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49ers lose 17-10: 4th down failures and penalties define Trey Lance’s first start

The rookie quarterback played well, but couldn’t overcome drops, penalties, and questionable fourth-down playcalling.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The 49ers looked to knock off the undefeated Cardinals in rookie quarterback Trey Lance’s first career NFL start. Instead, San Francisco fell to the NFC West division leader 17-10, unable to take advantage of a fantastic defensive performance.

Daniel Brunskill and Mike McGlinchey let two pass rushers quickly by them on the first play of the game, putting Lance in a terrible position. Then, the rookie sprinted forward in the pocket and recorded a 14-yard run. It was an early example of how he can help the 49ers offense reach new heights. While they finished the game with only 10 points, it was filled with flashes of Lance’s potential.

The next play was a nice touch pass to Kyle Juszczyk, and the 49ers were moving it downfield. Then, Lance had Travis Benjamin open 15-yards downfield off play action, but moved up in the pocket, could not set his feet, and the throw sailed way over Benjamin’s head and into the hands of Cardinals safety Budda Baker.

Starting at midfield, quarterback Kyler Murray and the Cardinals embarrassed the Niners' defense, quickly moving downfield and punching the ball into the endzone for an early 7-0 lead. It looked like things were about to get ugly.

Lance, though, responded well. He led a good drive, highlighted by a screen to running back Elijah Mitchell that gained 14 yards. However, head coach Kyle Shanahan opted to go for it on 4th-and-two at the Cardinals 34 and called a QB draw. J.J. Watt generated great push at the point of attack and stopped Lance a yard short.

Falling just short on fourth down would come to define the 49ers' day.

D.J. Jones blew up the first play of the Cardinals' ensuing drive for a huge sack, and Arizona was quickly forced to punt.

Lance gave the offense some breathing room with his legs after Aiyuk misread the punt and pinned the 49ers inside their ten. Then, Lance completed a 26-yard pass to Deebo Samuel. A beautiful tight-window throw to Aiyuk kept the drive alive on third down, and the Niners pushed it to the Arizona one. Once again facing fourth down, Shanahan opted to go for it, but Lance was stopped inches from the goal line by linebacker Isaiah Simmons.

Pinned at their own goalline, Murray made two beautiful throws to get Arizona out of their own endzone, and they were driving once again. However, stalling inside the red zone, they settled for a field goal, which pushed their early lead to 10-0.

On the ensuing drive, on third-and 11, Lance made a great throw to Mohammed Sanu that went right through the veteran’s hands. The play should have sparked another drive into Arizona territory. But, instead, it gave the ball back to Murray.

The Cardinals once again drove into field goal range, but Nick Bosa recorded his first career sack against Murray, and Cardinals kicker Matt Prater missed a rushed 61-yard field goal to take both teams into the half.

After one half, the 49ers had three drops, committed the game's only turnover, and failed two fourth downs in scoring position. Yet, they were still down just 10 points.

The Cardinals received the second-half kickoff, but a muffed handoff put them behind schedule, and they were quickly forced to punt. A personal foul on the punt return set the Niners up at the 35. Lance made another good touch pass to Juszczyk on third-and-long to get things moving.

Then the holdings started, first by left tackle Trent Williams. Then, Lance converted a third-and-seven, which was called back by two holding penalties on the offensive line. Then, a 12-yard completion set up a big fourth down. Lance got the first down, the team’s only fourth-down conversion on the day, but a holding by wide receiver Travis Benjamin on the next play forced them into a first-and-20.

A couple of plays later, Lance misread his ability to escape the pocket and took a sack that forced the Niners out of field goal range. It was his biggest decision-making mistake of the day.

Once again pinned deep, the Cardinals could not move the ball after a good punt by Mitch Wishnowsky. Arik Armstead and the defensive line generated great push on every play and nearly had a safety on back-to-back plays (one via sack and one via holding penalty). Still, they had to settle for another three-and-out, and the Niners started their next drive near midfield.

A false start and holding penalty got things off to another ugly start, but Lance gave wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk an opportunity to make a play, and the former first-round pick answered the call.

Aiyuk fought through a Cardinals defender to haul in the reception and finished the play with a 26-yard grab. The Niners were rolling once again. When they reached the red zone, they gave it to Deebo Samuel on a sweep to the left that went to the endzone.

With 1:42 left in the third quarter, despite all that had gone wrong, the 49ers were within a field goal of a tied game, trailing 10-7.

The Cardinals offense recorded a pair of first downs on their next drive but stalled near midfield. 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans dropped into dime on third down, and rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga generated great pressure and forced an incompletion.

Lance started on San Francisco’s 20 and was quickly in a third-and-long situation. Under some pressure off the edge, Lance saw open turf in front of him and scrambled for 16 yards and a huge first down.

For the sixth time in seven drives, the Niners reached Arizona territory and were left with a fourth-and-one. The unexpectedly aggressive Shanahan opted to go for it, but instead of putting the ball in Lance, Samuel, or even Aiyuk’s hands, he had Juszczyk try to sneak under center for the second consecutive week for a decoyed quarterback sneak. The Cardinals linebackers saw it coming, crashing on Juszczyk as soon as he stepped under center and stopped him well short.

The defense had an answer, though. Cornerback Dontae Johnson ripped the ball out of running back Chase Edmunds’ hands, forcing a fumble, and giving the 49ers another chance to take the lead.

Lance missed an open Aiyuk on third-down and then had his fourth-down attempt batted down at the line of scrimmage by J.J. Watt. Another opportunity missed.

Once again defending a short field, the 49ers defense was unable to keep the Cardinals’ offense from recording one more score. Murray found star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on back-to-back plays, the second of which ended in the endzone.

The 49ers were down 17-7 well into the fourth quarter and the result seemed determined.

The Niners moved the ball quickly against a Cardinals defense focused on not allowing the big play, and kicker Joey Slye knocked in a 47-yard field goal to bring the score to 17-10.

San Francisco’s defense had an opportunity to give Lance one more shot at tying the game, but a pair of Cardinals' first downs enabled them to go into victory formation. Still, after holding up admirably all game, Ryans and the defense deserve no blame for the loss.

Lance’s final numbers were relatively pedestrian, finishing 15-29 for 192 yards and an interception through the air with 89 rushing yards. However, Lance’s game was relatively clean of mental errors. His accuracy is a work in progress, and he needs to do a better job protecting his body on runs, but if the case for playing Jimmy Garoppolo over Lance is tied to turnovers, Lance made fewer head-scratching decisions against Arizona than fans have come to expect from Garoppolo weekly.

The 49ers will look back on this game as another missed opportunity. The defense locked down Murray and the Cardinals' attack all day, but a combination of drops, penalties, and failed fourth-down conversions by the offense left San Francisco on the wrong side of the scoreboard for the third consecutive week.

Now tied with the Seattle Seahawks in the cellar of the NFC West, the purpose of this 49ers season should be clear. This season is about developing Lance and the other young players on the roster. While talented enough to compete for a Super Bowl, the 49ers have missed too many opportunities to justify that conversation.

Shanahan brought this pressure on himself when he traded three first-round picks for Lance. Any argument to start Garoppolo lost merit the second the 49ers lost to the Packers and Seahawks in large part because of inconsistent play by Jimmy G. On Sunday against the Cardinals, even with Lance’s shortcomings, the offense moved the ball with consistency for the first time since their Week 1 victory in Detroit.

The 49ers lost to the Cardinals 17-10, falling below .500 for the first time this season, but rookie Trey Lance showed the potential to be an elite quarterback. Now the only question left is whether Shanahan will give him an opportunity to reach that ceiling.