As we learned in the 49ers’ final game of the preseason, all options appear to be on the table at quarterback.
The injury to Trey Lance’s finger probably results in Jimmy Garoppolo as the Week 1 starter. But make no mistake, Kyle Shanahan is going to find ways to use Lance. Whether that means easing him in with packages for certain situations, using a Roger Staubach/Craig Morton style platoon, or naming him the starter at some point this season, Lance is going to make an impact.
It’s not that Garoppolo can’t run Kyle Shanahan’s system the way it’s meant to be run. Garoppolo was just fine in 2019 as he guided the 49ers to within a few plays of a Lombardi Trophy.
But Lance has the skill set, both with his arm and his legs, to expand Shanahan’s offense in ways that Garoppolo can’t.
The Run Game
Shanahan’s rushing attack was already one of the most versatile in the NFL. He mixes in a healthy dose of gap-scheme runs with zone. He uses motion and misdirection to create leverage and favorable fronts to run against. He involves wide receivers in the run game as well as anyone.
The one element that’s been missing is a quarterback who is a threat with his legs. Shanahan finally has that in Lance, which means life will be even more difficult for opposing defenses.
The below play against the Raiders is a great example. This was a read-option off of QB counter. You can see how the mesh point and the threat of Lance keeping the ball held multiple defenders, giving running back Raheem Mostert leverage to the outside.
Lance read the defensive end on the left side of the screen. Had he decided to keep it, he might have picked up 20 yards on his own following the counter action in the other direction. The Raiders were left in a no-win situation.
This is a concept that has been successfully utilized in Baltimore by another versatile and dynamic running game that features its quarterback:
This is a new wrinkle to an already-dangerous 49ers running scheme. Good luck, NFL defenses.
The Passing Game
Through the air, Lance’s preseason has been somewhat uneven. However, he’s provided a glimpse of how he is capable of expanding this offense.
Check out the play design and execution from Lance’s first touchdown of the preseason. This was a play-action boot to the offense’s left.
Given the initial action of the receivers’ routes and Lance’s path outside the hash marks, the design of the play appeared to target the left side of the field. This got the two deep safeties to flow in that direction as well.
Then, wide receiver Trent Sherfield broke back to the right.
Lance delivered a near-perfect ball roughly 45 yards downfield with enough velocity to prevent the deep safety at the bottom of the screen from having time to recover. Impressive.
It’s not that the 49ers haven’t had success using this type of concept with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. In fact, here’s an example from 2019 when they scored a touchdown with it against Green Bay.
You’ll notice a couple of key differences, though. First, tight end George Kittle was running that route instead of a wide receiver. Because the route was coming from an inline tight end position, it took less time to develop, and Garoppolo was able to make an easy throw in the middle of the field to a wide open target.
As defenses watch film and study tendencies, they generally become better prepared to stop these types of shot plays. So what do offenses do in response? They try to dress up the same play in multiple ways using different personnel groupings and formations. That’s what happened on Lance’s TD.
Shanahan drew this up for a wide receiver, Trent Sherfield, who was removed from the formation. Due to his initial alignment, Sherfield needed time to release inside, bring his stem upfield, and start leaning back to the left before breaking across the field in the opposite direction.
Lance had to continue to the outside for a few steps longer than Garoppolo did on his touchdown in order to give Sherfield’s route time to develop, to avoid tipping off the safeties, and to buy time vs. the pass rush.
The result was a throw from outside the hash marks on one side of the field to a spot outside the numbers on the opposite side. That’s a difficult pass requiring very good arm strength. Take another look:
Why is this contrast significant? With Lance under center, more of the field is at his disposal due to his physical abilities, and this gives Shanahan more flexibility. He can stretch the field in all directions and attack downfield with greater ease. This also means he has more ways to get to plays he loves (like the one above) and disguise his own tendencies.
Compare the Garoppolo/Lance relationship to the Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes situation. Smith had a very good 5-year stretch running Andy Reid’s system and won a lot of games. But Mahomes’ ability to threaten in more ways took the Chiefs to another level.
Calm down, this doesn’t mean that Trey Lance will become Patrick Mahomes. But despite being somewhat raw as a passer, he does have the ability to make the 49ers a more dangerous offense. That’s why they traded up to take him 3rd overall in this year’s NFL Draft. That’s why Shanahan is doing whatever he can to find ways to get Lance involved. It’s only a matter of time before the 49ers hand him the keys to the entire offense.