If you dare, go take a peek at this year’s week-by-week injury report for the San Francisco 49ers. It’s not pretty. Despite the resemblance to a phone book*, the 49ers are playing roughly .500 ball with some solid performances tucked in here and there. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel makes a nice mirror for their season. Playing in only five games, he started the year on Injured Reserve as a result of foot surgery. But wait, there’s more. He returned to the field in October but missed the first three weeks in November with a hamstring injury. Samuel was held out of practice Thursday for precautionary purposes but is expected to play vs. the Buffalo Bills. If he does, here’s what to expect.
*This is a solid joke for us old-timers.
The 49ers aren’t inordinately predisposed to the run game, actually being right at the NFL average. A lot of their passing game isn’t a far cry from running plays though, as you’ll see with the rest of the Deebo Samuel GIFs below. That means total team blocking is incredibly important. Samuel is a willing blocker and generally shows good awareness of where/how the play is supposed to develop. He gets ahead of his opponent then turns to cut off any pursuit angles. Not every block is this successful but this sets a nice ceiling for Samuel.
Bills fans are used to seeing similar plays from Isaiah McKenzie and this is something Buffalo will want to watch out for on Monday evening. Despite being three inches taller than McKenzie and roughly 40 lbs heavier, Samuel’s 4.48 time in the 40 was only 0.06 seconds slower than McKenzie’s. We’ll come back to physics soon enough but, before we do, Samuel shows off good balance as he weaves through traffic and slips a tackle.
Here’s an even better look at his ability to weave in and out of traffic as this extended handoff goes for nine yards. That extra 40 lbs over McKenzie puts him around the 214 mark, which is running back weight on his 5’11” frame. That gives him a nice center of gravity to shake off hits on top of the balance and speed.
Here we have a similar play on the other side. Samuel is boxed in pretty quickly but still manages to twist and gain a few extra yards.
Deebo Samuel starts his route off with a good change of direction to gain a shred of space. It’s enough to make the catch and then look at the acceleration. He gets a lot of yards for someone surrounded by half the team.
Just to continue to emphasize the 49ers’ strategy. Quick, short passes. Total team blocking effort. Deebo Samuel swerving with the ball in his hand. One thing to point out is that the 49ers have Samuel go in motion a LOT. There are plenty of fake tosses and misdirection plays. Motion, specifically high-speed motion, is a staple of the San Francisco offense. It’s not quite as simple as “Samuel is getting the ball” though.
There are a lot of similarities in this running play to the passing plays above. This play was selected as a testament to the variety of looks that yield the same results. Running this behind the quarterback can help sell some play action looks. Every little wrinkle gives the defense something to think about, and they have lots of little wrinkles.
I really wanted to get a better sense of Deebo Samuel’s route running but I question if I’m more interested in seeing it than the 49ers appear. The shorter route above shows a little change of direction ability and this one highlights that he retains a lot of his ability to flow around opponents even at top speed. It felt like he had a good sense of soft spots in zone defense. Plays like we have here show some skill in maintaining good leverage against his defender.
Overall though I came away thinking this was an “incomplete” grade. Samuel doesn’t seem to be asked to run a complex route tree, though I suspect he could run a fair amount. His lower body injuries this year are also likely a factor.
The San Francisco 49ers know the type of players they have in their building. A fast, agile wide receiver in Deebo Samuel and quarterbacks who steer the team toward the short passing game. Their ability to coach up the entire offense on blocking schemes has helped make this a pretty effective strategy, though it wouldn’t sound that way on paper. Their play book has also embraced this ideology with a good variety of plays that can make use of their strengths.
It’s a shame that a healthy Matt Milano isn’t a guarantee this week. His sideline-to-sideline speed would be a major asset in keeping Deebo Samuel contained. With or without Milano though, the 49ers will be an interesting test for the Buffalo nickel defense. A squad based on speed and versatility is going to need both of those traits in good measure.