NFL
December 7, 2021

Deebo Samuel's Injury Will Reveal 49ers' Legitimacy as NFL Playoff Contenders

The San Francisco 49ers went into their Week 13 clash with the Seattle Seahawks on a three-game winning streak that fostered talk of them as a potential berserker team in the playoffs.

But the absence of Deebo Samuel, who suffered a groin injury in Week 12, was always likely to challenge that status.

Samuel had been the primary catalyst behind a surge in which the 49ers ranked second in Expected Points Added (EPA) per play on offense, per rbsdm.com.  In order to get back to the playoffs, Samuel was going to have to become the player the 49ers envisioned when they selected him in the second round of the 2019 draft.

He has done just that, but an untimely injury has slowed the excitement in San Francisco. 

First in the NFL scrimmage yards per touch with 14.9, Samuel racked up 305 yards (181 rushing, 124 receiving) and five touchdowns between Weeks 10 and 12. Opposing defenses had no answer to the diversification he offers San Francisco's ground game.

However, the 49ers rushing attack duly struggled in his absence as that winning streak was snapped in a dramatic 30-23 loss to a Seattle Seahawks team that had looked dead in the water at 3-8.

Turnovers, penalties, and special teams' miscues doomed the 49ers to a defeat that dropped them to the seven seed in the NFC playoffs, but San Francisco surely would have had a better chance of overcoming a mistake-strewn showing with Samuel on the field to aid the ground game.

Either way, the importance of Samuel's presence in this lineup was put on display with him not playing. The 49ers just looked flat.

The 49ers averaged just 2.8 yards per rush, putting the pressure on Garoppolo to deliver through the air.

Despite a Herculean effort from George Kittle, who caught nine passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns, Garoppolo failed to replicate that same success, with two dismal interceptions likely to raise renewed questions about benching him for Trey Lance.

For such questions to go away, ideally, the 49ers need to get back to the best version of their offense, and that is an attack in which Samuel is given multiple touches and designed play calls. 

Yet with a one to two-week timescale put on his return, there is a chance they will again be without him for a challenging road game with the 7-5 Cincinnati Bengals. If Samuel misses out again and the 49ers find a way to win against an AFC contender without him, the Seattle game will likely be viewed as something of an aberration.

However, should Garoppolo come up short with the ground game kept in check once more, it will be tough to take the 49ers seriously as a team that can do legitimate damage in the postseason. 

Garoppolo just is not good enough to put the team on his back and beat teams through the air. He needs a good supporting cast, and he will do just enough to not lose the game. With Samuel in the lineup, the 49ers are a winning team and a productive offense.

Without him, they do not have a safety blanket in case Garoppolo just doesn't have it on any given Sunday. 

Samuel has emerged as the 49ers' missing Jenga piece on offense. San Francisco will hope his injury has healed to the extent that he can be around to help keep their playoff push intact going forward in 2021. 

Photo: Getty Images