In his first career start against the Raiders, quarterback Nick Mullens exceeded expectations, wrapping up a highly efficient night, throwing for 262 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and finishing with a near perfect passer rating of 151.3.
With his stellar play, head coach Kyle Shanahan felt obligated to continue giving Mullens the start at quarterback, despite having a healthy C.J. Beathard. Heading into a Monday Night Football matchup against the 1-7 Giants, many expected a similar performance from Mullens.
A tougher defense, higher expectations and multiple offensive miscues led to a worse performance in Mullens’ second-career start against New York. The undrafted free agent finished 27-of-39 for 250 yards, but only threw one touchdown and two interceptions. His passer rating was also nearly half of what it was in his debut (73.7). Let’s dissect certain plays to break down some positives and negatives from Mullens’ play against the Giants.
Early in the first quarter, Mullens and the 49ers’ offense is faced with a third-and-7 in Giants’ territory. Wideout Dante Pettis motions out and is able to break free from the defensive back. Unfortunately, Mullens throws behind Pettis, causing him to break stride and not gain enough for a first down.
Next, Mullens’ first blunder of the night that led to a Giants’ interception. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne runs a comeback route and Mullens throws the pass too late, allowing defensive back Janoris Jenkins to deflect it into the hands of linebacker B.J. Goodson for an easy INT. This was an issue that was not prevalent in Mullens’ first start, but in his second start his throws outside the numbers seem to arrive late and with not enough arm strength.
On the flip side, one of Mullens’ best traits is that he’s decisive in attacking the 49ers’ best matchups and will release the ball quickly when he sees an opening. On this next play, Shanahan loves the matchup between tight end George Kittle and safety Landon Collins. Kittle makes a quick move and Mullens hits him in stride for 18 yards. This is what the 49ers need more of moving forward this season.
This next play is a similar set up as the last one, but the 49ers bring Kittle off the end of the formation, as he runs across the field. With the defender following Bourne across the field, Mullens realizes it is man coverage and can take advantage of Kittle running between multiple defenders. The Giants lose the 49ers’ biggest weapon in all the traffic and San Francisco gains 22 yards on the play.
Later in the second quarter, Mullens continues to his pre-snap reads to find easy throws for large gains. Kittle motions across the formation, Collins follows him, signaling to Mullens that it’s going to be man coverage. Looking at the right side of the formation, the defender across from wideout Marquise Goodwin is seven yards away from the line of scrimmage, giving Goodwin the space to get open on an inside-breaking route. Goodwin does exactly that and Mullens hits him for a 17-yard gain.
On Mullens’ lone touchdown pass of the night, Shanahan deserves all the credit for this play design. By stacking up four receivers to the right, the Giants’ defenders had a difficult time following all the 49ers’ pass catchers off the line of scrimmage. Running back Matt Breida snuck free to the left side of the end zone, as Mullens delivers a beautiful ball for six points.
This next throw was Mullens’ second-biggest blunder of the night, as he and Goodwin aren’t on the same page with the route. If you notice closely, Goodwin stops and goes twice on this route, likely confusing Mullens. It turns into an interception for the Giants, eventually breaking the way for their victory.
Mullens didn’t have as good of a game against the Giants as he did in his opener against the Raiders, but there are some positives to take away. His decisiveness and ability to release the ball quickly has been exemplary, but there’s still flaws in his arm strength and timing with certain receivers.
For the 49ers, the rest of the season will be an evaluation to see who’s going to be their backup quarterback in 2019. It’s time for Mullens to go out there and earn it.