JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Through 10 games this season, the expectation is that Deebo Samuel will make plays. How he has accomplished it has been less expected.
In Sunday's 30-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the 49ers receiver led the team in rushing with eight carries for 79 yards, giving him nearly a 10 yards-per-run average. Samuel wasn’t targeted on a pass until the second half of the game at TIAA Bank Field, when he caught one of his two targets for 15 yards.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan explained afterward that it wasn't a function of Elijah Mitchell being ruled out or supporting Jeff Wilson Jr. working up to his usual workload after injury, but because of how productive Samuel has been as a runner.
“When he runs the ball that well, it's pretty impressive to have,” Shanahan said. “Deebo is extremely efficient. He got everything and more on those looks, and I think he had one real bad look that he protected the ball and got down.
“It causes problems for the defense, too, when there's a receiver you don't know where he is going to be.”
This isn’t a new phenomenon for Samuel, who has run the football since he arrived in 2019. Shanahan explained the difference this season is that the 49ers aren’t tossing the ball to Samuel, which the league counts toward his receiving stats.
Samuel is just six yards shy of 1,000 receiving for the season. He also has 19 carries for 137 yards, and has scored eight total touchdowns.
So, as long as Samuel continues to be productive, Shanahan will keep feeding his receiver the ball as a running back.
“We started to realize how good he was during the second half of his rookie year,” Shanahan said. “We haven't tossed it to him, so he gets more running stats, and he is continuing to get better at it, and so we're continuing to do more.”
Samuel doesn’t mind the varying ways Shanahan fits him into the 49ers' offense. He just wants to make an impact on the game.
“I don’t have anything against it,” Samuel said. “Whichever way to get the ball in my hands, I’m all for it. And it feels natural back there. I’m not going to lie.”
Teammate George Kittle has been impressed with Samuel’s grit in running between the tackles. While the All-Pro tight end loves to run the ball himself, he explained what Samuel does isn't an easy job.
“You can't say enough about Deebo,” Kittle said. “He hasn't blinked. He hasn't hesitated at all. We're running power with Deebo. I mean, that's one of the positions like, ‘Hey, George, do you want to run the ball?’ ‘Not really.’
“There's a lot of big guys in there that hit really hard and they land on you and it hurts. The fact that Deebo does it without blinking, it's awesome. When he has the mindset of him to run and to score every single time he touches the ball, it really sets the mindset for the entire team, and you just love that and you respect it.”
Samuel, who isn’t one to shy away from contact on the field, has been difficult to bring down. While he plays with the philosophy of wanting to score on every play, while bringing multiple defenders with him, he'll avoid contact if he can.
“Honestly, if I’m in the backfield, I’m looking to bounce it,” Samuel said. “But if I can’t bounce it, I got to stick my nose in there, but it’s just natural. But I told one of the coaches, ‘Don’t get too many ideas about transferring my position.’ ”
Fellow receiver Brandon Aiyuk isn't surprised at all by Samuel’s production as a ball carrier. The second-year pro himself has been used in jet-sweep situations, but on Sunday, he primarily was used as a receiver.
“We saw the running back Deebo this week, I guess you could say,” Aiyuk said. “Looked natural as a running back. We just saw Deebo. We’re used to that by now.”