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Top 10 most impressive individual performances from the 2021 season: #3 - Deebo Samuel @ Tennessee - Week 16

Mr. Big Play is back

San Francisco 49ers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Here we go down the home stretch, breaking into the top three most impressive individual performances from the 49ers 2021 campaign.

As a refresher, the factors I used to create this list include how did each performance hold up with the eye test. After going back and watching the game film, was it as impressive now as it was at the time?

I also heavily weighed the game’s impact, meaning the stakes of each contest played a pivotal role in how these rankings ultimately played out—finally, good old-fashioned statistics. So while the eye test was the primary factor being weighed, I also made it a point to place enough emphasis on the objective numbers a player posted in their respective games.

Without further ado, number three on the list:

Deebo Samuel @ Tennessee - Week 16

Samuel rightfully earns a spot in the top three, coming off of a season worth of incredible performances that saw him record historical production at the wide receiver position. I firmly believe Samuel was undoubtedly the MVP of the 49ers on an extremely talented roster loaded with impact contributors.

What he accomplished last season was the stuff of legend, and part of what made it so great was how consistent he was as an offensive weapon throughout the season. That made it extremely difficult to narrow it down to just one performance to highlight for this list, so I’d like to explain why I landed on his week 16 showing in Tennessee.

Let’s start by breaking down Samuel’s regular season into two halves. The first half, where he saw much more work as a traditional receiver, and then the second half, when his usage in the backfield as a running back skyrocketed.

Weeks 1-9 :

81 targets

49 receptions

882 yards

6 rushing attempts

19 rushing yards

Now, look at how much his usage shifted during the backstretch of the season.

Weeks 10-18

40 targets

23 receptions

523 yards

53 rushing attempts

343 rushing yards

I posted the specific numbers because I wanted to highlight just how versatile Samuel was with a tangible set of statistics. Samuel tore up secondaries through the air and then proceeded to wreak havoc on NFL defenses on the ground in a way we have never seen from the wide receiver position.

The reason why I chose this game against Tennessee was because it was the game that truly encapsulated the full spectrum of just how dominant Samuel was last year within one singular performance.

There were four different games during the 2021 where Samuel went for 150 or more receiving yards and five games that saw Samuel average over five yards per carry on a minimum of five rushing attempts. He surpassed both of those benchmarks in this matchup with the Titans.

Samuel caught nine balls in this game, starting with this reception on the second play of the 49ers' first drive of the game. San Francisco’s offense comes out in 21 personnel, with Kyle Juszczyk joining Jeff Wilson Jr. in the backfield. Kyle Shanahan dials up a play-action look that has Samuel running a ‘Down Flat’ route to sell the run to the left before breaking back out to the flat on the right.

Jimmy Garoppolo rolls to his right after the play fake and hits Samuel for a nice gain. This play resulted in a pickup of ten yards and moved the sticks for a fresh set of downs for the 49ers' offense. Again, nothing too crazy on this rep, but fantastic play design and getting the ball in space to Samuel is undoubtedly a recipe for success against NFL defenses.

Two plays later, the 49ers' offense is facing second and six from their own 43-yard line. This is where we get the first sight of Samuel being used in the backfield in this game, and he takes a toss-up on the left sideline for a gain of nine yards, picking up yet another first down in the process. So far, Samuel has recorded two touches, with both resulting in a new set of downs.

Later on this drive, the 49ers faced a second and seven on the Titans ' yard line. Samuel runs a ‘Drift’ route, which breaks in over the middle of the field. Jimmy Garoppolo hits Samuel just outside the nearside hash before Samuel turns upfield to pick up an additional chunk of yardage before being brought down just shy of the goal line.

Two things really stood out to me in this play. Number one, Samuel gets into his break so quickly that it literally catches the Titans' defensive back off guard and causes him to fall on the ground, leaving Samuel wide open to cleanly catch this ball and rack up additional yards after the catch.

Samuel is an extremely talented route runner, a skill that he doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves because of how much attention gets paid to his physicality and ability to demoralize a defense once the ball is in his hands.

Speaking of physicality, the second thing that stood out in this play was how the first defender to make contact with Samuel bounced right off the 49ers' star wide receiver. The second defender didn’t fare much better, and it took a third defender coming from the back to bring Samuel down finally. Three NFL defenders being required to bring down one ball carrier in the open field is just mind-boggling.

