As one might expect, Trey Lance’s first NFL preseason as the San Francisco 49ers’ named starting quarterback had its highs and lows.
Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 of the preseason, Lance completed 4 of 5 passes for 92 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and the highest-possible passer rating of 158.3. Nice start. Lance didn’t play last week against the Vikings, but he got a lot of reps in San Francisco’s preseason finale Thursday night against the Houston Texans. And in that 17-0 loss, he completed 7 of 11 passes for 49 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 73.7.
Overall, head coach Kyle Shanahan was Not Amused.
“It was pretty rough,” Shanahan said after the Texans game. “Didn’t play clean at all. I think we struggled to stop the run on that first drive, which was tough. When we did play good defense, I thought we had a couple bad penalties, kept them on the field. Offensively, just way too many penalties. I think offense especially, but it was also defense and special teams. And then I just thought we struggled to execute. I thought it was pretty sloppy play, and I wish it could have been cleaner.”
More specifically regarding the offense against the Texans, San Francisco was rolling with a relatively inexperienced offensive line, and it showed. Lance was under pressure and driven from the pocket more than anybody would like in a preseason game, and that was evident on tape. Shanahan sat Trent Williams, the NFL’s best offensive tackle, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey has been out since the second half of last season with a quadriceps injury.
“It’s been sporadic each week, so hopefully we’ll get Trent back, hopefully we’ll get McGlinchey back,” the coach said. “We’ve been mixing these young guys in there, so it’s been good for them to get a lot of reps. You always want more, but we’ve got 17 days to week one, so hopefully we’ll get some guys back. If you don’t, got keep working on the continuity throughout the year.”
As for Lance, Shanahan didn’t like what he saw, but he wasn’t about make it a big deal — just yet.
“I wish it was cleaner just from a whole, but I’m not going to make too much of it. We wanted him to get just two drives. I ended up giving him three because I wanted to give him a little bit more there, but there weren’t too many opportunities, and we got into some long down distances, which made it tough.”
Part of Lance’s problem was that the Texans’ defense played really well. They matched Lance’s receivers, created consistent pressure, and presented him with a lot of different coverage looks.
“There were some ups and downs for sure,” Lance concluded. “It never feels good to lose, but we will learn from it and turn the page. We’re not going to make a bigger deal out of it than we need to for sure. Yeah, like I said, it never feels good to lose. There was some ugly stuff out there for sure. Man, it definitely wasn’t our best night, but like I said, we’re not going to make too big of a deal out of it. We’ll watch the tape tomorrow, learn from it and get better.”
We’re watching the tape now, and here’s what we saw regarding Lance’s readiness for the regular season. The 49ers open the regular season against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, September 11, so time is of the essence, and there are things to correct.
Acting on what you see.
(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
If you’re running a Kyle Shanahan offense, two things are true: You’re going to get stuff schemed open for you in the passing game, and you’d better react in time and in rhythm when those opportunities present themselves. Lance said more than once after the Texans game that he could have gotten the ball out quicker, and that was evident.
On this sack halfway through the first quarter, Lance had Deebo Samuel (No. 19) open on a crosser from his back side, and had Lance thrown the ball sooner, it would have been an easy completion, as Samuel was running open through what appeared to be a miscommunication in Houston’s intermediate coverage. But Lance didn’t, and in the NFL, half a second is a lifetime.
This showed up against the Packers in Week 1 from time to time. Here, with 5:38 left in the first quarter, Lance had stuff open to his front side, and yes, he was pressured again, but you start to wonder if he needs to wait for things to be readily defined, or if he’s waiting too long for receivers to go through their routes. If he’s more a “See it and throw it” guy as opposed to an anticipation thrower… well, you can adjust for that as a play-caller, but it’s far from ideal.
Throwing from an undefined base.
(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
Another thing that will happen if you’re Shanahan’s quarterback: You’re going to throw from boot and boot-action looks. Like, a lot. Lance was iffy against the Texans when asked to get out of the pocket, work with his own mechanics to get the ball out and on time, and make the accurate throw. Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, 49ers quarterbacks threw outside the pocket with play action 34 times, completing 24 of those passes for 308 yards, 137 air yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Lance completed five of nine of those attempts for 93 yards, 63 air yards, and two touchdowns.
This is supposed to be a fairly major component of Lance’s skill set, but against Houston, it was off more often than not when he was asked (or forced) to throw outside the pocket. On this pass attempt to receiver Brandon Aiyuk early in the first quarter, Lance was immediately flushed out of the pocket by pressure from his right side, linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis deflected the pass after dropping into coverage, and that was that.
Fixating on the first thing.
(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
There were also times against the Texans when Lance appeared to focus on one thing, even when that thing did not present the best possible opportunity, and this led to at least one missed opening. With 12:59 left in the first quarter, Lance really wanted to hit Deebo Samuel up the boundary on this deep throw, but cornerback Steven Nelson got outside position, and covered Samuel about as well as it can be done.
One imagines that Lance thought Samuel would be able to make the contested catch no matter what (and that’s a decent theory), but Brandon Aiyuk is wide open on the crosser, and as they say, you never go broke taking a profit. I think Lance should have gone from touchdown to checkdown here.
Where it did work well was on this 76-yard touchdown pass to Gray against Green Bay. This is velocity, timing, and anticipation, and you’d certainly like to see more of it.
It's Trey Lance's time, but it might take a while.
(Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)
The decision to switch from Jimmy Garoppolo to Lance for the 2022 season was based on one primary concept: Lance’s ceiling is several floors higher than Garoppolo’s. We’ve seen Garoppolo take his talents as far in Shanahan’s system as they will go. Lance, on the other hand, is a relatively unknown, somewhat raw quarterback who will need more real reps before he really puts it together.
That’s not uncommon at all. Quarterbacks who come right into the NFL and set things on fire from Day 1 are exceedingly rare. Perhaps the hope here is that the 49ers can live on the Patrick Mahomes plan. Mahomes barely played in his first season — he sat behind Alex Smith and learned Andy Reid’s offense. Everybody knew that Mahomes had far more tools than Smith did, but Smith had been around long enough to be a functional NFL quarterback in just about any system, and that established the foundation for Mahomes to come in for his second season, and start to go thermonuclear.
The reality may be that Lance gets in there and takes his lumps for a while until he can move past his considerable physical gifts, and really understand the offense he’s running, and the defenses he’s seeing. Josh Allen was a total work in progress on that program for a while, and over time, the Bills gave him what he needed to fill in all the blanks.
If that’s where Lance winds up, it’s all good. But in the shorter term, Trey Lance’s developmental curve could have a different arc than Shanahan and his staff expected.