Against the Las Vegas Raiders in the final preseason game last week, the 49ers subbed in rookie backup quarterback Trey Lance to unveil what is possibly going to be their strategy in the regular season, at least early on, with a “dual quarterback” offense. On the first two drives of the game, Lance came in for Garoppolo to showcase at least part of his skill set as a dual-threat quarterback by running a variety of read-option concepts. Although they only faced most of the Raiders’ backups, the results were devastating.
Two drives, two rushing touchdowns by the quarterbacks. Jimmy showcased his toughness when he booted out on a designed rollout, didn’t see anyone open, and decided he was going to punch it in himself from 5 yards out while taking a crushing hit. On the next drive, Lance sent a receiver on a jet motion across the formation, the lead blocker executed a wind back block, and Lance pulled on a zone-read keeper and walked untouched into the end zone.
It may not be how they run the offense while Jimmy is the starter and indeed Shanahan even stated as much after the game, but that wasn’t even the most interesting part.
As we’ve seen over the last several seasons, the 49ers under Shanahan have continued to diversify their rushing attack, and the last preseason game against the Raiders was no exception when Shanahan added a new concept to his arsenal but one that’s been used in league with great success by the Ravens: the bash counter.
Zone read concepts
Bash counter is in the counter option family of running plays that utilize pulling blockers and counter run action by the running back to misdirect the defense. Like the zone read, the quarterback's counter option is executed by reading an unblocked defensive end.
The counter option above is a staple running play for the Oklahoma Sooners. The play is tagged with an arc block from the fullback to the quarterback's read side in case the quarterback keeps. The left tackle and left guard combination pull to the play side for the running back. Since the defensive end over the tackle widens with the fullback, Kyler Murray hands the ball off to the running back over the right side behind the pulling lineman.
The above play diagram is the bash counter concept in Jim Harbaugh’s playbook that Greg Roman uses in Baltimore with Lamar Jackson. Bash counter flips the quarterback and running back responsibilities. The quarterback becomes the inside runner on bash counter, and the running back becomes the outside runner. Its misdirection is inherently built-in. The pullers go one way, and the running back and lead blockers go another way.
The Ravens have made a killing off this concept with Jackson under center (former Shanahan quarterback and Ravens back-up Robert Griffin III also had a 39 yard gain on the concept in one start last season for Jackson too).
Against the Raiders in the final preseason game, the 49ers called the play twice on the same drive. And on both, Lance gave it to running back Raheem Mostert instead of keeping it. In the first play, the give was warranted due to the read defender squeezing the C-gap and the safety blitz from the opposite side. He should’ve kept it on the second one because the read defender widened with the running back, but Mostert was so fast to the edge that it didn’t matter. So instead, he just used his speed to turn no gain into 10 yards.
In the first play, the 49ers come out in a “trips right” — where three receivers line up to the right side — formation and motion tight end George Kittle to the left to create a 2x2. The read defender is No. 51 on the defense’s left (offensive right).
The read defender comes upfield and squeezes the C-gap to pressure Lance to give the ball to Mostert. The safety blitz also dictated a give as the safety would have a clear shot on the quarterback. The right guard and right tackle combination of Dan Brunskill are a blocking convoy for Lance if he keeps.
Mostert takes the handoff at the mesh, gets to the edge, and hits the crease between the receivers blocking downfield.
On the second play (in the second clip in the video above), Lance could’ve kept it, but there’s reason to suspect that Shanahan and the offensive staff didn’t want him taking any unnecessary hits (even from the Raiders second-team defense) even if he had a wide-open lane.
A few other concepts the 49ers tagged in this game that we’re sure to see as the regular season kicks off this weekend are zone-read arc, some play-action off the zone read mesh and pistol formation.
Pistol arc zone read
To counter zone read, defenses will gap exchange a linebacker and the defensive end. This allows the defensive end to crash down no matter what on the running back, forcing the quarterback to keep. If the quarterback keeps, the defense’s next line of defense is the scrape by a linebacker over the top to meet the quarterback.
The offenses counter to this is an arc block by a tight end or fullback. Defensive ends are taught to get into the backfield and look for the fullback or the sift blocker. The arc block looks initially like a sift block and is designed to confuse the defensive end and induce him to crash down the line. The arc blocker bypasses the defensive end and gets up to the next level to block the scraping linebacker.
In the first clip, the Raiders played it really well and didn’t gap exchange. Instead, the defensive end widened with the arc block by the fullback, and the linebacker who would normally scrape exchange squeezed the C-gap and stopped the running back for a minimal gain.
In the second clip, Lance should’ve kept the ball and ran behind Kittle’s arc block but pay close attention to Kittle’s arc. Instead, he sold the block so well on the defensive end that he froze him, allowing the running back to gain a few more yards.
In another variant of the arc read, the offense ran zone read out of a closed Y-Y formation (double tight end to one side).
The tight ends let the defensive end go as the read defender while they climb to block the safety and corner out of the edge. Interestingly, the 49ers have a passing concept out of this same formation, a two verticals concept off of play-action.
There’s a strong possibility that we might see zone-read fake off that formation with Lance throwing a deep vertical.
Pistol play action
Last week I wrote about how play action could look with the various zone-read mesh fakes out of the pistol formation.
In this first play, the 49ers are running a staple shot play in the Shanahan playbook called “blazer.” Blazer is a deep crosser with a blazer route (sort of a widened skinny post). The progression is the blazer route to the underneath deep crosser.
Lance, operating out of the pistol, executes the play fake with the zone-read mesh. This affects drawing in the linebackers and getting them to hesitate just enough that they can’t get back to cover the crosser adequately. Since the safety doesn’t bite on the run and zones off deep to bracket the blazer route, Lance comes off the read to Jalen Hurd running the deep crosser.
Lance fits the ball in over the defender, but the pass hits Hurd in the facemask. Hurd didn’t help himself as he actually ran the route too shallow and should’ve angled to the numbers sooner instead of drifting downfield late in the route. Instead, Hurd allowed the defender to undercut the route, making the throw more difficult. He compounded the issue by dropping a perfectly placed pass.
Later in the game, Shanahan called a simple and effective designed rollout that floods the right side of the defense (offense’s left) with a slide route to the flat, a late down flat, an intermediate crosser, and a corner route.
Lance rolls left after the quick fake and passes up the flat route for the intermediate crosser, and hits Hurd perfectly in stride with a defender in a trail technique position.
Lance as a red zone threat
It looks as though the 49ers will also use Lance in high leverage red zone situations that try to put maximum stress on the defense.
On Lance’s red zone touchdown run, the 49ers ran wind back zone read. Wind back zone looks like a counter with zone blocking upfront. The running back takes a counter step then cuts back against the grain after taking the ball. On the play above, just straight wind back zone, the quarterback sends the fullback in motion while the tight end sift blocks at the snap the same way. Again, the running back takes a counter step before taking the snap and takes it in for the touchdown.
On Lance’s red zone touchdown run, the 49ers called wind back zone read. In a split gun formation with fullback Josh Hokit and Trey Sermon, Lance is reading the Raiders' weak side defensive end.
He sends receiver Jalen Hurd on a jet motion. The defense is cluing on his motion at the snap, Hokit’s movement to the weak side, and the mesh between Lance and Sermon. But the defense can’t react fast enough, and Lance walks in for the touchdown.
The final preseason game gave us a glimpse into how Lance will allow Shanahan to expand the playbook even if he’s not the starter right away. Utilizing his legs early and often will allow him to transition into running the offense full time. Until then, it’s safe to say we’re going to see Lance in limited usage in certain packages and high leverage situations.