Samuel touched the ball on three separate second downs on this opening drive, and all three went for a first down.

Next up, the 49ers are facing a first and goal from the Titans' nine-yard line. Shanahan is going to have Wilson Jr. motion across the formation to sell a fake on the jet sweep before tossing it to Samuel on the right side. This play only resulted in a gain of one yard, which might leave you wondering why it’s worth mentioning.

The reason why is because Atlanta had this toss sniffed out from the jump and honestly should have brought Samuel down in the backfield for a sizable loss. What makes this rep so special is Samuel’s ability to turn nothing into something and take what should have been an absolute disaster on first and goal into a net positive for the 49ers offense.

Watch this again, but this time slowed down a bit to highlight how the Titans' defense seemingly cut off any potential angle Samuel had to get upfield.

On the next drive, the 49ers faced a fourth and one from the Titans' 32-yard line. Shanahan opted to go for it and rolled out a 22-personnel look that suggested they were going to fight for that first down via the ground game. Samuel was the lone receiver on the field for the 49ers on this play, lined up just inside the numbers on the left side.

The 49ers do a decent job of selling a run fake before Garoppolo rolls right out of the pocket with star defensive linemen Jeffrey Simmons in hot pursuit behind him. Samuel is going to work a crossing route over the middle of the field, maintaining his balance while getting tangled up with a Titans defensive back before securing the catch and getting both feet in bounds to move the sticks and convert the fourth down try.

The positive momentum from this play was short-lived, as the next set of downs saw the 49ers' offense get pushed back 15 yards on third and eleven following a penalty. This pushed the 49ers just to the edge of field goal range and left them facing a 3rd and 26 from the Titans' 36-yard line. Guess who was there to save the day? Samuel.

Shanahan dials up a screen to Samuel on the right side, which saw Samuel cut back inside the numbers and maneuver through a sea of Titans defenders as well as his own players attempting to block them before bursting upfield to get inside the 30-yard line and provide kicker Robbie Gould with a much more favorable field goal attempt.

Samuel makes five different Titans defenders miss on this play before finally being brought down on the sixth attempt. I slowed down this play, too, to give you a better visual of just how special Samuel’s ability to navigate traffic and explode through rushing angles most players would struggle to identify or reach in the first place. Here it is below.

Just prior to halftime, the 49ers had the ball inside their own 10-yard line with 1:20 left in the second quarter. To kick off, Shanahan calls ‘15 Split’ which is an inside toss to Samuel, who is lined up in the backfield. The play goes for twelve yards, once again generating a fresh set of downs on a touch by Samuel.

The success of any two-minute drive is largely driven by the effectiveness of the first play of the sequence. Creating positive momentum on that first play is paramount to the success of the rest of drive. Shanahan opted for a toss to a wide receiver in that spot. It speaks volumes about how dynamic of a player Samuel is and how much trust his play caller has in him with the ball in his hands.

Fast forward to the second half, and the 49ers are facing a third and five on the Titans' 39-yard line. The 49ers' need to come away with points on this drive was emphasized after his after Tennessee erased a double-digit halftime deficit with ten unanswered points. Once again, Shanahan calls on Samuel in a big spot, this time on a toss to the left side.

Once again, Samuel’s overpowering physical ability is demonstrated on this play, as he explodes into a congested area before bowling over cornerback Kristian Fulton. It took multiple Titans defenders to bring Samuel down short of the line to gain, but the carry did set the 49ers up with a very manageable fourth and one.

Here is a better look at Samuel steamrolling the Titans' defensive back.

With 12:59 remaining in the fourth quarter, the 49ers trailed 17-10 and faced a second and ten from their own 25-yard line. Again, Shanahan has Samuel line up in the backfield and dials up toss sift, which is going to go to Samuel up the middle. The play picks up 12 yards, and yet again, Samuel racks up a first down on a second down touch.

The end zone angle really highlights Samuel's vision as a ball carrier, as well as the elite instincts he possesses with the ball in his hands. Very few players in the league are finding the rushing lanes that Samuel does on this play, let alone any other receivers.

Samuel gets the ball again on the very next play, this time through the air on a pass over the middle from Garoppolo. Once again, Samuel is going to be running ‘Drift,’ breaking in over the middle behind the linebackers and sinking into their hook zones in coverage. This play picked up 19 yards and was the seventh time in this game that a touch by Samuel resulted in a first down for the 49ers' offense.

