Deebo Unleashed: Keys to 49ers’ Success with Samuel
NFL Week 12 – The Jimmy Garoppolo era in San Francisco has always been defined by a few distinct pillars. Like all Shanahan-offense teams, the 49ers lean on the ground game and do their best to find cheeky ways to tie things into their passing game. Garoppolo’s particular strengths as a quarterback have necessitated that the passing game targets the middle of the field, where his unfiltered trigger and pinpoint accuracy can thrive when targeting tight windows. On the flip side, his particular weaknesses have long stripped the offense of being able to throw outside the numbers, on play-action or in true dropbacks. The team has always been that with Shanahan and Garoppolo.
In the final months of this Garoppolo era (well, presumably), the 49ers offense has become a parody of those offensive pillars. They have always targeted the middle of the field more than most, but now it is genuinely all Garoppolo is willing to do. The offense does not throw outside the numbers, at least not beyond flat routes and speed outs. What used to be a small part of the 49ers offense has been almost entirely absent as of late.
Some of that can be attributed to the play calling. It’s not like Kyle Shanahan is spamming these outside routes and concepts for Garoppolo to throw. There are not many corner routes, sail routes, deep stop routes, or comeback routes. Slants, crossers, square-ins, and short posts are all on the table for San Francisco on most plays. Even the occasional seam route is mixed in there. Everything breaks or works inside.
However, that only begs the question as to whether that is due to Shanahan’s preference or Garoppolo’s inability. The answer is probably some of both, but Garoppolo consistently botches or declines chances to throw outside when presented with them. Garoppolo’s inconsistency on those throws likely leads to Shanahan calling them less, which leads to Garoppolo becoming even less comfortable on them, and so it goes.
The 49ers have a smash variation to the trips side of the formation (bottom) called Double-China 7. The two outside players run short inside routes at 5 yards. The inside player runs a deep corner over the top of them. In this case, the 49ers are even running it with the running back swinging out to the flat as a checkdown option if the main concept is not open. The Jaguars back out into a two-high shell just before the snap, which should be a good look for the corner route—either the receiver gets to undercut the safety’s leverage without any outside help from the cornerback, or the outside cornerback floats up and leaves the flat vacated, in which Garoppolo can just throw the short inside route or check it down.
Garoppolo does not entertain that at all. He instead forces a throw the other way to an isolated slant route against a cornerback playing inside leverage. To his credit, Garoppolo places the ball where it needs to be. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk finishes the play with a tough catch. There’s nothing wrong with a nice 7-yard gain on its own. The problem is that so few of these opportunities to attack the outside the numbers arise in the current state of the offense and Garoppolo has zero interest in them when they do.
That feels like a benign example, especially given the play still generated something, but the 49ers’ film over the past few weeks is scarce with plays that even have routes breaking outside like this. Clips in which Garoppolo attempts or considers those throws are even harder to come by. Calling and throwing routes that break outside are just not what the offense does right now, even less so than their usual.
For years, Shanahan’s workaround for not being able to throw outside the numbers effectively was to run the ball outside the numbers. The Shanahan name is built off of outside zone. However, defenses have become more keen on handling classic under-center outside zone over the past couple of seasons. Shanahan has already been adjusting to that with more gap schemes, but with that, some of the offense’s ability to hit runs on the perimeter had diminished in favor of slamming teams between the tackles with pullers.
That is, until wide receiver Deebo Samuel became their new answer for attacking the edge.
Samuel carried the ball just six times for 22 yards and a score through the first nine weeks of the year. A few jet plays here and there were sprinkled into the offense, but he was not a feature of the run game. Over the past three games, Samuel has handled 19 carries for 181 yards and four touchdowns. He has ripped off four runs of at least 20 yards. No other 49ers runner has earned a carry for 20 yards even once over that stretch. When Shanahan thinks he can take advantage of the defense for an explosive play, the ball goes straight to Samuel.
There are a few reasons the 49ers have found success with Samuel in the backfield. The most interesting wrinkle is how Samuel receives some of his carries, particularly from shotgun formations. Rather than hand the ball off in front of him like most quarterbacks would do, Garoppolo will turn back and hand the ball off to Samuel behind him. It seems unusual, but it serves to give Samuel more of a cushion between himself and the line of scrimmage to take advantage of his explosiveness in space and not force him to run between the tackles all the time. Samuel has to be fast enough to the edge to outrun some of the defenders crashing down right outside the tackle box, but he is, and that’s why this formula works.
