SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — When Kyle Shanahan was scouting prospects before the 2013 draft, Cordarrelle Patterson stood out for his ability as a wide receiver to take handoffs out of the backfield and turn them into big plays.
Shanahan finally found the right player to do that for his own team this season with Deebo Samuel thriving as both a receiver and a running back for the San Francisco 49ers.
The two dual-threat players will meet up Sunday when the Niners (7-6) host Patterson and the Atlanta Falcons (6-7) in a key game in the NFC wild-card race.
“He was the first one that I ever saw,” Shanahan said about Patterson. “He was really good at Tennessee doing it. They used to put him in the (I formation) a lot coming out of college. That year, I remember the top two receivers were him and Tavon Austin and they were both viewed as that way. They were both viewed as receivers who could play running back and he was the best I had seen.”
Patterson has excelled in that role this season for the Falcons, becoming the eighth player since the merger to have at least 500 yards rushing (547), 500 yards receiving (519) and five TD catches and runs in the first 13 games.
“That’s pretty special,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “I think him and Deebo are very similar. But I think they use him more as their true running back. That’s where their offensive is going to come from.”
While Patterson has lined up in the backfield on more than half his snaps this season for the Falcons, Samuel has been used in that role on less than 10% of his snaps.
But he has still been effective, averaging 7.3 yards with six TDs on his 33 carries to go along with his 57 catches for 1,028 yards and five more scores.
“He’s a terrific player,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “They’ve started using him similar in the last couple of weeks like Patterson. They’re not the same player, but he’s in the backfield more. They did run the ball with him early on gadgets. Now he’s kind of is taken a little bit more of a CP roll and run a little bit inside the tackles. He’s a really good football player and they put the ball in his hands and he usually makes things happen.”
After trading Julio Jones over the summer and losing top receiver Calvin Ridley, who left the team to address mental health issues, the Falcons have struggled to get production from a wideout group comprised of low-round draft picks and undrafted players.
But Russell Gage has stepped up his game the last three weeks, catching 21 passes for 256 yards.
“He’s certainly healthier than he was earlier this year,” Smith said. “People are playing us in a ton of zone. He’s getting open, finding the right spots, doing his job and the ball’s going his way.”
SPREAD IT AROUND
As Samuel has been used more in the running game, he has had less of a role in the passing game. That has allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to spread the ball around to George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.
Samuel had more than 40% of San Francisco’s yards receiving over the first nine games but has just three catches for 49 yards in the past four games, including one he missed with an injury.
Kittle has taken up a big share of the load with 22 catches for 332 yards and three TDs the past two games, while Aiyuk has at least 55 yards receiving in five of the past six games after failing to reach that mark once in the first seven games.
“I think whenever you can spread the ball like that to different positions and different guys at those positions, it makes it tough on defenses, especially in situational football,” Garoppolo said. “End of the game third down, who’s going to get the ball? They have to defend everything.”
KEEPING RYAN UPRIGHT
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is coming off just his second game all season where he didn’t take a sack.
Atlanta’s offensive line kept the 36-year-old quarterback mostly clean in the pocket, allowing just seven hits. Ryan responded with his highest-rated game in five weeks, completing 19 of 28 for 190 yards with one touchdown, and no interceptions for the second game in a row.
The Falcons will need that kind of effort against the 49ers.
“It’s just a culmination of trying to improve and doing your job better week after week,” Smith said of the offensive line. “I think that’s what you’re seeing. I wish I had some great quote for you. There’s nothing real flashy about it. We continue to get back to work and try to get better and it’s starting to pay off.”
Niners edge rusher Nick Bosa is playing his best football the last few weeks after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury.
Bosa is the first 49ers player in nine years with sacks in five straight games. Bosa’s 14 sacks on the season are tied for the third-most in the NFL and are the most for the franchise since Aldon Smith had 19 1/2 in 2012.