On the 49ers’ first offensive play of the game Sunday in Jacksonville, Deebo Samuel — lined up in the slot on the right — went in motion to set up an end-around to the left side. Trent Williams’ side. The defense had to react, which opened the middle to Christian McCaffrey for a six-yard run.
On the second snap, Samuel started in the left slot with McCaffrey out wide left. Samuel motioned to the right side. Then, before the snap, reversed course and looped behind quarterback Brock Purdy to show another end-around to the left. While most of the defense flowed towards Samuel, McCaffrey was open on a crossing route in the opposite direction. It was a 9-yard completion for a first down.
On the third play, Samuel lined up on the right side, with McCaffrey and Brandon Aiyuk as the receivers on the left. Guess what Samuel did? Correct. He motioned for the end around to the left. This time, Samuel and McCaffrey stayed on the left side, luring the attention of the Jaguars’ linebackers. It set up a 29-yard pass to George Kittle near the right sideline.
That’s 44 yards on the first three plays. All set up by the threat of Samuel. Kyle Shanahan’s wide-back wild card.
It’s no coincidence Samuel returned from injury and the offense was back to being a monster, outclassing Jacksonville 34-3 on its own field. It’s not a fluke the 49ers average 33.5 points with Samuel in the lineup and 17 without him. It’s not by accident McCaffrey averaged 23.8 touches per game during San Francisco’s 5-0 start, was down to 16.7 over the next three losses, then back to 22 touches on Sunday. No Samuel led to seven fewer touches per game.
McCaffrey is special. Purdy might be, too. Kittle and Aiyuk are Pro Bowl-worthy at their respective positions. But the secret weapon of the 49ers’ offense is Samuel, the matchup nightmare whose game-breaking ability might be Shanahan’s favorite misdirection tool. And when you have McCaffrey to take advantage of those manufactured avenues, and Williams clearing the path, it can almost feel like an unfair advantage.
“I really don’t think you can quantify (what Samuel brings to the offense),” McCaffrey said after the game. “It’s a different energy, a different burst. Just having him on the field … he’s somebody (the defense has) to focus on. What he can do when the ball’s in his hands, whether it’s in the receiving game or the run game, is special.”
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The 49ers’ offense was back looking inevitable again. It’s because Samuel and Williams were back — a welcome sight for McCaffrey, who for three weeks got the full attention of defensive fronts. The pressure they put on defenses, the attention they consume, the force with which they move, it can overwhelm even good defenses.
The result Sunday was 34 points, 437 yards of offense and 20 first downs. This was against a Jaguars defense that came into the game tied for sixth in points allowed, third in rushing yards allowed, and tied for first in takeaways.
San Francisco’s three-game losing streak, in which Purdy turned the ball over five times, in which McCaffrey was swarmed at every turn, made so much more sense. Seeing the offense hum the way it did underscored the immense value of Samuel and Williams, and how much their presence matters to McCaffrey. It may have been obscured by the suddenness of the 49ers’ three-game losing streak, in which Purdy finally proved fallible. But it’s perfectly rational the offense would lose some juice without Samuel and Williams. Their return provided an instant jolt.
To start the second half, Samuel lined up on the left. The 49ers ran a play-action to McCaffrey, running behind Williams, and sent Purdy the opposite way on a bootleg. The result was 9-yard completion to Samuel on a crossing route.
On the next play, McCaffrey lined up in the backfield but fanned out to the left flat on the snap. The way he’d been rolling, the way the 49ers offense had Jacksonville off balance in the first half, they had to follow McCaffrey. Drawing more Jaguars defenders to the left side of the field was a crossing route by Aiyuk. It all was designed to get Kittle alone with Jacksonville linebacker Devin Lloyd.
Purdy took the hit, dropped a dime to Kittle down the right sidelines, and no one was near enough to get a hand on Kittle. The entire right side was cleared. The 49ers took full command of the game with a 66-yard score.
George cashes in at The Bank! @gkittle46
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 12, 2023
Samuel wasn’t in for this play. But he was on the field celebrating with Purdy after Kittle walked in for a score. Samuel and Purdy did the quarterback’s favorite ice-water-in-the-veins gesture.
Injecting Deebo revived the 49ers offense. Purdy crushes it on play-action. That is partly because the pairing of Samuel and McCaffrey is impossible to ignore. Off of that, Aiyuk gets room to roam. Off of that, Kittle gets seams opened to him and mismatches to exploit. Off of that, Purdy gets more time, and when he gets that, he’s quite good.
The 49ers don’t have downfield threats. They rarely even test deep throws. Purdy will push it in the 20- to 30-yard range. But the 49ers don’t take the top off the defense regularly enough to open up the field. Shanahan creates space with misdirection, with matchup hunting, with getting his playmakers in space. Doing that requires manipulation.
With no Samuel the past three games, and the defense able to focus all its energy on shutting down McCaffrey, it seemed stunting to the 49ers offense. Opponents just crowded the 49ers’ window of operations, 20 or so yards past the line of scrimmage, and compressed their options. But with Samuel and McCaffrey, and the fear they put in defenses, Shanahan can create those openings without stretching the field. Those gaps in the defense get a little wider. Running lanes get more aplenty. Purdy’s beloved timing routes are a little less dangerous.
After the revitalized offense demoted Jacksonville from the realm of the elite, the 49ers feel back on track. Their prospects for the season are restored. The 49ers’ full complement of weapons made the three-game skid feel more like the fluke, not the 5-0 start. That’s how good Samuel is. That’s how good Williams is. That’s how much better McCaffrey and Purdy and the rest are with those two in the fold.
It looked as if Ambry Thomas had put the Jaguars away with a forced fumble he recovered and returned for a touchdown. But a bizarre penalty negated the score that would have extinguished Jacksonville’s hope. But the 49ers had the ball with a chance for the offense to finish the job.
On first and 10 from the Jaguars’ 37, the 49ers were in field goal range. But Jacksonville’s jugular was exposed.
Shanahan lined up Samuel on the right side. He motioned out wide right, spreading out the Jaguars defense, and McCaffrey took the handoff off up the middle for a 14-yard run.
On the next play, Samuel started on the right side again. Guess what Samuel did? Correct. He motioned for the end around to the left.
This time, though, Deebo wasn’t the misdirection. Purdy faked the up-the-middle run to McCaffrey before tossing to Samuel on the end-around. He had a convoy of blockers. Out in front of them: Trent Williams.
Welcome back @19problemz!
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 12, 2023
This is what the Jaguars had been worried about all game, the 49ers threatening to get McCaffrey going and keep the home team perennially off balance. On this one, though, McCaffrey was the diversion. It was time for the Jacksonville defense to get intimate with Williams and deal with Samuel.
“It was kind of weird, (Jaguars cornerback Darious Williams) turned around and ran, I’ve never seen that,” Williams said of the play. “I knew (Samuel) was close because I could tell by the reaction of the guy in front of me. But I feel so confident with (McCaffrey and Samuel) out there in the open field, so I’ve just got to get in the way long enough for them to make a decision. Once (Samuel) gets some steam, it’s really tough to bring him down.”
“I came around the edge,” Samuel added, “and I ain’t see nothing but white jerseys and two blue jerseys. I’m like, ‘Yo, ain’t no choice but to get in the end zone right here.’”
They’re back now. And the 49ers’ offense was, again, looking inevitable.
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(Top photo of Deebo Samuel: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)