In the most basic terms, the idea behind just about every offensive football play is to make the defense wrong. That’s accomplished in a lot of ways, whether it’s by flooding a zone with more receivers than defensive backs, luring linebackers out of position with misdirection, getting more blockers in front of a ballcarrier than the defense can counter, or using any of the myriad concepts or parlor tricks coaches cook up to poke holes in defensive formations. But sometimes—actually, a lot of times—schemes don’t really work as they’re drawn up. The defense rotates to the perfect look, counters the play expertly, or anticipates where the ball is going and quickly has the quarterback or ballcarrier dead to rights. On those plays, teams need players who can make the defense wrong anyway.
That’s the context that explains why Deebo Samuel absolutely rules. The 49ers receiver/running back is an antidote to sound defensive tactics. He’s a nemesis to typically strong tacklers, a destroyer of pursuit angles. He’s a James Beard Award–winning chef who turns chicken shit into chicken salad. It’s true, yes, that he benefits from playing in one of the most cleverly designed and expertly sequenced offensive schemes in the league under Kyle Shanahan. But Samuel’s ability to consistently turn what should be negative plays into positive ones is a big reason San Francisco is back in the Super Bowl. He’s more than just a playmaker; he’s a demoralizer; he’s a confounder. And with the 49ers set to face off against the disciplined, stingy, and very well-coached defense of the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII, Samuel might be the biggest X factor in the game.
Samuel’s outsize impact on San Francisco’s offense has been apparent during the team’s march to the Super Bowl. In their divisional-round matchup against the Packers, Samuel hurt his shoulder and was knocked out of the game in the first quarter, an injury that seemed to take the air out of the tires of the 49ers offense. San Francisco sputtered through the first three quarters and entered the final frame trailing 21-14. From there, it mounted a comeback, scoring 10 unanswered points to sneak past Green Bay, but it was clear that the offense sorely missed Samuel’s dynamic playmaking talent.
In the team’s NFC championship game win over Detroit, Samuel triumphantly returned to action and immediately resumed his role as a centerpiece of the offense. Deebo led the 49ers in both receptions (eight) and receiving yards (89) in the 34-31 come-from-behind win, and the game was the perfect microcosm for Samuel’s almost limitless versatility. It almost felt as if Shanahan had made a pregame checklist of all the things that Deebo could do for his offense, and he made sure to get to all of them throughout the game.
Early on, Deebo showed his man-coverage-beating ability, shooting past Lions defensive back Kindle Vildor off the line before separating on a deep over route, reeling in a big gain on a great under-pressure pass from Brock Purdy.
A little later, he took a touch pass sweep from right to left, setting up the player on the edge (cornerback Cameron Sutton) with an inside jab before beating him around the corner. That play looked dead at the start, but Samuel turned it into a 6-yard gain.
Early in the second quarter, Deebo took a fly sweep from right to left, again evading several would-be tacklers. He turned what looked like a sure loss into a 7-yard gain and a first down.
Later in the third quarter, Deebo showed that he’s also a legit downfield threat. He ran a deep dig from the left side, cutting in to catch a pass right in between four defenders, barely breaking stride before picking up another 7 or 8 yards after the catch.
On the very next play, Purdy swung a pass out to Deebo in the flat. Sutton again had Deebo dead to rights, but Samuel easily broke the tackle, picking up 9 extra yards.
On the team’s next drive, Shanahan dialed up a screen for Samuel. With Kyle Juszczyk and Brandon Aiyuk leading the way, Deebo weaved through five Lions defenders, breaking several tackles en route to a 17-yard gain.
The above clips aren’t even all the plays in which Deebo touched the football in San Francisco’s win, but you get the point. The fifth-year pass catcher does a little bit of everything for the 49ers, and he consistently made things hard for Detroit’s defense—getting much more than what was there and helping to keep the chains moving and the 49ers rolling. He forced eight missed tackles on 11 touches in the game, per PFF.
Samuel’s performance in the NFC championship game showcased his rare combination of explosiveness and power. It was also a great illustration of how he’s used in the chess match between Shanahan and opposing defensive coordinators. Deebo’s the ultimate constraint-play lever, an über-handy multi-tool that keeps the defense honest basically from the first snap to the final whistle. If opposing defenses are playing in soft shell coverages, the Niners can take advantage of that space and hit Samuel on a quick slant or underneath crosser that gets the playmaker in space with room to run. Among receivers this year, Deebo unsurprisingly finished first in yards after the catch per reception (8.7), first in yards after contact (123), and first in missed tackles forced (31), per PFF.
If opponents are crowding into the box to stop the run, Samuel can make them pay on screens and quick smoke routes to the outside. Deebo was PFF’s top-graded receiver on screen plays this year (93.9), leading all receivers in screen yards (190) and touchdowns (two—tied with Rashee Rice). If defenses are overplaying on the edges, crashing down into the line in hopes of clogging up the middle, San Francisco can hand it off to Deebo on a sweep. That makes edge defenders think twice about being too aggressive upfield. And if opponents start to crowd the line and hope to press Samuel or knock him off his route early, they can always send him deep and throw it over the top. In whatever way defenders try to cheat up closer to the ball or try to anticipate plays, Deebo is there to make them pay.
Put it all together, and Deebo can be the straw that stirs the drink in San Francisco’s matchup with Kansas City this Sunday. As 4for4’s Connor Allen points out, the Chiefs defense leads the league in two-high safety looks—and when the 49ers have faced those types of coverage shells this year, Samuel has been Purdy’s favorite target. Two-high shells dissuade quarterbacks from throwing up deep passes and instead invite offenses to run the ball or dink and dunk underneath. The Chiefs are comfortable with this tack, in part, because they’ve had one of the best defenses in the NFL at limiting yards after the catch. But they haven’t played Deebo and the Niners, who collectively run after the catch like few teams can. I’m picturing lots of sweeps, screens, and quick throws on Shanahan’s menu, with Deebo as the focal point.
In fact, depending on how the Chiefs decide to match up, Samuel may have an even bigger role than normal. Kansas City has been excellent this season in limiting opposing no. 1 receivers—both with the way it deploys its coverage shells and with its penchant for lining up star corner L’Jarius Sneed on its opponents’ top pass catcher. If Sneed shadows Aiyuk (who finished tops on the team in both receptions and yards this year, with 75 catches for 1,342 yards), Deebo will need to step up.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is sure to have some tricks up his sleeve for slowing down the juggernaut 49ers offense and for trying to limit the damage that Samuel can do. The veteran coach has done an incredible job of stymieing some of the best offenses in the NFL. But the thing that makes Samuel so valuable is that even if the Chiefs come with the perfect plan for stopping Kyle Shanahan, Brock Purdy, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco still has Deebo Samuel. And he can make the Chiefs wrong even when they’re right.