Trey Lance made his second start of the season against the Houston Texans and helped his team win by a score of 23-7. His performance was largely erratic outside of a couple of throws in the first half, culminating in a late second-quarter interception. After Lance settled down, he showed why the franchise used three first-round picks to acquire him.
The 49ers front office and their fans around the world should be very encouraged by what they witnessed on Sunday as Lance made several throws that show what a special talent he could end up being.
His performance highlights how valuable these in-game reps are, as he looked noticeably more comfortable executing the offense given to him. This was to be expected as he has not taken a lot of practice reps and has not had enough in-game reps in the NFL to avoid a slow start comfortably.
Lance himself acknowledged his comfort level and slow start after the game:
After that two-minute drive, I think is when I started talking to Rich (Scangarello) and Kyle (Shanahan) and kind of letting them know that I felt settled honestly. But yeah, hopefully you can get started faster whenever that next time is.
What did Lance do well? What does he still need to improve on?
Where he needs to improve
Lance’s biggest area of concern right now is not trusting what he sees in the quick game concepts he’s asked to execute, and usually, it takes several of the same play-call to get comfortable with reading out the coverage and firing the ball on a quick one-step drop, in shotgun or a three-step drop from under center.
First play, first quarter, 2nd-and-9 at SF 5, 1:35
This is a staple concept in the Shanahan quick game offense, Lion. Lion is an all quick slant concept that’s read from inside to out, but the decision has to be made as quick as possible before throwing, so much so that the quarterback should eliminate the first read if he sees something pre-snap that is not advantageous to throwing. From inside out, the quarterback should read the most favorable side as this is not a full field read.
The pre-snap motion tells him the Texans are in cover-1 man coverage. From here, the most favorable side is actually to his left on the quick slant by Brandon Aiyuk. Instead, he looks to his right to throw the inside slant to Kittle.
This is considered less favorable due to the safety shaded over toward Kittle. However, a throw there would not have been a bad idea. On this play, as there are with many plays, there are answers that are better than others.
As he hits the top of his drop, he has the window to throw if he throws it right now to Kittle on the inside slant. He sees safety Justin Reid jump the slant and decides not to throw it, but if he throws this on time in rhythm, then he easily completes the pass to Kittle.
He’ll see the routes develop on his drop back with more experience. One other option he had was to work off Kittle and hit Deebo on the slant outside of Kittle but this takes somewhat more processing that comes with experience.
However, he shows why they drafted him. If he is unable to make a play within the structure, make one out of the structure. He moves around the pocket to his left and fires to Aiyuk for 11 yards and a first down on a scramble drill. The result is positive, but the process needs to be refined. It will come with time and more in-game reps.
Later in the second quarter, Shanahan came right back to the double slants, and Lance fired a bullet at Aiyuk for a nice gain after he read the coverage of the slot defender and saw that he had the outside slant window.
Second play, second quarter, 1st-and-10 at SF-47, :28
Another area where Lance struggles is getting to his check down when the play isn’t developed, and the pass rush is imminent.
The concept is a dagger shallow concept, which is going to take some time to develop as the dagger and seam routes need to clear the zone defenders. There’s also a check down option and a shallow crosser available.
The Texans are playing Tampa-2 defense on this play and doing a pretty good job of obstructing the dagger and seam routes with zone droppers to those areas. The middle hook zone dropper removes the seam route and the flat defender gains too much depth to throw the dagger route, leaving check flat open to the left with Kittle.
The pressure gets there and he avoids it as he feels it, and he should’ve thrown to Kittle on the check down. However, he kept his eyes downfield and tried to hit Deebo Samuel on the scramble drill but threw it behind him.
Third play, second quarter, 1st-and-10, 9:45
Lance did throw one interception in this game on a pass intended for Kittle down the sideline, the infamous “leak” concept. Leak is a play-action shot play that gives the quarterback the option of throwing the leak route to the opposite side of the field as the defense flows up toward the line of scrimmage with the run fake.
The rest of the receivers are running traditional play action crossers/deep post, and if the throw is there, then the quarterback should take. It wasn’t the decision that was bad to throw it versus cover-2, it was the throw itself and specific part of his drop back.
