Back with another edition of this weekly installment, this time taking a closer look at a handful of plays from the 49ers’ 17-0 loss to the Houston Texans in their preseason finale. This was a rough game, no matter how you slice it.
The execution was sloppy, and the offense didn’t put any points on the board, but there were still some key things to take away from what was overall a snoozer to close out the exhibition portion of the schedule.
I’m going to start with a couple that I think have the strongest bearing on having an impact on the regular season, which means we are going to start with a couple of plays focusing on the quarterback position and first-time NFL starter Trey Lance.
1. Context matters
The first one is a play that has generated a ton of discussion over the last couple of days, and I am going to do my best to provide some insight into why this play unfolded the way it did.
The play I am referencing was a 3rd & 2 from the 49ers’ own 44-yard line with 13:19 remaining in the first quarter. Kyle Shanahan calls ‘Tony Spoon,’ which designates the stick route at five yards as the primary read, with a thru route as the secondary read in the progression. George Kittle runs the stick, with Brandon Aiyuk running the ‘thru’ route.
The important thing to note here, however, is that Deebo Samuel is running a go route, a built-in alert on this play. Meaning if Lance favors the look he gets on the go, the designated progressions on the stick and thru routes take a backseat.
The Texans lined up in a single high look, leaving Samuel one-on-one in press coverage on the outside with no safety help over the top. Lance, aware of this, decided to take a chance downfield with one of the best wide receivers in the league working on an island against a single defensive back.
Now given this context, the decision to throw this ball to Samuel was fine. The biggest criticism I saw was that Lance should have hit Aiyuk, who was open on the thru route, but again remember that Lance clearly made a decision to throw to the alert based on the coverage he saw, which is more than acceptable considering the rules for this specific play call.
We also don’t know how this is being coached to Lance. Shanahan and the offensive staff might emphasize attacking the go route on this call if a favorable matchup presents itself. But, ultimately, Lance was still well within his bounds to decide to throw this ball.
If you want to critique the placement on the throw itself, then that’s an entirely different discussion. But the criticism on the decision to throw this ball is well out of bounds and holds little to no factual basis.
Here is the full play:
Texans show a single high safety with a press look that leaves Deebo Samuel 1 on 1 with a corner on the outside with no help over the top— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) August 28, 2022
You should want your QB to take this shot every single time pic.twitter.com/NdABwbi0fZ
2. Drift away
This second play happened on a 2nd & 4 from the 49ers’ own 18-yard line with 2:07 remaining in the first quarter. Shanahan dials up ‘Drift,’ which is designed to attack the intermediate level of the defense in the middle of the field off-play action. It is a staple of Shanahan’s offense, and a concept you will see ran quite frequently by San FranFrancisco’sense.
Malik Turner is going to be the primary read on this play, running the ‘Drift’ route, which calls for the receiver to push vertically for seven steps before breaking at an angle to the hole of the defense. The route dictates that this ball be thrown just outside of the hash, which generally gives the receiver a promising opportunity to generate some yards after the catch.
Lance put this ball just outside the hash. The problem is that he threw it at TurnTurner’st which forced Turner to go to the ground to catch this ball, all but eliminating an extremely favorable opportunity to pick up a big chunk of yards after the catch.
Here is the full play:
I highlighted a couple of things in this play that are important. First, I noticed many people who seemed to justify this miss because of the linebacker between the hashes (#57).
I’d like to make it very clear that the spot on the field was not what was wrong with this throw. The problem isn’t Lance needed to lead the receiver farther upfield. The issue is that he threw the ball so low that Turner had to go to the ground to get it, which prevented any extra yardage after the catch, which was readily available had this ball been thrown above to Turner.
To eliminate any doubt about this, I paused the cut-up and took a screenshot to show that the ball is not only yards away from the linebacker but already behind him before he ever has a chance to turn around and even entertain the thought of making a play on it.
Now that you’ve seen from the end zone angle that #57 had no way to make a play on this ball, I’m going to go back to the sideline angle to show you why a miss like this can be so costly, even if the pass is completed for a modest gain like it was.
Take a look at how much open-field Turner has to work with if he doesn’t fall to go to the ground and this ball hits him in stride.
It’sIt’sn more amplified when you see that the receiver and the corner at the top of the screen are both going to clear out upfield, creating an even bigger window for Turner to work with had this ball been placed better by Lance. This is a screenshot of the field in front of Turner just before the ball arrived.
Now I want to be clear about something. I am well aware that this is just a preseason game. I promise that I don’t need anyone else to explain to me that this throw, the statistics from this game, and the final score from this game in no way impact the 49ers' record when the regular season starts.
