How the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel became an unprecedented force in the NFL

Former 49ers running back Roger Craig looks at 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel and thinks of Walter Payton, the second-best running back in NFL history.

The late Bears running back, who was loath to go out of bounds, away from contact, gave Craig advice when it came to dealing with ill-intentioned defenders.

“Walter told me, ‘Hit hard. He breaks up the impact of the tackle,’ Craig said. “And that’s how Deebo works. He reminds me of Walter Payton. He levels people. When he runs , he runs violent. He is a bad guy.

Samuel’s ability to catch and run — and forcefully crush defenders in the process — is the main reason the 49ers have unlikely stormed into the NFC Championship Game, where they will visit the Rams on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. .

The 49ers were 3-5 before they started using 26-year-old Samuel in the backfield as running back on a regular basis. They’ve been 9-1 in the games Samuel has played and his stature has skyrocketed with their win tally.

“He has a passion for this game,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan, “which makes him one of the best players in this league.”

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) reacts after the San Francisco 49ers faced the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Divisional Round playoff game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Saturday January 22, 2022.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Samuel’s hybrid role – he called himself a “wide back” – went down in history. The first-team All-Pro became the first player in NFL history to have 1,200 receiving yards (1,405) and 300 rushing yards (365), the first wide receiver to have eight rushing touchdowns and he set the record for rushing yards by a receiver. (73) in a playoff game.

The reason such feats have never been accomplished before? The explanation involves Samuel’s unique build — he’s 6-foot, 220 pounds with fire hydrant thighs — and a decidedly non-diva mentality.

Wide receivers are often tall, lanky, and needy. The stereotypical wide wide often demands getting the ball back, but not in the way Samuel often receives it.

Instead of receiving transfers on outside sweeps and backhands, which leads to frequent encounters with tackle-opposed 190-pound cornerbacks, Samuel regularly runs between tackles in the land of 300-pound defensive linemen.

Five of his 10 points were in the teeth of the defensive line in last week’s 13-10 divisional playoff win at Green Bay.

“Usually receivers are prima-donna guys who don’t want a lot of contact,” 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said. “…Deebo is just a wild football player. Nothing more, it’s a beast.

Some of Samuel’s stats reflect his willingness to engage in force-on-force car crashes. He led the NFL wide receivers in broken tackles (22) and average yards gained after a reception (10.0), and he ranked second in yards gained after contact (3.1) among players with at least 50 runs.

Ask Falcons cornerback AJ Terrell about Samuel’s running style: Terrell’s mouthguard dislodged and comically flew high in the air after colliding with Samuel in a 49ers win in December.

Or ask Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander. On Samuel’s crucial third run from nine yards that earned Robbie Gould the basket against Green Bay, Alexander ducked his head and went for Samuel’s legs, a weak tackle attempt that was easily dodged.

“Not many guys want to run full speed,” Samuel said, “and put it all on the line.”

JImmy Garoppolo (10) hands over to Deebo Samuel (19) for a first down on a nine-yard run in the final seconds that set the winning field goal as the San Francisco 49ers took on the Green Bay Packers in the Division NFL.  Round robin playoff game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Saturday, January 22, 2022.

JImmy Garoppolo (10) hands over to Deebo Samuel (19) for a first down on a nine-yard run in the final seconds that set the winning field goal as the San Francisco 49ers took on the Green Bay Packers in the Division NFL. Round robin playoff game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Saturday, January 22, 2022.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Craig, 61, became the first running back to have 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in 1985, and he revolutionized the position with his pass-catching ability. Two other players, Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey, have since joined him in the 1,000-1,000 club, but Craig isn’t sure who will end up keeping Samuel company.

“He’s in a class of his own,” Craig said. “Wide receivers don’t like getting hit. They don’t like running through those holes. Running backs get blown up, man.

Samuel agrees that there is no other wide like him. That’s why he doesn’t study the video of his peers.

“There’s not another receiver in this league who plays like me and does the things I do,” he said. “I don’t see the need to watch someone who doesn’t do the things I do.”

