SANTA CLARA — How to explain Deebo Samuel and Cordarrelle Patterson?
For 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Atlanta’s Arthur Smith, necessity has been the mother of invention.
Both coaches believe in strong running games, and either through injury or ineffectiveness, the 49ers and Falcons needed to find creative ways to get the ball into the hands of runner/receivers who defy conventional NFL roles.
Mission accomplished. When the 49ers (7-6) host Atlanta (6-7) Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, each defense will be cognizant of a potential game-breaker while at the same time playing a high stakes game of hide-and-seek.
“He and Deebo are very similar, but I think (Atlanta) uses him more as their true running back,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said Wednesday. “That’s where their offense is going to run through, No. 84. He runs the ball super hard, a really good player. We’ve got to make sure we bring it.”
Samuel, at 6-foot and 215 pounds, is fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 1,268 (1,028 receiving, 240 rushing) while Patterson (6-2, 220) is 14th with 1,066 (547 rushing, 519 receiving). And they can reach the end zone either way. Samuel has five receiving touchdowns and six rushing touchdowns, Patterson has five of each.
They aren’t running sweeps and gadget plays either. Samuel and Patterson have a taste for contact.
“I watch Deebo all the time,” Patterson told reporters in Atlanta. “He works hard, he does what he’s supposed to do. When his number is called, he’ll go out and make a play, no matter where they put him. He’s having a career year. I’m just happy for that guy.”
Patterson is a rarity in that he’s having a breakout season as an offensive player at age 30. A first-round draft pick by Minnesota in 2012, Patterson has eight career kickoff returns for touchdowns and made four Pro Bowls.
Richard Hightower, the 49ers special teams coach, puts Patterson up there with such standouts as Dante Hall and Devin Hester.
Still, it seemed teams never were really sure how to best use Patterson other than on returns. He’s got great speed but adjusting to long passes and being a polished route runner was never a strength.
So Patterson stuck around, catching the occasional hitch pass and using his size and speed to get some additional yards, and once in a while carried out of the backfield while playing for the Vikings, Raiders, Patriots and Bears. He ran from scrimmage a career-high 64 times for 232 yards for Chicago last season, and new Falcons coach Arthur Smith thought Patterson could maybe take on more of a load in the backfield.
“We obviously had a vision for him, and he’s taken it and run with it,” Smith said. “Credit to C.P. We find different ways to fit him into the plan each week and he’s done a nice job.”
Patterson has carried the ball 122 times this season, and in the last three games has 45 carries for 244 yards and three touchdowns. Patterson joked with reporters he’s had so much contact he actually ran out of bounds last week rather than take on a tackler, and informed teammate and running back Quadree Ollison he’s got newfound respect for the position.
“I was telling ‘Q’ it’s hard being a running back,” Patterson said. “At receiver, you aren’t getting hit on every play. At receiver, there are some divas out there. Catch the ball, get out of bounds, some don’t block. At running back, you’re taking on the hit or getting hit on every play. I used to be a receiver. I know how it is, so I can say that kind of stuff.”
“Diva” is a term that has never been used to describe Samuel, whose physicality sets him apart whether he’s catching a pass, running the ball or throwing a block. He was pressed into duty at running back because the position has been wracked by injuries to Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon.
“Deebo is one of the most exciting players in the league,” Falcons safety Duron Harmon said. “He take a screen for 80. He can catch it deep, or he can get a toss and go up the sideline for 50. They do a good job getting the ball in his hands and he’s a natural play-maker. Every play he’s out there we’re going to know where he is and where they like to get him the ball.”
As Samuel’s rushing responsibilities have increased, his receiving numbers have tailed off. He has just one reception in each of his last three games and he missed one with a groin strain. He has 22 rushes for 182 yards over the same span.
“That’s just how it works out sometimes,” Shanahan said.
Earlier in the season, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was fielding questions about whether the offense was too fixated on Samuel as a receiver. Now it’s the opposite.
“With Deebo getting all that attention and everything, I think it opens other guys up,” Garoppolo said. “When you can spread the ball like that, it makes it tough on defenses especially in situational football at the end of the game or on third down as to who is going to get the ball.”