Lance is a young quarterback who is going to miss some throws here and there. Even the best of quarterbacks miss a throw like this from time to time. A throw like this stands out in an exhibition game because it is a layup throw within the offense Lance will be running this season.
The importance of hitting throws like this is much more magnified due to the growing pains that will likely occur as Lance finds his groove at the NFL level. Wasting opportunities to pick up massive chunks of yardage after the catch could prove very costly, given how inconsistent the rhythm of this offense will likely be while acclimating to a first-time starter under center.
3. I have the need, the need for zone read
This next play came on a 2nd & 10 from the 49ers' own 36-yard line with 13:36 remaining in the first quarter. This was fun, as Shanahan dusted off one of his old zone-read plays from his days in Washington when he had a mobile quarterback you might be familiar with.
The call is ’30 WAG’, and it’s designed to have Lance in the gun with trips to his left side. Jeff Wilson Jr. is in the backfield, flanking Lance on his right side. This play is designed to attack the backside defensive end and puts the responsibility on Lance to read the end on the backside and decide whether to give to Wilson Jr. or keep it and run.
Here is what Lance is looking at as he makes the decision to give or keep.
The end crashes upfield, and Lance makes the correct read by giving to Wilson Jr., who picks up eight yards on this carry. Here is the play:
Also, to help clarify for anyone who was wondering why Charlie Woerner (#89) ended up where he did, Woerner has MDM (most dangerous man) responsibilities on this play, meaning he is responsible for being the lead blocker for Lance should he have decided to keep rather than handing off to Wilson Jr.
Nothing crazy about this play, but it gives a tangible example of how Shanahan plans on using the threat of Lance’s rushing ability to put defenses into conflict. We also got a glimpse of Wilson Jr.’s patience, vision, and explosion through the hole while running north to south.
4. It’s a trap!
This next one came on a 1st & 10 from the 49ers' own 22-yard line with 6:30 remaining in the first quarter. Shanahan is going to dial up a trap run for Wilson Jr. out of the gun in 11 personnel. This play only went for six yards, but I thought it did a great job illustrating why the 49ers have the requisite pieces to run between the tackles this season effectively.
Let’s start with rookie offensive lineman Spencer Burford, who is probably the most important player on the field for the offense on this trap call. The play's success depends on Burford’s execution as the pulling blocker. Trap calls unfold rapidly, and you need a pulling guard who can get off the line and get to their spot quickly.
Burford is that guy, and he shows off his lateral agility on this play by exploding off the snap and getting to the intentionally unblocked defender. I thought it also demonstrated how good Jeff Wilson is at running in tight windows, highlighting the vision and conviction Wilson runs with while working north to south between the tackles.
Nothing too complex to get into here, just a nice gain for six yards which is an objective win on first down. It probably would have gone for more if Jake Brendel had a better rep at center, but that’s a discussion for another day. Here is the play:
5. Trey Area
This final play came on a 1st & 16 from the 49ers' own six-yard line with 2:37 remaining in the first quarter. Shanahan dials up a draw play that has Lance fake a throw to the right side before handing off to Trey Sermon, who is flanked to his left in the gun.
This run looked like it was designed to go into the A gap on the strong side, but a great effort from the 1-technique on HousHouston’sensive line threw a wrench into this play for the 49ers offense. Aaron Banks sells the pass set before appearing to attempt to push upfield and block the weak side linebacker.
As Banks looks to move upfield to make this block, he is eaten up by the 1-technique. (quick side note, that 1-tech is rookie Kurt Hinish, who had a handful of plays in this game where he wrecked shop. I think Hinish was the best player on the field in this game.)
Watch how Hinish can eat blocks from both Banks and Brendel and, as a result, keep the weak side backer free to fit the running lane that Sermon is supposed to run through.
It looks like Sermon could read the weak side backer shading into the run gap he was directed to run into and decided to bounce this run back to the outside for a nice gain.
Sermon also showed an ability to make a defender miss in space, and if not for Desmond King being left unblocked from the back side, Sermon probably ends up picking up even more than the twelve yards he ended up with on this carry. Here is the full play:
This was an extremely encouraging rep from Sermon. He demonstrated vision, awareness, and balance through contact in one play. Sermon mentioned that having a year in the system under his belt allows him to play faster, and making snap decisions like this is a great example.
If Sermon runs into the A gap where this play is designed to go, he likely only picks up a yard or two at most. Instead, he trusted his instincts and what he saw from the defense and ran to the outside with conviction for a nice gain—a very encouraging rep from the 2021 third-round pick.