The play might not have worked, but it spoke volumes about how Curtis Samuel is finally becoming a factor for the Washington Football Team. It occurred on a crucial third-down with Sunday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders in the balance. Despite the stakes, playoff-chasing Washington and head coach Ron Rivera felt good about giving the ball to a guy who had been on the shelf for most of his first season with the team.
Samuel, a wide receiver in name only, got the ball but fell a whisker short of converting on third-and-four. It was close, and Rivera knows getting the most versatile playmaker on his offense up to speed is going to be a process. Thankfully for in-form Washington, that process is gathering pace. And Rivera has never been afraid to gamble, so he went for it on fourth-and-inches, en route to a 17-15 win.
Curtis Samuel Now a Factor for the Washington Football Team Offense
Rivera is still taking a cautious approach, but Samuel’s workload is becoming more consistent. The Athletic‘s Ben Standig revealed Samuel has maintained an identical snap count in consecutive games:
Washington’s snap counts for Week 13:
* Offense (67), defense (59)
* Antonio Gibson career-high 82% (55)
* Curtis Samuel 20 again
* Holcomb, Curl 100% on defense
* DT – Payne (47), Ioannidis (33), Allen (31)
* Jamin Davis 53 (90%)
* Danny Johnson 32, D. Everett 26, K. Hudson 10 pic.twitter.com/Lf52aPr5S9
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) December 6, 2021
It might not seem like much, but enduring 40 snaps unscathed is a big deal for a player who has missed significant time. An ongoing groin problem cost Samuel the first three games of this season. He made it through Washington’s Week 4, 34-30 road win over the Atlanta Falcons but couldn’t do the same when Washington lost to the New Orleans Saints a week later.
His absence has hamstrung Rivera and offensive coordinator, Scott Turner. They were counting on the player they coached with the Carolina Panthers to be an X factor in Washington after he joined Washington in free agency on a three-year deal worth $34.5 million.
Samuel was supposed to bolster a passing game already loaded with talent. He was expected to draw coverage away from Terry McLaurin, the third-year pro who is already one of the NFL’s best receivers. Samuel was also meant to boost the production of tight end Logan Thomas.
Those things have not yet happened, but Samuel has added variety in the running game. He can start in the backfield, motion from the slot on a jet sweep, or break from the outside on an end-around. Samuel is a legitimate threat as a runner, no matter how he gets the ball.
He offered an intriguing glimpse of that threat on the ill-fated dive play against the Raiders:
On a crucial 3rd-and-4 the playcall is… a handoff for a run-up-the-guts with Curtis Samuel?
— Chad Ryan (@ChadwikoTWW) December 5, 2021
Running a 5’11”, 195-pound wideout between the tackles is risky, but receivers are taking handoffs more and more in today’s league. San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel and Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs have made it a legitimate ploy. Cordarrelle Patterson is a wide receiver and kick returner who just happens to lead the Atlanta Falcons in rushing.
Niners’ head coach Kyle Shanahan, a former offensive coordinator in Washington, explained how hybrid talents can cause issues for defenses, per Touchdown Wire analyst Doug Farrar:
It depends what coverages they are in. Man coverage, who’s got him when he’s outside, who’s got him in the backfield, those are different run fits, can confuse linebackers on the runs and the passes. You just have to account for everything. Same with motions, same with where guys are going to line up, there’s a lot of different stuff for it.
Turner can design ways for Samuel to make a similar impact, based on how the latter averaged 6.8 yards per rush for the Panthers in 2019, Rivera’s final year in Carolina.
Early Signs Encouraging, but Patience Required
Design and movement are the keys to getting Samuel more involved, but patience is needed. Samuel’s still not up to full speed, but Turner has the right ideas about how to use him. Like when Samuel motioned across the formation and caught a screen pass smartly set up behind solid blocking against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 12:
Curtis Samuel with the first down catch and run.
— Chad Ryan (@ChadwikoTWW) November 30, 2021
Washington moved the defense one way by faking a sweep off left tackle to running back Antonio Gibson. Samuel took the ball the other way behind blocking tight end John Bates, who had lined up in the slot. He was a mismatch against cornerback Quandre Diggs. This was a clever way to steal some cheap yards and get Samuel into space.
Building the screen game is the next step toward making Samuel a feature of the offense. There are going to be some growing pains, like on this play against the Raiders, highlighted by X’s and O’s analyst Mark Bullock:
Very convincing opening drive by Washington, haven't had the offense clicking that much on opening drives this season. Even managed to overcome this missed opportunity as Curtis Samuel slipped with a ton of open field to work with pic.twitter.com/Bk04YbQ8UL
— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) December 5, 2021
The design was excellent, with Samuel taking a throwback screen to the right after Washington had faked action the other way. Offensive linemen Brandon Scherff (75) and Keith Ismael (60) moved to form a convoy in front of Samuel. His slip proved costly, but the strategy was on point. This is a play that a fully optimal Samuel will use to gash defenses in the future.
DeAndre Carter’s (2) role is also worth mentioning. He has been one of the pleasant surprises of Washington’s season as a returner/receiver who also has running back traits. Putting Carter and Samuel in the backfield or the slot will disguise intent and create misdirection.
Versatility is the defining characteristic of Washington’s offense. Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic are both running backs who used to be wide receivers. Samuel is a wideout who can double up as a tailback. He will be crucial during a five-game run toward the playoffs.