I don't blame any 49ers fan who doesn't want to rewatch and relive the collapse that was the team's season opener in Chicago. That's what I am here for! After having a chance to review the game tape, I chose four plays that I thought could offer a silver lining of sorts for an otherwise disappointing performance.
Talanoa Hufanga's coming out party
Hufanga had himself a game. The second-year safety has a lot of pressure on his shoulders coming into this season as a first-time starter, but he delivered over and over on an individual level to open the season.
Hufanga had 11 tackles in this game, two of which went for a loss. Hufanga was all over the field and looked like a natural triggering in the run game. The play I want to focus on is the interception he had, the first one of his NFL career.
Throughout his young NFL career, Hufanga has looked very comfortable when he is tasked with playing the "robber" role as the hook defender in a single high look. On this play, DeMeco Ryans dials up "3 Buzz," which is essentially zone robber, and Hufanga is the hook defender on the weak side.
Pre-snap, Hufanga is near the line of scrimmage, which Fields appears to see and take note of, and who can blame him with the way that Hufanga had been wrecking the Bears' offense in the box during this game?
What's important to note in this play is how Hufanga bails pre-snap once Fields takes his eyes off of him.
It appears as if Fields never picks up Hufanga once he does bail, and Hufanga can read Fields' eyes the entire way on this rep.
Fields is looking to hit Darnell Mooney near the boundary hash. Fields gets ready to let this rip once Mooney clears Fred Warner, who is the hook defender on the strong side, most likely not ever seeing Hufanga as the hook defender on the weak side in position to "rob" anything breaking in over the middle.
Hufanga reads this the entire way and then jumps the route to pick Fields off for his first interception since he was patrolling the back end at USC. Here is the full play in video format.
Interception by Talanoa Hufanga on “3 Buzz” which is essentially zone robber— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) September 12, 2022
Looks like Fields never saw Hufanga after he bailed pre snap and Hufanga reads Fields eyes the entire way
Jumps the route after Darnell Mooney clears the hook defender (Warner) and picks this ball off pic.twitter.com/lQOprW9ucL
2. Deep ball
Trey Lance had a handful of really nice throws in this game, and the narrative shifted off of that due to extreme weather at the most inopportune time. Yes, the primary goal for the 49ers this season is going to be winning football games, but beyond that, there is a 1B, which is seeing incremental progress from their young franchise quarterback.
This throw that I want to highlight occurred on 3rd & 6 from the 49ers' 40-yard line. The 49ers will line up in a 3x1 with Ray-Ray McCloud and Jauan Jennings at the bottom of the screen on the trips side.
The concept is "Aggie Now," which will have McCloud running "Now," a quick slant designed to win quickly at the line of scrimmage and take an angle underneath the second level of defenders.
Jennings is going to run a widen go, which is a vertical route with a stem taking him outside the numbers to the field side.
Jennings gets separation against rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon, and Lance fires this ball downfield to hit Jennings for a big gain through the air to move the chains. Here is the full play.
Trey Lance hits Jauan Jennings for a 44 yard gain on 3rd & 6— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) September 13, 2022
49ers are in a 3x1 running “Aggie Now” to the trips side and Lance throws a dot to Jennings on the vertical pic.twitter.com/tVVDUMkALN
This kind of explosive passing play downfield is something that has largely been missing from the 49ers' offense during Shanahan's tenure, and the ability to hit this throw in a high leverage spot on third down is extremely encouraging for the long-term outlook of a quarterback with only three starts under their belt.
3. Javon Kinlaw flashes his potential
Kinlaw is entering his third year in the NFL, but due to the time he has missed in his young NFL career, it's reasonable to expect that it will take some time for him to develop into the high ceiling he has as an exceptionally gifted athlete on the defensive line.
With the growing pains will also come the flashes of brilliance and the potential that led the 49ers to select Kinlaw in the first round back in 2020. Kinlaw wasted no time making his presence felt in week one, recording a pressure on the game's very first play.
Kinlaw has been improving his pad level and hand placement with more reps, which has allowed him to maximize his eye popping athletic traits that he posseses. On the first rep of the game, he can get his right hand on the outside shoulder of the left guard before coming over the top with a swim move before bearing down on Justin Fields and forcing an errant throw that was nearly picked off.
Javon Kinlaw recorded a pressure on the very first snap of the game yesterday— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) September 12, 2022
Great hand placement on the outside shoulder of the LG before coming over the top with a swim move to disrupt this passing attempt by Justin Fields pic.twitter.com/DKdmmv56fj
What made this even more impressive was Kinlaw winning in a very similar way a couple of plays later on the opposite side of the line. This time Kinlaw gets his hands on the outside shoulder with his left hand before coming over the top of Bears right guard Tevin Jenkins with a swim move to help contribute to a sack on Fields on 3rd down.
Kinlaw wins this rep two plays later with a similar move, but this time it’s his hands are flipped because it’s against the right guard— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) September 13, 2022
Once again has great hand placement on the outside shoulder with the left, comes over the top on a swim move with his right pic.twitter.com/zkWmCeNpuH
4. Wideback where we started from
The 49ers' lone touchdown of the day came on a Deebo Samuel rushing attempt from a look that looked eerily similar to "31 WAG ZE BUBBLE" a call from his days in Washington.
The gist of this play is that it's going to be an RPO (run-pass option) which designates half the field for a pass concept and the other half for a rushing attempt based on the look given by the opposing defense.
The pass concept is a bubble screen to the boundary side with Brandon Aiyuk lined up as the "Z."
Because the Bears' defense lines up 2 over 2 with the nickel corner having outside shade over Dwelley, it makes the task of blocking the nickel extremely difficult, even for a generational tackle like Trent Williams'.
This likely eliminates the "pass" being a decision for Lance before the ball is even snapped, which means now his main focus is on reading the back side end on a traditional zone read attempt.
Lance makes the correct call to give to Samuel because the back side edge he is reading steps down.
Samuel is then able to get the edge before steamrolling Bears safety Eddie Jackson as he breaks the plane for a touchdown. Here is the full play in video format.
RPO with a bubble screen to the boundary— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) September 13, 2022
Lance probably eliminated the bubble pre snap because of the look the Bears showed with 2 over 2 & the overhang outside of Dwelley
It then becomes just zone read
Lance reads the backside DE & gives to Samuel due to the DE stepping down pic.twitter.com/w7cUfec7bj
You can check out Kyle Posey's breakdown of Hufanga, Bosa, and Kinlaw below. Those three were the biggest standouts defensively.
Also, props to anyone who picked up on the reference to the Maxine Nightengale classic in the subheading.