When the San Francisco 49ers traded up in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft to select Trey Lance, the organization probably envisioned Lance delivering a critical win late in the season to secure a playoff birth.
But…they might not have envisioned that happening in the 2021 season. However, that might be exactly what the team needs. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is listed as doubtful with a thumb injury, and on Friday the organization activated Nate Sudfeld from the practice squad.
All signs are pointing to Lance getting his second NFL start on Sunday, in a critical matchup. The 49ers currently sit in the sixth spot in the NFC playoff standings, but a loss to the Texans — who beat the Los Angeles Chargers a week ago — could see San Francisco slide out of playoff position.
What can the team expect on Sunday? Let’s dive into that by looking at what Lance did the last time he started a game, and what he can expect from the Texans defense.
What he did well
(Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports)
It did not take long for 49ers fans to be treated to some of the athleticism that endeared Lance to the organization this past spring. In fact, it took just the first offensive play of the game. San Francisco opened their first possession with Lance dropping to throw. But when the Cardinals bring pressure off the right edge, Lance is able to climb, escape and pick up the first down with his legs:
Again, you see the ball handling in the pocket, as Lance keeps the left hand glued to the football as he moves in response to pressure. He also keeps his eyes trained downfield, allowing him to locate Deebo Samuel coming across the formation on the over route. Lance makes a good throw on the move here to pick up the first down.
Perhaps two of his best plays of the day came in the second quarter, and both came on third down situations. On this 3rd and 3 early in the second quarter, the 49ers use motion to get into a 4×1 alignment. Lance, however, throws the backside stop route with great timing and fantastic placement to beat the coverage and move the chains:
Were it not for the next play we are going to examine, this might have been my favorite throw of the day from the rookie. Facing 3rd and 11 in their own territory, the 49ers are already down ten and need something to happen with four minutes left in the second quarter. The Cardinals show man coverage pre-snap, but rotate to zone one the play begins. Lance reads the rotation and hits Sanu on an in-cut from the left side. A great read and a great throw, but the ball is dropped.
From the end zone angle you can see the decisiveness from the rookie QB on this read and throw. His footwork is timed up perfectly with the route, and you can see Lance hit his final step in the drop, hitch up and put this throw on the money.
Speaking of currency, for my money Lance’s best throw of the day came in the second half, when he connected with Sanu to move the chains on a fourth-down situation. Facing 4th and 5 at the Arizona 40-yard line, the 49ers keep the offense on the field and put Lance in the shotgun. The Cardinals respond with a pressure look, and indeed come after the rookie. Lance reads it perfectly and hits Sanu on the out route, again taking advantage of leverage:
Lance immediately gets his eyes on Sanu in the slot, who is working against a safety playing deep off the line and with inside leverage. The rookie goes right to his best option, and puts this throw right on Sanu to move the sticks.
As teams show more and more pressure looks pre-snap to try and confuse the offense, QBs need to show that they can beat those alignments post-snap. This is a great example of Lance doing just that.
Now, let’s look at the areas where Lance could stand from some improvement.
What he will need to correct
(Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)
As previously outlined, it did not take long to see the potential Lance offers the 49ers in his first NFL start.
It also did not take long to identify an area of potential improvement:
This is another play where Lance does not trust his initial reading of the situation, and it costs him. Facing a 2nd and 16, the 49ers look to pick up yardage through the air. They run a flat/dig concept to the left, and a verticals concept to the right with fullback Kyle Juszczyk coming across on a shallow. Arizona shows pressure but drops into a Tampa-2 look. Lance has a window to hit either the flat, or the dig, or even Juszczyk coming from the backside, but he hesitates, and the pass rush eventually gets home.
That hesitation showed up later in the game, when the 49ers faced a critical 3rd down in the final quarter. As we saw a few times already, the Cardinals show pressure pre-snap. They indeed come after Lance, who looks to Aiyuk on a quick in-cut:
This is the right read, as Lance looks to attack the middle of the field on the in-cut in response to the blitz. He also is attacking a defender trying to cover this route from depth. But the ball comes out a step late and is off-target, and the pass falls incomplete.
Again, this is something that I believe Lance will sort out when the game starts to slow down for him. He’ll learn to speed up the drop and delivery in this situation, and make a quicker throw allowing his receiver more of a window to make the reception.
How Kyle Shanahan can put him in a position to succeed
(Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)
Looking ahead to this weekend, how can head coach Kyle Shanahan put his rookie quarterback in a position to be successful?
He can probably start by reminding him that he will be suiting up against the Texans.
There are few ways to make this point, but back when Lance made his first NFL start, he was squaring off against a Cardinals defense that is currently a Top Five defense in terms of DVOA. Their Total DVOA of -9.7% places them fifth in the league, behind Dallas, Buffalo, New England and New Orleans.
Houston? They rank 18th.
Here is another way to look at the Houston defense:
Down and left is not where you want to be on this graph. But that is exactly where the Texans lie, courtesy of RBSDM.com.
A few more numbers help solidify the case. The Texans have allowed an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 6.3 to opposing passers this season, ranking them 20th in the league.
Looking at this schematically, the 49ers might expect to see a heavy dose of split-safety coverages. Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has his roots in the Cover 2 school, and this season — according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions — the Texans have faced 132 passes when in Cover 2. That is the highest of any defense in the NFL.
Expanding the playbook a bit, Houston has faced 187 passes this year when running a coverage with the “middle of the field open,” Cover 2, Cover 4 (Quarters) or Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half). That ties Houston with Indianapolis for second-most in the league, behind only the Seattle Seahawks. This is again according to charting data from SIS.
Looking at Lance’s minimal work during the regular season, his results against those coverages are…mixed. According to SIS, Lance has attempted 17 passes this year against those split-safety coverages. On those throws, he completed 8 passes for 90 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. That interception? The early throw against the Cardinals highlighted previously, where his delay led to the turnover.
Where this game might be fought in all likelihood, however, is in the realm of single-high coverages. Because while the Texans are primarily a split-safety team, having faced just 215 snaps in either Cover 1 or Cover 3 (ranking them 26th in the league) they also struggle to stop the run. The Texans have a Rushing Defense DVOA of -2.6%, which ranks 26th in the league. Facing one of the league’s best rushing attacks (San Francisco’s ground game ranks 5th in the NFL in Rushing DVOA) that is starting a rookie quarterback, Smith might be inclined to slide that safety down into the box and get more favorable numbers in the run game.
Enter the play-action passing game.
Returning to Lance’s first start, a play we highlighted earlier is worth reexamining here:
On this snap, with the Cardinals in single-high coverage, the 49ers run the Yankee concept, with Travis Benjamin running the deep post route and Samuel running the over route underneath him. The Cardinals linebackers draw downhill initially when Lance executes the run fake to Elijah Mitchell, but do a good job retreating to get underneath Samuel’s crosser. At least initially. What makes this play really work is the threat of Lance and his legs. The quarterback climbs the pocket and starts to stress the line of scrimmage, which draws the attention of those second-level defenders. That expands the throwing window for Lance, who is able to hit Samuel on the crosser.
The lesson? Combine the threat of Lance as a runner with some of the play-action concepts. We know Shanahan’s playbook contains a multitude of boot-action designs, concepts that he has used with quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan and recently Garoppolo. Using Lance on those designs, a quarterback who is even more of a threat as a runner, stresses those second-level defenders even more.
For my money, I would anticipate boot-action to be a big part of the game script on Sunday.