Later on this drive, the 49ers faced a third and 21 after being backed up following a holding penalty and a sack. San Francisco’s offense comes out in an 11-personnel look, with a bunch grouping to the right side, including Samuel, George Kittle, and Jauan Jennings. The play is designed to get the other skill position players upfield in front of Samuel, who is slightly delaying his release over the middle to allow these blocks to develop.

It was essentially a screen that worked vertically rather than horizontally, and while it didn’t pick up the full 21 yards the 49ers needed, it did still net a positive return with a 12-yard gain. Hat tip to Shanahan on this one. It was clear Samuel was the best player on the field in this game, and the 49ers' head coach was going deep into the well to creatively devise ways to get his superstar receiver the ball.

With 4:35 remaining in the game, the 49ers still trailed by seven and were running out of chances to tie or take the lead. Facing second and ten from their own 20-yard line, Samuel lines up in the slot on the far side hash and runs a quick curl that picks up six yards and sets up a favorable third down that was converted on the very next play.

This next play is by far the one that shines the brightest from this performance. Facing second and ten from their own 38 and trailing by a touchdown with time running out, Samuel made a heroic play to put the 49ers in a position to tie this game up. Samuel is going to line up as the outside receiver on the left side and run ‘Widen Drift’ before catching the ball on the far side hash and creating fireworks with the ball in his hands.

The 49ers were getting down to their last gasp, fighting for every inch as they marched upfield. And then this play happens, exploding for 56 yards, 48 of which were generated by Samuel after the catch. An area of Samuel’s game that doesn’t get enough recognition is his elite burst and ability to get to his second gear quicker than almost any player in the league.

Watch how quickly Samuel is able to get upfield after catching this ball while running horizontally.

These kinds of plays don’t get talked about enough when discussing the 49ers' superstar receiver. Samuel’s acceleration in the open field is among the best in the entire sport, and on this play, you see that tremendous explosion coupled with his incredible understanding of angles and vision as a ball carrier.

Brandon Aiyuk deserves a lot of credit for the block he threw on Janoris Jenkins, but pay attention to the way Samuel doesn’t lose a step while he works around this block, despite changing direction two times in a very rapid sequence.

The finesse in Samuel’s game is as impressive as the physicality that he plays with, and the combination of those skill sets is what makes him a one-of-one talent in this sport. There flat out is not another player that is comparable to Samuel when you factor in everything that he brings to the table.

Finally, we are left with the final play of the game. Now, these last-ditch, rugby-style prayer plays almost never work and are usually quite sloppy and don’t ever inspire confidence that the miracle required for it to succeed is going to have any chance of occurring. I vividly remember watching this play in real-time, genuinely believing the 49ers were in the midst of pulling off one of the most unthinkable plays in NFL history.

Especially at this moment in particular, when it looked like Kittle had quite a bit of green grass in front of him.

That was in large part due to Samuel, as the attention paid to him on the left side of the field opened up a huge hole on the right side during this schoolyard lateral fest. Samuel maneuvered through a crowded area and still got 25 yards up field with relative ease before tossing the ball back to a teammate.

He also laid down one of the most nonchalant stiff arms I have ever seen, tossing aside cornerback Buster Skrine with ease.

Despite the 49ers falling just short in this game, Samuel’s performance in this one was nothing short of heroic. Let’s take a look at Samuel’s final numbers from this game.

10 targets

9 receptions

159 receiving yards

5 carries

32 yards

191 yards from scrimmage

Samuel averaged 13.6 yards per touch in this game and had eight different touches that resulted in a first down. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry on the ground and 16.7 through the air—pure dominance.

Stay tuned for number two on the list, coming soon.

Here is the updated list to date, with links to the articles for each spot on the list:

#10 - Trent Williams @ Cincinnati Week 14

#9 - Azeez Al-Shaair @ Seattle Week 13

#8 - Charles Omenihu @ Dallas Wild Card Round

#7 - DJ Jones @ Seattle Week 13

#6 - Jimmy Garoppolo vs Los Angeles Week 10

#5 - Fred Warner @ Green Bay Divisional Round

#4 - Nick Bosa vs. Atlanta Week 15

#3 - Deebo Samuel @ Tennessee Week 16