Heading into last Thursday’s prime time showdown against the Raiders, I had absolutely no expectations for second-year quarterback Nick Mullens, making his first-ever start on a short week.
The 49ers were sitting at 1-7, but never did I imagine that a change in quarterback would be the answer to fixing a lot of San Francisco’s problems. Yet with every drive, it seemed like fans started to gain confidence in Mullens’ ability.
Mullens and the 49ers’ offense opened with back-to-back touchdown drives that spanned 75 and 66 yards, respectively and then closed out the half with a 59-yard, 1:38 drive for a field goal.
Kyle Shanahan’s group opened the second half with a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and then a three-play, 68-yard drive that put the 49ers up 31-3 and effectively sealed the game.
In his debut, Mullens was highly efficient, finishing 16-of-22 for 262 yards, with three touchdown passes, no interceptions and a near-perfect passer rating of 151.9. The 49ers’ receivers were an integral part of Mullens’ success (as was an atrocious Raiders defense), as the second-year player did not attempt a single throw into a tight window, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Let’s take a look at certain plays from Mullens’ debut that highlights his strengths, while showing some areas for improvement as he’s slated to make his second start against the Giants. After playing on Thursday Night Football for his first game, Mullens is going to get another national showcase on ESPN’s Monday Night Football this upcoming week.
On the 49ers’ very first offensive play, Mullens is able to find wideout Marquise Goodwin for an 11-yard gain. This is just beautiful pre-snap recognition, as the Raiders match up linebacker Tahir Whitehead on San Francisco’s quickest player with a free release. Mullens can trust that Goodwin is going to get open immediately and make a quick throw. Running back Matt Breida clears out the area by running deep, giving way for an easy first completion underneath.
Again, another successful completion that’s a result of smart pre-snap recognition. Mullens motions running back Raheem Mostert from the backfield to the outside. As the Raiders’ linebacker follows Mostert, Mullens recognizes that Oakland’s in man coverage. The best matchup in this case was fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who is going to beat linebacker Marquel Lee every play.
Now on 3rd-and-3, Mullens recognizes that the Raiders’ defensive back is playing seven yards off of wideout Pierre Garçon, which means that a comeback route should allow for a wide-open first down completion. While the throw seemed a tad bit late, Garçon was still able to make the play for a first down.
On this play, the Raiders decide to play zone defense, which means that Garçon is able to find the soft spot in between the safety and the linebacker, giving Mullens a chance to hit him for a large gain. The 49ers’ offensive line does a good job giving the offense some time for the routes to develop and Mullens comes up with a perfect throw for a 25-yard gain.
Here’s one of Mullens’ poorer throws of the evening, as he rushes his throw due to inside pressure. The 49ers’ quarterback doesn’t see the Oakland defender undercut the route and almost intercept this pass. Nine times out of ten this pass gets intercepted, but luckily for Mullens, it was just incomplete. Especially in the red zone, where the field shrinks, it’s better for the young quarterback to throw the ball away, rather than try to cram the pass into a tight window.
Another poor throw that’s probably representative of Mullens’ arm strength. In this play, Garçon is going to run a out route, where he expects the ball to be delivered right after he reaches the top of the route. Instead, the throw is a bit slow and late, allowing the Raiders’ defensive back to deflect the pass away.
More pre-snap magic from the 49ers’ second-year quarterback. As wideout Richie James motions across the formation, the Raiders’ defender follows, signaling man coverage across the board. There’s a slot corner blitz off the top, meaning Mullens’ should get rid of the ball quickly. James does a fantastic job in earning a free release and getting open across the middle of the field, allowing Mullens to hit him in stride for a 53-yard gain. (Underrated part of this clip is Goodwin celebrating as soon as James caught the pass.)
Here’s Mullens’ best throw of the evening — in between four defenders. If you freeze the video four seconds in, you’ll see four Raiders’ defenders forming a square around tight end George Kittle, yet the second-year tight end makes the grab and turns it into a 71-yard gain. I don’t know what’s more amazing about this play — Mullens’ ability to fit the ball into that window of Kittle’s one-handed grab and run.
For an un-drafted free agent making his first start, this was really impressive, even if it was against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Mullens was able to take advantage of his pre-snap reads, make quick decisions and get the ball out. The 49ers’ offensive line didn’t give up a single sack and a lot of that was Mullens not letting the pressure get too close.
Next up is a Giants’ defense that’s middle of the pack, but should be better than what Mullens saw on Thursday. It’s going to be a tougher test, but with an extra few days of preparation and a home crowd behind him, I expect to see a similar performance from “BDN” on Monday.