All the talk was about how Kyle Shanahan’s offense, led by undrafted free agent quarterback Nick Mullens, was going to perform against this fierce defense. While the final score wasn’t pretty, the 49ers’ offense was far more competent than one would have you believe. Mullens finished the game 22-of-38, for 241 yards and an interception that should’ve been caught by 49ers’ receiver Marquise Goodwin.
The biggest difference was that the Bears had three red-zone trips and converted two of them into touchdowns, while the 49ers had three of their own, but only came away with Robbie Gould field goals on all of them.
Aside from the final score, there were a lot of positives to take away from the game. Mullens did a great job with the Bears’ daunting pass rush, as evidenced on this play. Chicago rushes four, but the pressure gets to Mullens. The 49ers’ quarterback keeps his eyes up and is able to get the ball to 49ers’ tight end George Kittle, even if it’s only for a one-yard gain.
On the flip side, here was one of the throws that Mullens probably would like to have back if he could. Chicago decided to rush five defenders on this play, but the 49ers’ offensive line still do a solid job of creating a clean pocket. Wideout Dante Pettis runs a good route, the defender falls over, but Mullens just misses him.
Here’s good pre-snap work from Mullens, who motions running back Matt Breida out to the left side of the formation. Defensive back Prince Amukamara stays 10 yards off, allowing Mullens a chance to make a quick pitch and catch to Breida for a six-yard gain.
On this second-down play, the 49ers’ quarterback has wideout Kendrick Bourne in the slot. There’s man coverage across the board, but Bourne runs a good route to create an opening for Mullens. However, the rookie under-throws the ball, forcing Bourne to come back to the ball. The Bears’ defender pokes the ball away and it seemed like a penalty would be called — but the referees didn’t call it. Mullens has to do a better job of leading the ball to Bourne’s back shoulder away from the defender.
More beautiful pre-snap work from Mullens, in combination with great play design from Shanahan on this next play. Kittle motions from left to right, with no defender following, signaling zone defense from Chicago. With three receivers on the right side of the formation, two — wideout Trent Taylor and Bourne — clear out the zone, running routes to the middle of the field, while Kittle runs into the flat, where he’s left wide open. Boom — 13-yard gain and the 49ers are able to move the chains.
This could have been a game-changing play, as the 49ers struggled all afternoon in the red zone. Mullens is rushed up the middle, forcing him to his left. The entire time, the 49ers’ quarterback keeps his eyes up, seeing Kittle free up in the end zone. On the run, Mullens makes a beautiful throw across his body, but the defender is able to strip it away from Kittle. It’s these types of plays that are the difference between wins and losses.
With the Bears’ defender pressed up against receiver Marquise Goodwin, the 49ers have the comeback route — especially with Goodwin’s “run you out of the gym” speed. Mullens releases the ball well before Goodwin breaks out of the top of his route and hits him for a 17-yard gain. This type of timing route takes a lot of chemistry with the receiver, so it was highly impressive for the rookie.
Another impressive pre-snap read and throw from Mullens. Kittle motions on the left side of the formation and Mullens realizes its a zone defense from the Bears. Two Bears’ defenders get held up watching Kittle underneath, freeing up Taylor between the cornerback and the safety. Mullens drops in the throw and it’s a 23-yard gain up the sideline for the 49ers.
Bourne runs a perfect out route on this next play, with Mullens releasing the ball well before the 49ers’ second-year receiver reaches the top of his route. The quarterback hits him in stride, leading to an 18-yard completion.
Here’s some Patrick Mahomes-like wizardry from Mullens, who’s rolling out right, with no receiver open in the area. As he works to his right, he sees that Kittle has a lot of green grass running back to his left. Mullens makes a throw across his body to the other side of the field for 35 yards. Fantastic improvisation and play-making from the rookie on this down.
The credit for this next completion goes to Bourne’s route-running ability, who fakes out and then comes back in. The safety freezes for a split second, giving Mullens a window to make a tight throw. Slightly high, but Bourne makes the catch anyways.
The worst play of the day for the 49ers — an interception on a potential game-changing drive. With momentum on their side, Mullens is trying to thread this ball to Goodwin, who’s open, but the throw is slightly wide — albeit, catchable. The throw goes off of Goodwin’s fingertips and everyone knows what happens next.
Shanahan’s beautiful play design creates this 25-yard gain to ignite a potential game-winning drive. With the Bears in a zone defense, one of the easiest ways to free up a receiver is run a crossing route across the formation. Defenders will struggle to hand off the route runner and eventually he’ll be open. That’s exactly what happens to Bourne, who gets free, with no defender tracking him.
Mullens’ play on Sunday didn’t result in a victory for the 49ers, but he was certainly able to move the ball with ease between the 20-yard lines against one of the best defenses in the NFL — which breeds confidence for 2019’s backup quarterback. The next step will be closing the deal in the red zone.