NFL Film Breakdown: An Analysis of Deebo Samuel and how the 49ers won the West

In the 49ers last four games, Deebo Samuel has 23 touches, was targeted 29 times, gained 340 (102 rushing vs. 238 receiving) all-purpose yards, and has scored two touchdowns. His skill set culminated in the 49ers huge game against Seattle where he went for 5 receptions, 102 yards receiving, 33 yards rushing, and a score. Every week, Shanahan is making a conscious effort to get Samuel involved in the game plan. While Deebo is clearly the 3rd guy behind Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders, he has slowly carved out a significant role in the offense. Every week the 49ers scheme a goal-line play for Samuel to get the ball. He still has to compete against Kittle for targets in this area for the field but it’s clear the 49ers want to get him involved. We’ll take a look here at how the 49ers are using Samuel, what his skill sets are, his struggles, and what it means for his future in San Francisco.

While Deebo certainly has the skill set to make it in the NFL and has really started to string together some exceptional games, he still has quite a few things to work on as he enters the playoffs and his second year in the league. The biggest thing that jumps out on tape is his struggles with physical corners and jams at the line of scrimmage. He routinely doesn’t use his hands to prevent jams or contact, is slow out of his stance, and isn’t very physical at the point of attack when competing for balls. He also had a number of concentration drops. His routes can also be lazy at times as he drifts into his cuts or struggles to burst and create separation. However, when he puts it all together, he can look like a top tier receiver. He’s not the fastest with a 4.48 40 time and he’s not the tallest at 6’0”, but he does have elite level change of direction. As his confidence and knowledge of the offense has grown in the last couple weeks, he’s been able to snap off his routes and drive away from defenders more consistently and is great in the open field. He just has trouble running dependably good routes from a snap to snap basis. All to be expected from a rookie.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers love to use his small area quickness and open field ability whenever they can. He take snaps in the backfield at running back a couple times a game, will get some jet sweeps, is a frequent target for quick screens, and Shanahan has schemed rub routes for him to get room to maneuver. The 49ers also love to run him on digs and sail routes which make up about 30% of his routes run followed by curls and slants at 10% and 12% respectively. These routes maximize his ability to snap and accelerate and don’t ask him to beat anyone on pure speed or physicality.

We’ll get the bad out of the way and start off with his difficulty releasing from press coverage or when he’s collisioned on routes. You can see Deebo highlighted at the top of the screen versus the Saints as #25 Eli Apple walks down to press him. The thing of most concern here is that it looks like Deebo doesn’t even have a plan to beat the press. He gives some foot fire, doesn’t use his hands to prevent the defender from jamming and re-routing him, and even initiates contact on a bench release where he’s literally trying to bench press the defender off of him. Samuel doesn’t have the size or the strength for that. Eli Apple #25 maintains his leverage and prevents Samuel from his inside release. It’s a quick hitting play so the release has to be quick but there is zero threat from Samuel for any other route other than a slant in this situation. There is no shoulder dip, quick outside stem to sell fade, or anything to force Apple to turn his hips and give Deebo room to work.

This is a recurring theme. Deebo is again at the top of the screen with a defender walked up in press. Deebo again is slow with his hands, doesn’t use a chicken wing or lean technique to create separation once he plants for the route, and if the DB has better feet, he may not get off the line of scrimmage at all. The most basic release techniques involve preventing the defender from getting in on your chest. To do this, receivers often pull and dip their off shoulder so that there is less area to contact, use their hands to prevent the defender from contacting them, or use a variety of stem and footwork releases that threaten the defender and force them to react and get out of position. The issue here is that Deebo does none of them.

Here again Deebo is at the bottom of the screen and lets the defender get in on him. It’s not always bad to initiate contact with the DB first but you have to have a plan of attack and here, Deebo doesn’t. He wants to eventually release to a deep out but releases inside and because the defender #31 gets his hands on him, he can’t then break underneath him, threaten him deep, or get him out of position to be able to create separation. Deandre Hopkins is a master at releasing inside on deep outs. You can take a look at Deebo running it here and also check out the clip of Deandre Hopkins running it against the Jaguars a couple years back. Hopkins gets a hard inside release to prevent a jam by Ramsey #20, threatens deep, and once Ramsey turns his hips to run, Hopkins is physical and swims underneath Ramsey to beat him on the deep out. There’s a clear plan of attack for Hopkins with exceptional execution. The opposite is true for Samuel.

Hopkins inside release out route

That being said, when Deebo gets a clean release and is able to get into his route, he consistently does a good job of eating up cushion and stepping on the DBs toes. He’s particularly good at this on inside dig routes and curls. While he sometimes drifts into his cuts on digs, when he does it right, he instantly creates significant separation. You can see below where he eats up ground and gets up on #25 Eli Apple’s toes before bursting flat across the field and creating 2-3 yards of separation.

