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Anatomy of a play: Trey Lance’s first unofficial touchdown pass

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday night, the 49ers opened up the preseason against the Kansas City Chiefs, and we caught our first glimpse of rookie quarterback Trey Lance in his official game uniform.

An overall good performance for the rookie, whose first drive ended in a three-and-out only to come back to rifle off an 80-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield streaking deep across the field. The goal for Lance was clear. The 49ers wanted to showcase his arm talent right away.

They started by calling a play-action concept called “Read,” where Lance looked to target Sherfield on a deep curl route. Unfortunately, due to the broadcast angle, we are unable to see what happened because he didn’t pull the trigger, likely because it was covered. Instead, he was flushed out of the pocket and threw a strike to Brandon Aiyuk, who dropped a perfectly placed pass.

Corner post concept

On the first play of the next series, they called a play-action shot play “Hiccup,” a staple play-action deep shot where Lance waited for the corner post route to develop instead of taking the safe completion on the crossing route. The result was a perfectly placed pass over the trailing safety into the arms of Trent Sherfield, who made a house call.

The play call is a play that builds on successive run games and play-action designs in the Shanahan offensive system. For example, if the defense anticipates the play action and cheats to take the crossers away, the 49ers can call the corner post concept and run the corner post behind the defense.

It will primarily be run if the offense sees single high coverage from the secondary and outside leverage by the defender covering the corner post receiver. It’s a bit more difficult to run against 2-high coverage unless the safeties bite on the play-action crossers. Another indicator for the quarterback is seeing the corner covering the crosser follow it across the field.

The initial and second stem of the corner post route makes the play look like a flood or sail concept to one side of the field. After the defense commits to the flood and sinks underneath the corner, the receiver breaks his route back across the field toward the far post. The result is he usually gets wide open for a big play.

The play itself is a favorite of the Gary Kubiak/Kyle Shanahan coaching tree and has been run with some regularity by the 49ers, Rams, Packers, Vikings, and Browns.

The play may look familiar to 49ers fans as it was run twice in 2019 for touchdowns in the span of 3 weeks. The first came in week 12 versus Green Bay when Kittle found himself wide open for a touchdown after turning Kevin King around. The play was run out of 22 personnel, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo found Kittle streaking downfield. Later in week 14, Garoppolo found Emmanuel Sanders open downfield on the play as it was run out of 21 personnel.

In 2020 it was called a fair amount of times, particularly by the Browns, as Kevin Stefanski’s offense drew a lot of influence from Gary Kubiak when Kubiak was an offensive assistant for the Vikings in 2019.

Lance touchdown pass

Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel came right back to a play-action shot play on the first play of Lance’s second drive and called Hiccup the corner post concept.

The play was run out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) with the X receiver Brandon Aiyuk (No. 11) in a condensed split close to the offensive line, which would allow him to get across the field quicker than if he were split further out. Trent Sherfield (No. 81) is the Z receiver running the corner post route on the other side.

The Chiefs are showing cover-5 (cover 2 man) with the corners pressed up on the line of scrimmage, indicating to Lance that the corner post will most likely come open.

As Lance drops back, he sees Aiyuk open running the intermediate crosser but notices the corner chasing him, indicating that if Sherfield can beat the safety, then there’s no one to sink under the route across the field. It would’ve been perfectly acceptable to hit the crosser as Aiyuk likely goes for a big gain. The field safety turns to run with the corner route stem and sees the crosser, so he likely thinks the play is going that way. Until it doesn’t.

Sherfield turns the other safety as well before stemming back to the post. Lance passes up the crosser and throws a perfectly placed pass that leads Sherfield up the numbers away from the safety, hits him in stride, and Sherfield takes it all the way for the score.

Outlook

The play is clear evidence of the reasons why Lance was drafted to start eventually. The arm talent, the ability to process and recognize the defense, and the willingness to take the shot play if it’s there. It’s safe to assume that Garoppolo doesn’t take that throw unless he knows it’s wide open and instead takes the open crossing route to move the chains.

However, Lance probably won’t start Week 1, but what he brings to the offense is clear. It was a good introduction for him in a game where he flashed a little bit of everything, including some poorly thrown passes and hesitancy in the pocket. In the next two games, he’ll be given a chance to clean up some of the issues from week one.