On the drop back, Lance gets his head around quickly but doesn’t sell the boot action to his right, a critical component for moving the defense away from the leak route. He moves very quickly to his left, causing the defense to stay put and the corner to sink under Kittle’s route.
However, the throw was there if he layers it over the corner and in front of the safety. He has the ability to do this but said himself in the post game that he short armed it. There was definitely room to work with with a little more air under it.
Why they drafted him
Despite the correctable errors above, and those are all definitely correctable with time and experience, Lance showed why he’s the franchise’s future. He may or may not start in week 18 out of necessity, but the performance over the course of the game left enough to be excited about heading into the future.
Although Lance did not perform as well as he would have liked to in the first half, he still flashed the explosive play potential and it’s not clear why Shanahan did not dial up a couple more of these plays early on to get his rookie comfortable.
The play call is a play-action naked boot pass to his left. They fake split zone with Kittle running the slide route that looks like a sift block as Lance boots out to the left. Normally, the coach would want his quarterback throwing to Kittle as he’s open and is the first read in the progression. Behind Kittle is a deeper crossing route by Trent Sherfield and a corner route by Aiyuk, creating a three-level flood into the boundary.
As Lance rolls out left, he bypasses the slide route in the flat, pump fakes to slow the defender down, flips his hips, resets his feet, and launches a pass to Sherfield on the sideline for a first down.
It would have been perfectly fine to dump the ball off to his first read but that is not why they drafted him. The play action passing game has built in explosive passes and that’s what Shanahan wants on these play-action throws: to create an explosive.
That’s what Lance gives them. Sometimes the right answer (Kittle in the flat open) is not the best answer (the explosive pass play). If he wanted to, he could’ve easily tossed the pass to Aiyuk even deeper on the corner route.
Second play, third quarter, 3rd-and-6 at SF 24, 13:34
As Lance settled down in the second half, he started to show his ability to work through his progressions and move defenders with his eyes.
On this play, Aiyuk is running a choice route from the left. To Lance’s right, Kittle is running the alert route (to be thrown if the matchup or coverage is favorable), with an underneath option on a stick china route. The Texans are in cover-3.
As Lance drops back, he moves the safety and the underneath linebacker away from Aiyuk. His quick look-off suggests he might have been peeking at the alert route to see if there’s a favorable throw there.
Aiyuk is his first read in the progression though and he whips around and fires a bullet to Aiyuk who cut inside on the choice route versus a defender with outside leverage. He moved the underneath linebacker just enough to open a throwing window to Aiyuk, who gained 43 yards after the catch.
The arm strength and accuracy on this throw were critical, as well as the timing, in ensuring he hit the window and kept his receiver from breaking stride.
Third play, fourth quarter, 1st-and-10 at HOU 45, 10:06
Something Kyle Shanahan loves to do with Lance is come back to concepts where Lance was just a split second away from making a great play but instead was late or never trusted what he saw.
Shanahan came back to his corner post concept, “Hiccup”, after Lance was late throwing the corner post the first time in the third quarter. The second time he called it, Lance read it out perfectly and threw the ball to Deebo in stride as Deebo flattened his route in front of the safety.
The Texans are in cover-3 and this time Lance sells the boot action across and gets the defense to move that. He sold it so well that the deep third corner to the offense’s left took himself out of the play and left an uncovered zone for Deebo to run to.
Deebo flattened out the route with the safety over the top of him and Lance threw the pass on a line to him from outside the opposite hash probably 50 yards away diagonally.
Lance improved as the game went on and trusted what he saw from the defense more and more. His mechanics have somewhat cleaned up, he’s not really over-striding as he sets up to pass, his throwing motion is more compact, and he’s not dropping the ball before he throws.
It’s unclear, or at least not official, who will start versus the Rams in week 18, but it seems like Shanahan is making every effort to get Garoppolo ready to play as he may give them the best chance to win and secure a playoff spot.
However, I would expect Lance will be ready as it appears he’s taking the first team reps in practice while the training staff gets Garoppolo ready in the event he re-aggravates his thumb injury. It’s clear though, that Lance has the potential to push this offense further with his talent and ability.