Deebo Samuel getting closer to historic feat, would be only WR since NFL merger to lead team in rushing TDs

San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel will try to take another step Sunday toward something that hasn't been accomplished in any season since the NFL merger in 1970: leading a team in rushing touchdowns as a wide receiver.

Samuel has rushed for six touchdowns this season -- one more than starting running back Elijah Mitchell, who will miss Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons because of a concussion and knee irritation.

Samuel is expected to touch the ball in a variety of ways Sunday -- some as a receiver and some as a runner -- as he continues to emerge as a dynamic weapon for San Francisco.

Lining up closer to the line of scrimmage, Samuel has only one reception in each of his last three games and has been targeted a total of just seven times over that stretch.

But Samuel has taken on an expanded role as a runner of late, logging a total of 27 carries over his past four games and rushing for five touchdowns during that span. He is the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era (1966) to score a rushing touchdown in four consecutive games.

"With Deebo, it's game by game, how can we get him the ball?" Niners offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said. "Some games you'll see him in the backfield more, some games you won't. It all depends on the defense and how we're able to get him the ball and what advantages it presents for the rest of the offense."

San Francisco's defense will face a similar challenge Sunday in Atlanta's Cordarrelle Patterson, who entered the league eight years ago as a wide receiver but has been used this season at running back.

"I think the comparison [between Samuel and Patterson] makes sense, and I think it's very complimentary on both," McDaniel said. "I remember when I was a receiver coach evaluating [Patterson] coming out of Tennessee, he was one of my favorite guys with the ball in his hands ever. The way that he moved and cut at his weight. And Deebo is very similar.

"They don't move necessarily the same, but you see two guys that are football players who have the innate ability to carry the ball and avoid defenders and see space, that are also tough enough to do it."

Samuel also is San Francisco's leading receiver this season, with 1,028 yards and five touchdowns on 57 receptions. The 2019 second-round draft pick is the Niners' second-leading rusher, behind Mitchell, with 240 yards on 33 carries.

His five rushing touchdowns are the most by a primary wide receiver in a single season in the Super Bowl era, and he is the third player in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards, five touchdown catches and five rushing touchdowns in the same season, joining Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999).

Patterson has thrived in his first season with the Falcons, posting career highs in rushing yards (547) and receiving yards (519) while scoring 10 total touchdowns.