GREEN BAY — No thanks, Davante Adams said. He’ll watch Deebo Samuel from the sideline on Saturday night — while rooting on the Green Bay Packers defense to neutralize the San Francisco 49ers’ versatile offensive weapon — and pass on the idea of taking on a similar role in the Packers’ scheme.
But Adams fully appreciates what Samuel, who has singlehandedly reversed the 49ers’ offensive fortunes since a midseason move from wide receiver to being a running back-receiver hybrid, can do with the ball in his hands.
“No. Not for me. Not for me,” Adams emphasized with a smile as the Packers prepared for Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff matchup with the 49ers at Lambeau Field. “I think it’s cool for him. It’s good for his body type. He’s got amazing vision. He’s built more like that, kind of a hybrid in-between back and wideout, so it works well for him. Not that I couldn’t do it, but I’m a receiver. We’ll stick to that.”
Listed at 6 feet and 215 pounds, Samuel has been a game-changer since head coach Kyle Shanahan started lining him up in the backfield after injuries depleted the 49ers’ running back corps. And Adams, who watches film of any player whose skills might augment his own — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson being one out-of-the-box example — has taken notice.
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“He’s dynamic, man. He’s a hell of a wideout,” Adams continued. “He’s basically a punt returner as soon as he gets the ball in his hands. It’s special to watch because you don’t really see guys be able to maximize their YAC (yards after catch) the way that he does. I told y’all early in the season, I was watching some Lamar Jackson highlights just to really just see if I can see in slow-mo what he’s seeing in fast-motion. That’s kind of the same thing as what Deebo does. He gets the ball, and he gets right upfield. They put him in some great positions to make plays. He’s a dynamic player. He’s fun to watch.”
And he’ll be difficult for the Packers defense to stop—in part because it’s a challenge that wasn’t on the defense’s to-do list going into Green Bay’s 30-28 victory over the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on Sept. 26. In that game, Samuel had two carries for 0 yards and caught only five of the 10 receiving targets he had for 52 yards.
“Completely different,” Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry said Wednesday when asked how the 49ers are using Samuel now compared to then. “Deebo’s a dangerous guy with the ball in his hands, obviously, whether it’s down the field and they’re throwing it to him, (or) the screen game. He’s always been a huge weapon in their fly sweeps, when they’ve handed the ball to him. He’s done a ton of damage over the years.
“They’ve had some injuries in the backfield, and they committed to actually putting him back there. And legitimately, he’s a running back and running their normal run game. He’s done a phenomenal job. He’s got unbelievable balance and he’s an angry runner — he always has been, even down the field when they’ve thrown the ball to him. ... When you’ve got a guy that’s as dangerous as Deebo is, when the ball gets in his hands, they’ve created ways of doing things with him as a ballcarrier, as a premier running back. They’ve done a good job.”
Now, Samuel isn’t the 49ers’ primary running back; that’s Elijah Mitchell’s role. But in their 23-17 NFC Wild Card win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Samuel was the wildcard: He ran 10 times for 72 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown, while also catching three passes for 38 yards, including an important 19-yarder.
But against a Packers defense that has a history of struggling to stop the 49ers run game and ranked an alarming 30th in the 32-team NFL against the run in terms of yards per carry allowed (4.7) — despite finishing the regular season ranked No. 11 overall in rushing defense (109.1 yards per game) — Samuel’s field-tilting talent could be a major problem.
“He can catch and do all the things at receiver, but when they put him in the backfield, he’s a running back,” Packers Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark said Wednesday. “He’s a tough guy to tackle. He’s an explosive guy. They use him in all kinds of different ways. He’s a tough guy to play against.”
Added outside linebacker Preston Smith: “We’ve got to know where he’s at at all times. We’ve got to make sure we play sound football, that we make sure we execute up front and all over across the board and we make sure we play fast, physical, and we don’t allow them to have any big plays with him.”
Through eight games, the 49ers were sitting at 3-5 and, while Samuel had put up four 100-yard receiving games, their offense was managing just 23.0 points a game and going nowhere, fast.
But in a blowout prime-time win over the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 15, Samuel carried five times for 36 yards and a touchdown, caught five passes for 97 yards and a 40-yard TD, and the 49ers’ offense came to life. Including their victory over the Cowboys on Sunday, the Niners have won eight of their last 10 games — and one of those losses, at Seattle on Dec. 5, came with Samuel sidelined by a groin injury.
“It definitely adds another layer to their complex offense,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “They do such a great job of formationing, motioning, giving very complementary plays. You’ve got to be very disciplined with your eyes and your rules and responsibilities.
“Deebo, he is a dynamic player. He’s one of the more elite players in this league, and they find different ways to get him the ball, whether it’s handing it off, whether it’s reverses, in the passing game. He’s a physical guy. And I think it does present some problems when you just aren’t quite sure where he’s going to line up. Is he going to be in the halfback position and the halfbacks going to be out wide? Or vice versa?”
And the problem with that? The Packers may not know exactly where Samuel will be until just before the ball is snapped.
“There’s so many parts to that, in terms of just what personnel grouping they’re in. Then all of a sudden, a (running) back is out wide and Deebo’s in the backfield,” LaFleur said. “If we’re in nickel defense, where is our nickel fitting? It does create some obstacles for us to work through defensively.
“It’s obvious when you put on the tape what his playmaking ability is with the ball in his hands. He’s capable of taking it the distance, whether it’s in the pass game, whether he’s getting a jet sweep, whether he’s in the backfield. Shoot, you saw it last week versus Dallas, just the impact that he had on that game. So he’s a guy that we definitely have to know exactly where he’s at on every snap, we’ve got to communicate well and we’ve got to make sure we do a great job of gang tackling, of swarming.”