Although the 49ers are talented on both sides of the ball, slowing down their abundance of offensive playmakers will be the true test for the Chiefs’ defense. Among those San Francisco playmakers, one in particular received special emphasis from all the coaches and players who spoke with the media on Thursday: all-purpose wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
“He’s unique,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “We haven’t faced anybody like this before.
“The challenges that they have when they put him in the backfield, when he’s not in the backfield [or] when they’re moving him and motioning him? They’re all a challenge for us. We’re working on it. Hopefully, we can find a way to limit his explosive plays — ‘cause they’re really effective when he’s explosive.”
As Spagnuolo noted, Samuel is unique for his ability to line up anywhere in the San Francisco offense. Playing as both a wide receiver and a running back, the “wide back” — as he calls himself — was very successful last season, amassing 1,405 yards and six touchdowns through the air, along with 365 yards and eight rushing touchdowns on the ground.
But at the beginning of this season, Samuel’s production has regressed a bit; teams are starting to key in on the 49ers’ No. 1 offensive threat. Despite this, San Francisco has continued to manufacture ways to get him the ball — knowing that with his game-wrecking explosiveness and excellent vision, he is fully capable of creating big plays with the ball in his hands.
“You got to know where he is at all times, because he can beat you by himself,” Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill told reporters. “Honestly, like you watch film on him; the guy just creates explosive plays all over the place — carrying the football in the backfield and then catching the ball and taking it 70 yards. So, you just got to know where he is at all times.”
Schematically, Samuel’s presence — along with the 49ers’ use of different formations — forces defenses to make tough decisions. San Francisco also uses a lot of pre-snap motion, moving Samuel and other players all over the formation — which also helps the offense identify coverage schemes.
“You’ve got to make some conscious decisions [about] what you want to do,” Spagnuolo remarked. “Do you want to play man? Are you going to put a linebacker on him when he’s in the backfield? Are you going to put a DB on him? If you do that, it’s changing the structure of everything else you do. So, we’re going to pick our spots. I mean, obviously, that’s why they do it.”
Having played against him in college, Kansas City’s second-year linebacker Nick Bolton is familiar with Samuel — and has been examining how the 49ers make use of both his former opponent and tight end George Kittle.
“Formations,” said Bolton. “They’ve got a lot of pre-snap motion. They’ve also got a lot of guys on their offense: Kittle — and then Deebo Samuel, of course. Wide back — that’s what he calls himself — so as a running back.
“I played him in college, too. I know kind of what he brings to the table. He’s hard to tackle. He’s a thicker guy. I don’t think we have anybody like him on our roster, but he’s like a 200-pound speed back. So, he presents a challenge for us in open space.”
Because of his experience playing against Samuel during their days in the SEC, Bolton knew that Samuel’s versatility was going to make him special in the NFL. It was only a matter of time before Samuel did it — and now Bolton gets another opportunity to play against him.
“Deebo was one of those guys you played in the SEC — especially on the east side,” Bolton recalled. “You got a lot of respect for him as a kick returner, played some wide receiver, played some running back. Shoot, he might have played some Wildcat too when we played him. He played everything.
“He’s ‘Mr. Do it All” — they tried to call him that at South Carolina. So [it’s been a] kind of transition to him opening up, being more comfortable in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme; them trusting him a little bit more and getting him more involved on offense. So, I knew he was going to be special once he got in the league.”