Here he is again getting up on the DBs toes to threaten deep and make them turn their hips. This is the most consistent part of his route running. Once he is into his route, he does a good job attacking defenders with his speed and quickness.

Here is another example on a curl at the bottom of the screen where Deebo does a great job of selling his vertical route and making #25 bail before snapping off for the curl. It’s super important to threaten deep on every route to force the defense to react and protect. This creates space underneath to work and gives windows for the QB.

Let’s dive into a little bit of the scheme the 49ers use to help open up Deebo – especially when they are within the 10 yard line. Fantasy owners should be very happy about this going forward. It seems like Shanahan really trusts Deebo and wants to get him the ball in scoring opportunities. He typically schemes up at least one play every game to try and guarantee Deebo a score. The most common play they run for Deebo in these situations are quick pop screens that let him filter through the defense for the score. Unfortunately for both him and the 49ers, they’ve done a pretty poor job blocking them and Deebo has dropped two of them – but what’s important here is that the 49ers are making a concerted effort to get him the ball in scoring position. The scheme is fine, but each time one crucial block is missed or Deebo takes his eyes off the ball before securing it. Here is a quick screen against the Rams where Kittle #85 misses the block. If he even gets a piece of the man on Deebo, it’s a walk-in touchdown.

Here’s another quick screen variation that the 49ers use to target Samuel within five yards of the endzone. The Saints read it well and the 49ers miss blocks again, but it’s another indicator that they believe Samuel is important to get the ball to in these condensed areas of the field.

Here again is another goal line target on a quick rub route to get Deebo open on the quick slant. The Saints again play it well and blow up the block. The throw is a little high but if Deebo can haul it in there’s a good chance he can stretch for the endzone.

Some of the coolest stuff Shanahan does with Deebo though is in the run game and really indicates that he wants Samuel to get touches. You can check out the play below where Deebo gets the ball on an end-around. San Francisco ran exactly the same play against the Seahawks that they ran against the Saints a few weeks prior which went for 30 yards. This one against Seattle also goes for 30 yards but Samuel is able to score on the play versus the Seahawks. The Niners pull their left guard as if they are running power to give the linebackers a false run-read. Typically, linebackers read guards and pulling linemen because they indicate where the play will be run. The right tackle, #69 hinges and seals off any backside pursuit so that the end can’t blow up the mesh point or track Samuel down. The center #63 down blocks and then climbs to go get a secondary player which gets an extra blocker downfield. Garoppolo fakes the power action to the running back before pitching it to Deebo on the end around. The 49ers do a ton of this power crunch action with Kyle Jusczyk where he comes across the formation as an additional blocker. So Shanahan gives the same initial look before wheeling Jusczyk #44 around and lead blocking out in front of Deebo to the left. It’s the perfect counter to an over aggressive defense when a team is taking their base power run away. Also big shout-out to Jusczyk with the 2-for-1 block at the end to allow Deebo to score.

They run the exact same concept here against the Saints. Both are super effective and shows Shanahan’s desire to get Deebo involved and the masterful planning of counter moves to put his team in a position to succeed and make a defense pay.

We’ll finish up with one more play that works off of the 49ers run game and has gotten the 49ers a ton of yards over the season. Again, the Niners love to run crunch action from their fullbacks, tight ends, and even wide receivers that are aligned in tight splits close to the linemen. It’s simple and effective for slowing down backside pursuit because it makes the end and the outside linebacker stop and think. Sometimes they will kick out the end with this crunch action, sometimes they’ll slide underneath and block upfield for a cutback, and sometimes they’ll run play-action off of it. You can see a bunch of the 49ers play-action game in the blog post here from earlier in the season. In this case, they’re running play-action off outside zone and the crunch with Deebo in a tight split. It’s a simple flood concept with one deep receiver, one middle receiver, and Deebo in the flat. The linebackers flow to the run action, the man on Deebo has to filter over the defense to get over to the flat, and Deebo catches the ball with a ton of space to run.

All-in-all, Deebo certainly looks to be an important piece of the 49ers offense going forward. Shanahan is making a concerted effort to get him involved in the passing game, run game, and in the redzone. As long as Kittle and Sanders are on the team, he will have a tough time eating into their targets and touches but he certainly looks to be in the future and will likely ascend to the top role whenever Sanders moves on. While inconsistent with his release and hands, he clearly has the tools to carve out a niche for himself in the offense. If he can polish those in combination with a growing understanding of route running and consistent play, look out for the Niners because nobody can stop all their weapons at once.

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