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Shanahan says Pettis, Samuel are co-starters, but stats reveal Pettis’ disappearing act

© David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a competition going on between the 49ers’ most recent second-round draft picks and so far, Deebo Samuel is winning. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said he sees the battle as even, with Dante Pettis and Samuel both viewed as starters. There’s no reason to believe that Shanahan is telling anything other than the truth, and he was extraordinarily harsh on himself for giving Pettis just two snaps in the team’s Week 1 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Pettis was of course nursing a hamstring injury into Week 1, the main cause of his abbreviated snap count. Still, Shanahan said that approach was a mistake.

“It’s definitely not Deebo’s job. It’s not anyone’s right now,” Shanahan said on Monday. “No one’s really taken that role. Dante had a setback with his groin injury where he missed some time in practice, so that gave him a little bit of a setback leading into Week 1 which made it easier for Deebo to start over him, but we went in knowing Deebo was going to get more playing time, but I definitely didn’t plan on Dante getting only two reps. He should have been in more than that and that starts with me and I’ll make sure not to let that happen again.”

There was a similar tone after Sunday’s 41-17 assault on the Cincinnati Bengals. Shanahan reaffirmed his self-criticism of the way Pettis was employed in Week 1 and did the same when talking about the competition. In that game, Pettis had one catch for seven yards, while Samuel had three for 17 yards (on 59 snaps).

“First of all, that was our fault. We wanted to play [Pettis] more in Week 1 than we did,” Shanahan said. “That was just some oversight on [our end]. And then the way he practiced this week, he continued to get a lot better. We went into this week planning to play him more than Week 1 and he earned that. Him and Deebo were both starters to us today. It had to do with what plays we were starting with… but I look at both of those guys the same right now.”

And based on the snap count compiled by KNBR, Shanahan was true to his word. In fact, and it’s hard to believe considering the way game developed, Pettis took seven more snaps than Samuel. Despite that, Samuel (who secured his first career touchdown) had six more touches on the ball. Pettis’ only touch, in fact, was a pass for 16 yards (he received a pass behind the line then threw a cross-field, forward screen to Raheem Mostert).

Here’s what those numbers looked like on offense:

Samuel: 29 snaps, 7 targets, 5 catches – 87 yards, 1 TD, (1 drop, 1 incompletion in the end zone, thrown out of bounds intentionally by Garoppolo with a few seconds left in the first half) 2 rushes for 7 yards.

Had three plays called off in which he took snaps – two for false starts, two for holding. One holding call did not result in a loss of the play, according to NFL stats and is included in his snap count.

UPDATE: Official snap counts give Samuel 29 snaps including the three penalty calls mentioned above.

Pettis: 35 snaps, 1 pass, 16 yards (not technically counted as a reception or a target because it was a backwards pass).

Had two plays called off for holding, not included in snap count.

UPDATE: Official snap counts give Pettis 35 snaps including the two penalty calls mentioned above.

The other thing to note, which you may be wondering, is how those snaps broke down in runs versus passes. Pettis was, in fact, on the field for eight more run plays than Samuel, but Samuel was only on the field for one more pass play than Pettis. So, while Samuel had an even number of pass and run plays, Pettis had more run duties. The numbers are below:

Samuel: 13 pass plays, 13 run plays

Pettis: 12 pass plays, 21 run plays

What is there to take from these numbers? Maybe you can interpret that the increased run-blocking duties of Pettis wore him down more and made Samuel fresher than Pettis. That’s possible, but Marquise Goodwin took the most snaps out of any wide receiver and was targeted plenty despite his run-blocking duties.

The reality of Week 2 is that Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t looking Pettis’ way all that often, but he is looking Samuel’s way, and frequently. No one had more receptions than Samuel and the next-highest targeted players were Raheem Mostert (four targets, three catches, 68 yards, 1 TD) and Richie James Jr. (four targets, one catch, seven yards).

Also, there’s no overlap here. Samuel and Pettis play the same Z-receiver position, staggered behind the line off scrimmage. So, when one of them is in, the other is out. Kendrick Bourne appears to be the split end, X-receiver backup for Marquise Goodwin (with the ability to slot inside) and Richie James Jr. is generally in as the slot receiver when the 49ers go to three-receiver sets.

This is not intended as a condemnation of Pettis’ play; he hasn’t looked like he’s been halfhearted in running his routes or blocking downfield. Both he and Samuel have been utilized in motion (six-to-seven times for each on Sunday), which has an impact that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.

What it is intended to show is the fact that despite having increased familiarity in the 49ers’ offense, Garoppolo is already targeting Deebo Samuel at a much higher rate. Pettis could be running great routes on every single play, but the ball isn’t going to him like it is to Samuel; at least, not at the moment.

Shanahan gave Samuel the rookie treatment after Sunday’s win, stating that he was impressed but wants to see improvement (you can count on him or defensive coordinator Robert Saleh employing some version of that cautious optimism every week). He raves about Pettis, too, but he can only select the personnel; Garoppolo decides where the ball goes.

Shanahan, and Garoppolo (earlier this week), too, talk about Samuel differently; they continually praise their new bulldog of a wide receiver for his love of contact.

“[Samuel] just did what he was supposed to do, so we’re happy with him. I’m going to be hard on Deebo all the time,” Shanahan said Sunday. “This was his second game. Lots of stuff I’m sure he could have done better, but I know when we give the ball to him, put the ball in his hands, he’s as fearless and as tough a rookie wide receiver as I’ve been around. We’re going to have to live, as I told him, with some growing pains, but when you have a guy who plays that physically and isn’t scared of the moment and isn’t scared of the contact, we’re going to be a lot more willing to live with it.”


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