The San Francisco 49ers have a problem. They have an untrustable quarterback.
Fortunately, they also have a roster full of players capable of papering over Jimmy Garoppolo’s drive-killing mistakes. San Francisco has a gold standard left tackle to keep him upright and a workhorse running back who ranked fifth in the league in yards after contact. It has a young playmaking wideout and All-Pro tight end capable of finding open space and torching defenses after the catch.
None of these players will be more important in the 49ers Divisional Round showdown against the Green Bay Packers than wideout-turned-running-back-turned-occasional-quarterback Deebo Samuel.
Samuel is either a testament to Kyle Shanahan’s creativity or an unstoppable force too dynamic to be ignored, depending on how you feel about the 49ers head coach. He set an NFL record with eight rushing touchdowns for a player who primarily played wideout. His 10.0 average yards after catch led all wideouts; the gap between him and No. 2 Mecole Hardman was a full 1.5 yards. His 15th and final touchdown of 2021 regular season came on a passing play where he found Jauan Jennings wide open in the end zone in a de facto playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams.
DEEBO SAMUEL IS THROWING TOUCHDOWNS.
We’ve got a tie game in LA folks. #FTTB
— NFL (@NFL) January 9, 2022
There may not be a player in the league as versatile as Samuel. For Shanahan, the difference between a second-straight playoff upset and return to the NFC title game and a season that tops out at good rather than great is getting the ball in his hands on a cold Green Bay night.
Samuel is the key to exploiting the Packers’ biggest weakness
San Francisco knows the importance of generating explosive runs against the Packers. The 49ers’ 2020 NFC Championship Game win came via the legs of Raheem Mostert, who ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns in an utter dismantling at Levi’s Stadium. That year’s Green Bay defense was actually slightly better against the run than this year’s group:
That’s concerning! Even with All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell manning the middle of the field, the Packers are vulnerable. Fortunately, opponents haven’t been able to implement many run-heavy gameplans thanks to the Green Bay offense and its ability to create leads that force opponents to play from behind. The Packers possessed the ball longer than anyone in 2021 and, as a result, faced fewer running plays on defense than all but three other teams this season.
Shanahan failed to crack that unit when these teams met in September in a game that encapsulates both teams’ 2021 seasons pretty well. The Packers ran out to a big early lead behind their potent offense, the 49ers battled back to take the lead with 37 seconds to play, and then Green Bay won because Aaron Rodgers is a football alchemist who transforms crap situations into wins.
Eli Mitchell, the sixth-round rookie who has averaged more than 24 carries per game over his last six starts while gaining just under 99 rushing yards each Sunday, didn’t play in that Week 3 showdown. Instead, his carries went to the since-exiled Trey Sermon, who gained 31 yards on 10 touches. Samuel had a pair of carries that evening as well and failed to gain a yard. George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk also earned run plays while fullback Kyle Juszczyk set a career high with five handoffs.
It’s clear Shanahan wanted to strike at the Packers’ run game weakness, but his gameplan wasn’t quite developed in the aftermath of Mostert’s season-ending injury. Now he knows what his team is capable of and how to maximize the extreme motility of one of the NFL’s most versatile offenses.
Mitchell and Samuel will be the alpha and omega of that approach. Over the back end of the season, Mitchell’s job has been to soften up defenses with bully-ball runs before inserting the wideout in the backfield or putting him in motion to take a sweep around the tackle and into prosperity. The rookie has averaged more than three times as many carries as Samuel in the last five games the two have played together (24.5 to 7.2) but the wideout has three more rushing touchdowns. Mitchell has fewer than twice as many first downs (23 to 12) despite seeing the ball significantly more often.
What’s that tell us? Expect a steady dose of Mitchell to create “and-short” opportunities the 49ers can cover with short passes and more runs. Those will open up passing lanes for Garoppolo downfield. And then, when the Packers have invested multiple skill points in stopping the first-year tailback, Shanahan can turn to a guy who turned this:
into a 26-yard playoff touchdown run against the league’s second-ranked defense.
How can the Packers stop this?
Green Bay reduced Samuel’s impact in Week 3 with a very simple transaction. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry rotated his best defensive player on the Niners’ top offensive player and hit him with a variety of different looks in the passing game.
Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander played his last full game of 2021 against San Francisco before suffering a Week 4 shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve. He’s set to make his return in his team’s playoff debut. This is wonderful news for an already potent secondary.
In Week 3, Alexander was glued to the right sideline where he mostly traded between covering Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. He snatched up an interception on an overthrown Garoppolo deep ball but also allowed a touchdown when Aiyuk beat him on a perfectly-timed comeback route:
He typically lined up eight to 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to limit big plays downfield. His closing speed meant erasing some short passes that are endemic to Shanahan’s Jimmy G playbook:
Shanahan countered this by rotating his X wideout throughout the game, at one point even motioning fullback Juszczyk out there to create better matchups for his wideouts. Here they are at the top of the screen:
Shanahan will use this to free Samuel in the passing game again, but the mismatches may be minimal. The development of first-round corner Eric Stokes and the astonishing play of in-season free agent pickup Rasul Douglas have been a boon to a needy defense. That pair, combined with Alexander, has been good enough in 2021 to merit a 63.4 passer rating in coverage. They’ll be able to handle any trade-offs when it comes to coverage duties on guys like Aiyuk and George Kittle.
That will limit the Niners’ passing attack, but stopping the run game is a different story entirely. Green Bay was ready for Samuel’s runs back in September — he was stopped for no gain on one play where he motioned into the backfield and another when he started back there. Each play was blown up by solid penetration up front and defenders keeping their lanes.
The Packers didn’t blitz much in the regular season — their 21.3 percent blitz rate was eighth-lowest in the league. In Week 3 brought extra defenders to swarm the pocket 21 times in order to scramble Garoppolo’s circuits and, just as importantly, create the kind of static up front that leads to 3.2 yards per carry.
Pro Bowl pass rusher Za’Darius Smith’s pending return from an early season back injury means they may not throw as many extra defenders into the breach as they did in September. It’s still likely Barry will load up the box and trust his secondary in single coverage in hopes of limiting San Francisco’s run game and daring a shaky quarterback to beat him downfield. Jimmy G is, after all, the same player who did this late in the fourth quarter in Week 3:
Jimmy Garoppolo, ensuring all is right with the universe pic.twitter.com/MWIudVX6PO
— Christian D'Andrea, 2021 PAC champion (@TrainIsland) September 27, 2021
Just firing bodies at the Niners’ running game won’t guarantee success. We saw Mitchell and Samuel conjure something out of nothing in Dallas and erase Garoppolo’s brain farts en route to a proper, but very stupid, playoff road win.
The Packers narrowly escaped in Santa Clara when these teams met back in September, but that was a very different version of the 49ers. Now Shanahan has the personnel to grind out long drives and limit double-coverage downfield. Green Bay will counter with extra beef up front and trust its rising defensive backs to do their job against one of the most explosive WR/TE corps in the game. This is all going to be an extremely fun matchup.
Of course, if their defense caves the Packers still have a viable Plan B. Just let Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams score a million points against the Niners’ deficient secondary.
That’ll be fun, too.