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Film room: What the 49ers offense might look like with Trey Lance under center

Whether Lance is the starter or back in a dual quarterback system, film room takes a look at the plays fans might see in 2021.

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Training is officially over, and it’s on to week one, but it’s all but official that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will start the season as QB1. This doesn’t mean quarterback Trey Lance will not see the field, as Kyle Shanahan told reporters earlier in the second week of training camp that Lance will see game time in limited packages and situations.

“Trey’s going to play for us this year. I know you guys are all running to Twitter on that. Situationally, he’s going to get plays. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to be the starter or anything, but he’s going to get plays, and you’ve got to prepare him for that every way possible.”

Both quarterback’s Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance, had decent training camps and made their fair share of mistakes in the preseason games. With the projected week one starter likely to be Garoppolo, what might the offense look like when Lance gets an opportunity to get snaps?

Read Option Offense

The zone read should not be unfamiliar to 49ers fans. It’s the play that made quarterback Colin Kaepernick such a dangerous dual-threat in 2012. Back then, the zone read took the league by storm as the evolution of the quarterback position has grown to accommodate more athletic quarterbacks drafted into the league at that time.

That year, three mobile, athletic quarterbacks with big arms, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson, made the playoffs as rookies. Though Luck was not used to the extent that Wilson and Griffin were in their respective team’s running games, his big-play athletic ability cannot be underestimated.

That same year, 2nd-year quarterback Cam Newton pushed his rushing touchdown total up to 22. The 49ers own Colin Kaepernick eventually took over the offense after getting reps as a zone-read quarterback throughout the 2012 season. Kaepernick’s dynamic playmaking ability eventually carried the 49ers offense throughout the playoffs as the defense would surrender 30+ points per game from week 15 through the Super Bowl.

In Washington, though, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan gave teams fits of his own while he implemented the zone read out of pistol formations. RG3 would win Offensive Rookie of the Year. He posted 3200 passing yards, 20 touchdown passes to five interceptions, and amassed 815 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns, giving him over 4000 total yards of offense and 28 total touchdowns. That team arguably had lesser offensive talent than the 49ers currently do, so it’s easy to see just how well Lance might be able to elevate the offense around him.

Zone read

The traditional zone read is part of the family of read-option plays. The play effectively makes the quarterback a blocker without touching a defender, which Shanahan calls “11 on 11.” The quarterback will read an unblocked defender, usually a defensive end, who is instantly put into conflict — Do I attack the running back or the quarterback? — and made wrong on every play. If the quarterback crashes and follows the running back, the quarterback will keep. If he stays home and keys off the quarterback, the quarterback will hand the ball off to the running back.

The zone read above is similar to the one further up with Colin Kaepernick. It’s just run out of an offset shotgun formation rather than out of the pistol, which the Shanahan-RG3 era Football Team did run. RG3 reads the end, sees him crash the running back, pulls the ball, and keeps for a gain of 12 yards. “When you do the zone-read, everyone [on the opposing defense] is accounted for. There are not many free hitters in it,” Shanahan stated in 2013.

Inside zone triple option

Triple option (run by Navy above) is not a regular feature in any NFL offense in the modern era because defenders are too big and too fast, and defensive coordinators are too good and know how to allocate defenders to stopping the run. No team wants to get their franchise quarterback knocked out of a season by a vicious hit. Even at the collegiate level, the teams that run triple-option offenses like Army and Navy are prone to playing three or four quarterbacks in a single season.

However, used sparingly at the NFL level, it can be used to great effect as NFL defenses don’t typically game plan for a play they don’t ever see. And if they see it repeatedly, they can still at first be prone to giving up big yards. In week two in 2012 versus Cincinnati, Shanahan called a slightly more complicated version of the read-option called the inside zone triple option. And called successively on a drive early in the second half where WFT hit on all elements of the keep, handoff, and pitch.

In the triple option, there are now two read defenders, the hand-off read, and the pitch read. The handoff read can either be the defensive end or the outside linebacker walking up to the line of scrimmage. The pitch read can either be an overhang defender coming up to force the run back inside or a safety or corner on the edge. The reads hit quickly at the collegiate level and even faster at the NFL level. In each cut-up above from the same drive, you can see RG3 handoff, keep, and pitch, all for decent games.