Here is one instance of the 49ers doing this against the Rams. This was the game in which Samuel really started to become a runner. In this clip, the 49ers’ tight end (George Kittle, 85) is detached from the core of the formation a bit. The lead blocker coming across the formation (Jeff Wilson, 22) also works to the outside of that tight end on his block. Those two aspects work in unison to stretch the surface of the defense out as far as possible. Now pair that with the slightly deeper handoff, and Shanahan has created a scenario where his most explosive player gets a deeper and wider runway to pick his spot from.
The 49ers have found even more success with that behind-the-back wrinkle when running Samuel into the field rather than into the boundary. The difference is that rather than stretching all their blocks out wide to expand a smaller area, the 49ers will use their outside blockers to pin defenders back inside to give Samuel a longer runway to the perimeter with all that extra space to work with.
San Francisco started doing some of that against Jacksonville, like in this example. Both Kittle (85) and Jauan Jennings (15) turn inside immediately to seal defenders away from the edge, which is aided by Trey Sermon (28) motioning to the other side of the formation at the snap. Rookie right tackle Jaylen Moore (76) pulls around to try to lend Samuel a lead block, but Jaguars safety Andrew Wingard (42) runs himself too wide trying to cut off the perimeter anyway, allowing Samuel to slice right back up the field for a near-touchdown.
A similar approach without the pulling tackle appears on this play against Minnesota. This time, the 49ers motion their wing player (Jeff Wilson, 22) towards the run side and try to get all their blockers wider than the defense. Kittle (85) does not end up fully outside linebacker Eric Kendricks upon climbing to the second level, but he gets just enough of him that Samuel is able to fly to the edge and get access to the sideline thanks to Wilson blocking his man from outside-in.
Later in the game, the 49ers hit the Vikings again with one of these outside runs to Samuel. The 49ers again line up in a bunch formation to the field, like in the Jaguars clip, but this time with a receiver (Brandon Aiyuk, 11) as the point man. An added twist from the Jaguars clip is that the wing player (Wilson, 22) now becomes another puller along the right tackle rather than motioning across the formation. The guys blocking back inside do their job, the pullers get a two-on-two in space as planned, and Samuel is off to the races through a huge crease outside the numbers.
Of course, not all of Samuel’s carries are behind the quarterback to give him a deeper runway. Sometimes a run needs to hit faster than that, especially when running into the boundary. Shanahan has gotten Samuel involved on some more traditional handoffs with his run concepts into the boundary, even tying them into the play-action game a bit. A three-play series against the Jaguars perfectly encapsulated what that can do for the 49ers offense.
Shanahan starts the three-play series with play-action. Samuel is in the backfield with Kyle Juszczyk (44) in a Y-off position on the same side. At the snap, Juszczyk fires off across the formation alongside left guard Laken Tomlinson (75) on what looks like a counter run concept to the defense. Naturally, both linebackers get dragged to that side, letting Kittle flow over the top of them into space over the left hash.
The 49ers proceeded to hand the ball off on that very same counter look into the boundary on the two following plays.
In the first clip, the Jaguars align cornerback Tyson Campbell (32) to the nub side (right) with only the tight end and no receivers, which lends to him sitting high and outside as a run defender in order to be able to play his zone assignment if need be. Also, the Jaguars do not have anyone run with Juszczyk across the formation on the motion. That all means there is more help outside the run and less commotion between the tackles, so Samuel naturally cuts this one back to hit inside.
On the following snap, Samuel is able to bounce the play. The Jaguars, in this instance, pulled Campbell over to the side with the wide receivers and away from the nub tight end. Now there’s no high-and-outside run-fitter over there. It is just linebacker Myles Jack (44) kicked over further than he was on the play before, but still much closer to the line of scrimmage, leaving him more susceptible to getting roped into the incoming pullers. Jacksonville also sends Wingard (42) across the formation with Juszczyk. Now there is more commotion in the middle and less certainty about a high outside run-fitter, which lends to Samuel being able to bounce this for another near-touchdown.
And just like that, the mad scientist Kyle Shanahan has found a way to make his offense work once again. After a slow start to the year and a boat-load of injuries both big and small, there was some concern about whether this was the year things fell apart. Shanahan’s crafting of the offense around Samuel to find a way to hit explosive plays on the perimeter is evidence that he and the 49ers are not dead yet.
The wet blanket on all of this is that Samuel will miss the next week or two with a groin injury that he suffered near the end of last week’s game. Fortunately, the 49ers face a broken Seahawks team on Sunday and should be able to make do even without Samuel. They also square off against the Falcons in three weeks, which should be the latest in which Samuel could return and give him a favorable opponent to ease back into the lineup against.
Once Samuel returns to the lineup, expect him to continue being a core part of their run and screen game. Samuel is far and away their most explosive ballcarrier, and they are going to need him to continue lighting the league on fire over the final stretch of the year if the 49ers hope to crash the NFC playoff race.