Few receivers have suffered a similar punishment this season. Since sharing the backfield load, Samuel has missed a game with a strained groin and also appeared on the injury report with a bruised shin.

Against Green Bay, he was equalized by the side at the end of a 12-yard catch by linebacker Krys Barnes. Samuel slowly got to his feet before returning to the ground, stabbing his knees and elbows in pain, with what the 49ers later called a shoulder dart.

After his nine-yard run that set up Gould’s field goal, Samuel jumped off the field, unable to put weight on his right leg, after taking a knock to his knee.

Deebo Samuel (19) limps off the field after earning a first down on a nine-yard run in the final seconds that set the winning field goal as the San Francisco 49ers took on the Green Bay Packers in the game NFL Divisional Round Playoff.  at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Saturday, January 22, 2022.

Deebo Samuel (19) limps off the field after earning a first down on a nine-yard run in the final seconds that set the winning field goal as the San Francisco 49ers took on the Green Bay Packers in the game NFL Divisional Round Playoff. at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Saturday, January 22, 2022.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Was he in pain?

“I was in pain the whole game,” Samuel said.

Is Samuel’s dual role sustainable? It’s not a pressing issue right now, with the 49ers one Super Bowl win away, but it’s a topic that will be discussed in the offseason.

Samuel will be eligible for a contract extension for the first time in his career and his extra workload increases his risk of injury and could shorten his career. Including playoff games, Samuel leads NFL wide receivers with 167 touches (83 catches, 79 carries, 5 kickoff returns). He never had more than 87 in his first two seasons.

Samuel, who volunteered to return kickoffs last week against the Packers, disagreed with the idea of ​​him taking him for the team.

“I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice,” Samuel said. “Being a pro is coming in and doing what the coaches tell you to do. I wouldn’t say I take a punishment. I think I’m there to deliver the punches.

Tight end George Kittle said, “I don’t know if it’s really a sacrifice. I think he cherishes that.

Samuel never had more than eight carries in the first seven games he started showing up in the backfield. In the last three games, however, which the 49ers have all had to win to keep their season alive, he’s had 8, 10 and 10 runs.

“If you had asked us before we got to this with Deebo Samuel, would it make sense to give a receiver that you know, 8, 9, 10 carries a game like we’ve been doing for the past two weeks?” said offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel. “Yeah, you would probably have some resistance, but he’s a different player.

“He’s not a receiver. He is a football player as a receiver who can also play as a running back. And we treat him as such and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

San Francisco 49ers' Deebo Samuel passes Los Angeles Rams' Jordan Fuller for a 40-yard touchdown reception in the 4th quarter during the Niners' 31-10 win in the NFL game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. , Monday, November 15, 2021 .

San Francisco 49ers’ Deebo Samuel passes Los Angeles Rams’ Jordan Fuller for a 40-yard touchdown reception in the 4th quarter during the Niners’ 31-10 win in the NFL game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. , Monday, November 15, 2021 .

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Indeed, Samuel is a different player. On January 9, in a decisive overtime win over the Rams in the playoffs, he became the first player since 1969 to have 95 receiving yards, 45 rushing yards, and one touchdown pass in a game.

The following week, in a wildcard win at Dallas, he set the NFL record for rushing yards by a playoff wide. Last week, he set up the 49ers’ only offensive points, two field goals, with a 45-yard kickoff return and his run of nine yards, third-and-7 in the final minute.

Against the Cowboys, Samuel said he told head coach Kyle Shanhan to give him the ball just before he scored on a 26-yard touchdown run. However, Shanahan changed that story this week: He said this one-of-a-kind receiver phrased his request differently from his peers.

“What he actually said to me was, ‘Kyle, I got you,'” Shanahan said. “And if he has me, I’ll give him the ball. …He doesn’t really call a hit much. He just inspires. And he inspires me. And he inspires our team.

Eric Branch covers the 49ers for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @Eric_Branch

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