action as the defence is not clued into whether the 49ers are going to throw or pass. However, one of the things that has made Kyle Shanahan one of the best and brightest offensive minds in football is the ability to work in little wrinkles into traditional plays.
For example, the 49ers go to run a play-action fake off of a jet sweep by amuel. Next, Garoppolo keeps the ball and rolls out to the right. Then finally, Garoppolo turns back left and hits Deebo with the screen pass. At the end of all this movement and trickery, the Bengals defence is gassed and confused and now Samuel, surrounded by a group of blockers, shows off his running ability and speed with a 38 yard gain.
Another example of Samuel’s ability to create with the ball in his hands came against arch-foes the Seattle Seahawks in a crucial, must-win game in Week Seventeen.
Once again, we see that same-old Shanahan trickery. The 49ers are lined up in bunch formation with FB Kyle Juszyck and TE George Kittle on the same side. The ball is snapped for what looks to be a bread and butter counterplay, something the Niners have run all year and something that this Seattle defence would have studied in the film room thoroughly.
Both Kittle and Juszyck head inside to block as well as Mostert motions his body to emulate a counter run to the right. As this is happening, Samuel runs the end around and receives the little dump-off from Garoppolo. K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks are now all out of position as they bite down on the play-fake.
By the time the ball is in Samuel’s hands the offensive line has reached the second level, notice centre Ben Garland #63 blocking the Seahawks FS. Samuel goes on to break the first tackle, a trait all good runners must have to succeed at the NFL level, and carries the ball into the endzone for six points.
Samuel began to hit his stride in the run into the playoffs. In back-to-back weeks, Week Ten and Week Eleven, he amassed a total of 246 yards with an average Y/R of 15.37. Without George Kittle and with a banged-up Emmanuel Sanders, the rookie rose to the occasion and proved to be a real number one target for Jimmy G.
Here we see San Francisco in that tough fought Week Eleven match up against the Arizona Cardinals. After a slow start, the Niners rallied back from down 16-0 to take the lead 17-16. Here we see Jimmy G and co. driving to preserve their slim lead.
It’s 3rd & 7 on the 49ers own 40-yard line. A stop here would be huge for this young Arizona team, but Samuel and Jimmy G have other plans.
Marquise Goodwin motions over from the strong side of the formation to create a bunch concept at the bottom of the screen. As a result of the motion, Garoppolo recognises that the Cardinals are blitzing out of Cover 1. Cover 1 being man-to-man with one safety over top. The bunch concept is key here as it is the number one way to counter man coverage due to the amount of movement and traffic it creates at the line of scrimmage. It’s impossible to play press-man coverage on a bunch formation.
Thanks to some Shanahan scheming, Samuel gets a relatively free release off the line of scrimmage and makes the defender pay. Garoppolo recognises the blitz and hits his hot route, Samuel on the ‘lo-crossing’ route, and he takes it for a first down and then some. Once again, the rookie breaks the first tackle on his way to a 17 yard gain on an important 3rd down.
Sticking with the game against the Cardinals, the 49ers once again find themself in 3rd & long.
The Niners line up in 11 personnel (1 tight end and 1 running back) with Dwelley joining the HB in the backfield. Arizona shows Garoppolo a similar look to the earlier 3rd down. However, this time they’re playing Cover 1 Robber. This means that Arizona is playing Cover 1 but instead on an extra man blitzing, he is then dropped into coverage over the middle of the field to ‘rob’ anything across the middle.
The robber does a good job of covering the middle of the field long enough for #55 Chandler Jones to pressure Garoppolo. The Niners quarterback sensing the pressure gets rid of the ball, allowing the chance for Samuel to make a play in the process. Samuel here is running somewhat of a post-corner, a route that is effective against man coverage due to the many cuts but does take time to develop. Although Samuel’s fake to the post is barely noticeable, he does proceed to make a spectacular contested-catch towards the sideline despite there being significant pass interference from the Cardinal’s DB for 26 yards.
This is the type of catch that cult hero and all-time great Z receiver Anquan Boldin specialised in.
Highlighting Samuel’s physicality and aggressiveness at the catch point, let’s take a look at one of his three receiving touchdowns which came against the Baltimore Ravens in Week Twelve.
It’s San Francisco’s opening offensive drive, the team is in ‘no man’s land’ (the area too far for a field goal in bad conditions and too close to the endzone to punt) and is facing 4th & 2. This drive is imperative for San Francisco as they look to get off to a good start and set the tone early away from home against the best team in the NFL.
Baltimore runs a zone blitz out of a Cover 3 shell and play sound defence. Matthew Judon tosses Kendrick Bourne to the floor, disrupting his route. This leaves only Sanders and Samuel running routes. The Niners run a semi-Flood like concept at the top of the screen with Sanders running a deep out and Samuel running a streak. Shanahan likely thought Baltimore would run a man blitz instead of a zone one.
The DB who eventually gives up the TD, Marcus Peters, actually plays his assignment well. Peters plays his zone, initially focusing on Sanders, and then leaks off on to Samuel after reading Garoppolo’s eyes. This is where Samuel shines and makes a great play.
Garoppolo puts a tonne of loft on the ball in rainy and windy conditions, giving his young wide receiver a chance to attack the ball. And that’s just what Samuel does. He attacks the catch point aggressively, using his strength to push Peters out of the way whilst concentrating on the ball the entire time. Peters, who is adept at grabbing interceptions, was schooled by Samuel.
Returning back to that Week Seventeen game in Seattle, let’s take a look at one of the routes that Deebo Samuel has excelled at his rookie year.
San Francisco is lined up in 22 personnel (2 TEs and 2 HB) with TE2 Ross Dwelley split out wide and Juszyck motioned over beside him in the slot. Seattle is in its typical Cover 3 zone. Before the ball is snapped, everything screams ‘inside handoff to the right’. However, Shanahan adds one of his infamous wrinkles and runs an RPO (Run Pass Option).
An RPO involves the offensive line run blocking and the quarterback reading a specific defender, usually a linebacker or corner, to decide whether or not he should throw it or run it. In this instance, the WILL linebacker, Mychal Kendricks, is playing close down to the line of scrimmage even before the ball is snapped. As the RPO develops, Garoppolo sees space open up behind Kendricks as Samuel wins inside of the cover 3 corner who is playing outside leverage.
Samuel makes the quick catch, turns upfield, uses his athleticism and physicality as a runner and gets a 30 yard gain for San Francisco.
This epitomises Deebo Samuel’s impressive, mouthwatering skillset.
To conclude, Samuel is one of the brightest and most exciting young receivers in the game today. Although he may not win OROY, that title most likely belongs to Josh Jacobs of the Oakland Raiders, he has certainly made his mark and carved out a place for himself on one of the best rosters in football. With Samuel and Shanahan, the future certainly looks bright in the Bay.