Rumors floating around training camp that the 49ers might or might not be adding some wrinkles to their triple-option that might look similar to the play below.

The play above is an inside zone triple-option tagged with an arc block. The arc block adds an extra blocker to the second level in case the run breaks off a big gain. It’s common to see arc blocking to add extra blockers on the edges of a run play, especially as teams cheat to take away the perimeter runs.

In 2020, Shanahan’s run game adjustments included arc blocking/escort motion defenders against teams taking away the edges. It’s a very effective adjustment and could find its way into a zone read package for Lance.

Another way he could be showcased is by running the inverted veer or quarterback power read. At North Dakota State with Lance under center, their preferred option running game concept was the inverted quarterback veer. The play call is designed to put the defensive end in conflict with a sweeping running back to the edge.

If the defensive end chases the back, the quarterback keeps. If the defensive end crashes the quarterback/stays home on the line of scrimmage, the quarterback will carry out the “give” read.

In these Lance running game cut-ups, you can see his ability as a QB who can run between the tackles and truck defenders downfield. I do not think we’ll see this play very much with Shanahan because I do not believe he wants to risk running his QB up the middle vice on the edges, but it is one possible play.

The threat of the quarterback run is also stressful on opposing defenses, too, and looks that simulate a zone-read mesh automatically forces a defense to commit at least one defender to spying the quarterback.

On zone read, if the defenders slow play the run and look to take away the quarterback keeper, they naturally remove themselves from the interior and cannot recover from pursuing the running back running downhill on the inside zone.

Blending the two offenses

One way Shanahan could incorporate more of his concepts is by infusing zone or power read with zone runs to the edge with arc/escort blockers. The plays above look like sweep option run to the perimeter with Lance reading the MIKE linebacker for his cue to give or keep. They are also similar to Shanahan's run game adjustments last season to the outside zone running game.

The 49ers already run a variety of concepts that get the skill players to the edge. They do that with a pass play that looks and is blocked like their strong side outside zone runs.

The “Deadpool package” is scored as a pass because the quarterback pushes the ball forward, but it’s blocked like strong side outside zone. Instead of a running back taking a handoff, the 49ers will send Deebo in motion across the formation and the ball outside and wide. This puts the traditional fullback lead blocking responsibility on Mostert.

North Dakota State has a designed quarterback power with a sweep read-option that looks similar to some of those run game adjustments that Shanahan and the 49ers installed for the offense last season, minus the quarterback running element.

NDSU still pulls a blocker as they would on power read if Lance keeps, but in each play, a defender commits to the quarterback, so Lance gives. The arc blockers create a running lane for the running back for decent gains. It’s easy to see how Shanahan could incorporate something like this where it looks like Deebo might take a handoff across the formation if the defense commits to stopping the quarterback run. Or Lance might keep if the box defenders cheat to take away the edge run. Either way, adding in the running element just further constrains the defense.

Passing game

Now that we’ve seen how defenses will need to account for the added running element, what might the offense look like with the play-action pass? I dug back into the all-22 archive (long before the NFL yanked our access to it on Gamepass for paying customers) and watched some of the 2012 Washington Football Team passing game where zone-read mesh was involved. The results can be devastating.

This should be prefaced with a brief discussion of why the play-action passing game is so successful for Shanahan tree offenses: because all elements of the play action pass are designed to look like it’s a run. From the way, the linemen come off the ball to how the quarterback’s first five steps on the play fake look exactly like a handoff, the defense has to think about how to defend these looks.

As they adjust, the offense can add in the stress of the run or pass and take a deep shot off the zone read look. The defense’s eyes are now on the quarterback and running back. Notice that the safeties slow down to read the play in front of them, allowing the shot play behind them.

Outlook

The last time Shanahan’s running game had a dual-threat quarterback, rookie Alfred Morris ran for 1600-plus yards and 13 touchdowns. In comparison, Robert Griffin III added another 815 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns.

It’s tough to say just how much Shanahan wants to use Lance’s legs in the running game and risk his quarterback’s health. But his running ability extends to the passing game, too, and part of being a viable quarterback in the NFL today is having the ability to create offense when there is nothing available, and his scramble ability to get yards when nothing is open in the passing game cannot be overlooked. Sometimes you need a guy who can create with his legs and keep the offense on schedule.