For all the focus on the sophomore quarterbacks Justin Fields and Trey Lance, one could argue that neither of them will be the biggest playmaker on the field when the Bears host the 49ers. There’s a case to be made that Deebo Samuel deserves that distinction.
“Amazing player,” said defensive coordinator Alan Williams. “Amazing player. He does it all and he can do it all.”
That’s no exaggeration either. The 49ers deploy Samuel both out wide and in the slot in the passing game, and move him into the backfield as a running back just as often. He’s not a one trick pony at any of those positions, either. The 49ers get creative with Samuel to attack defenses horizontally and vertically, which keeps defenders on their toes.
"You’ve gotta know where is, and you’ve gotta know what plays to expect when he’s in the backfield, plays when he’s in the slot and plays when he’s out wide," said Nick Morrow. "So that’s one. Then you’ve gotta understand that off of that they can use him as a decoy for some other things. So you can’t focus too much on one thing, because obviously another thing opens up. It’s a lot to gameplan for, so that’s why they do it."
Defending Samuel only gets more difficult once the ball is in his hands. He's one of the quickest and most elusive players in the NFL, who truly has the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Just ask the Bears who were here last year.
The Bears aren't dwelling on that one play, however. Jaylon Johnson said it hasn't even come up in their film review. Still, there are lessons to be learned from last season's defensive miscue.
"It’s a screen play, so it’s not anything individual," Johnson said. "We’ve just gotta get to the ball, get to the ball. There’s not too much to watch, too much to critique or analyze. We’ve just gotta get off blocks and make the tackle."
So how do you try to limit a player of Samuel's caliber. Would you be surprised if the Bears said it comes down to two of the pillars we've heard about all summer? The H.I.T.S. principle and alignment, assignment, key and technique.
"With our defense, we’re getting seven-plus to the football," said Williams. "We’re swarming to the ball, we’re making sure that we’re gap sound. We have to make sure that our eyes are in the right place so thatー you’ll see all this eye candy going all over the placeー what you have to do is make sure you’re looking at what you’re supposed to look at and not get distracted by all the things going in different directions. We have to tackle. Football is a physical game. It’s not flag football, so with that in mind, we have to hit."
"We’ve got to make sure we gang tackle him," said Morrow. "Then when he is in the backfield, a lot of their runs are outside zone-type plays, so we’ve got to set edges. You’ve got to stay alive on the backside so you don’t get cut out, and we can be able to force the ball to where we want the ball."
Of course, all of this is easier said than done.
"I feel like execution is harder than the gameplan," said Johnson. "It’s one of those things where you’ve got to rally and tackle, but that’s not an easy task. He runs the ball like a running back. He's explosive with the ball after the catch. I mean, really being able to execute and limiting his big plays, that sounds easy, but everybody in the league knows that's not an easy task. But that's really what it's all about, executing and limiting the big plays."
We haven’t seen the Bears move Johnson around the field in coverage, so it’s hard to predict if he’ll follow Samuel around the field on Sunday. But when Johnson gets the opportunity to line up against him, Johnson will embrace the challenge.
“That's why I train, that's really why I wake up and play this game at a high level, just to be able to compete, and having that respect, and being able to do my job at the end of the day.”