Is Trey Lance ready to lead the 49ers as a full-time starter?

Casey Sully

Early on in the year, it seemed like Kyle Shanahan had specific situations and packages for Trey Lance. He’d get in on short yardage or goal line situations and Shanahan would use him as a runner to gain blockers in the run game. In weeks one and three he had seven snaps on offense before Garoppolo got hurt in week four. Trey Lance then played the next one and a half games before injuring his knee in week five against the Cardinals. Lance made an appearance in garbage time against the Jacksonville Jaguars and started San Francisco’s week 17 game for a yet-again-injured Jimmy Garoppolo. Other than that, there have been no special packages, no gadget plays, nothing.

As a Starter

While Lance was effective in his designed packages and showed some growth, there were a number of rookie mistakes. Some of those rookie mistakes are incredibly basic, too.

The 49ers are running a combination of Dragon and Lion here against Seattle. The Dragon concept at the top of the screen has a Slant and a Flat route. The Lion concept has two slants to the bottom. The general rule for these concepts is to read Dragon versus one safety and read Lion versus two safeties. To Lance’s credit, Seattle is trying to disguise with eight players at the line of scrimmage, but there’s still only one safety. That means that the Slant/Flat combo to the top of the screen should be his read.

dragon concept
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Dragon Concept

On the snap of the ball, Seattle bails into a Cover 3 look. That still indicates that Lance should look to the top of the screen. The flat defender to the top runs with the flat which leaves a window open behind for the slant. That’s exactly what you would expect versus that look and why you read that side of the concept. However, Lance is reading the Lion concept to the bottom. He may think that the flat defender to that side won’t be able to get out to the second slant. However, on the snap, he should be able to identify that he has filtered right into that window. This should be an interception for a touchdown if the defender can get their head around.

Mechanically, Lance certainly has a rocket of an arm. It’s one of the traits that teams loved about him coming out of North Dakota. He can push the ball down the field, fit it into tight windows, and threaten every blade of grass.

However, he does still need to work on layering his passes. Almost every throw has heat on it. That resulted in a number of batted balls and an inability to clear second level defenders.

Read Option

Where Lance was really at home was in the run game and in the rollout action that is built into Shanahan’s system. There’s no doubt he adds a legitimate run threat to the 49ers offense and San Francisco wasn’t afraid to abuse that.

There are four general concepts that Shanahan used most often with Lance: read option, QB counter bash, quarterback draw option, and rollouts with the Sail concept.

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The read option leaves the end man on the line of scrimmage unblocked for the quarterback to read. If that player feeds into the handoff, the quarterback can then pull the ball and run outside of them. If the defender stays to defend the quarterback, the ball is handed off and there’s one less defender contributing to the tackle. It’s a simple way to gain an extra blocker in the run scheme. The quarterback just has to be a running threat to make it effective. If they’re too slow, the defender can play both the quarterback and running back and isn’t put into conflict.

QB Counter Bash

QB Counter Bash uses the regular counter blocking scheme with a guard and tackle pulling across the formation. What makes it different, is the running back going away from the designed run and the quarterback running the counter scheme. By having the running back run away, that holds the backside defenders who will often try to ride the pulling linemen right into the play. With the threat of being run around to the backside from the RB, that slows those defenders’ pursuit and allows the play to develop for the quarterback.

Counter bash can be called specifically for the quarterback, or it can be a read play. When it’s a read, the quarterback identifies the backside linebacker. If that player fits or flows with the pulling linemen, the quarterback will hand the ball off. If they stay put with the threat of the running back to the outside, the quarterback will pull the ball and run counter.

Quarterback Draw / Bubble Option

The quarterback draw with the bubble option is the most common run scheme the 49ers run with Trey Lance. It’s another linebacker read and is designed to create a light box for the quarterback to run into or to throw the ball outside and stress the perimeter.

San Francisco will use push motion to send the running back outside pre-snap and they’ll also run it with no motion. Either way, Trey Lance is looking at the play-side linebacker. If that player widens with the running back outside, that leaves one less person in the box and Lance will take it on the draw play. If they stay, he throws the ball outside where the 49ers now have numbers.

draw play
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Lastly, we have one of the staples of the Shanahan offense – play-action rollouts with the Sail concept. Sail has three receivers on the same side of the field running routes at three different depths. That overloads defensive zones and the rollout opposite the direction of the run fake stresses defenses horizontally and punishes them for flowing to stop the run game. They’re simple reads, get Lance out in space with the ability to scramble, and tie in seamlessly to the rest of Shanahan’s offense. Lance still needs some work getting his hips around and throwing on the move, but he looks much more comfortable with his decision-making out on the perimeter.

sail concept
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Sail Concept

Final Thoughts

There’s always the threat of Kyle Shanahan scheming up a specific “gotcha” play for Trey Lance, but his base package isn’t very diverse. It can be incredibly effective in short yardage. However, as a true dropback passer, Lance still has a way to go. He quickly bails from pockets, is late on reads, and struggles with touch. The flashes have been there, but the question is whether he is ready to lead a 49ers team that is a playoff contender.

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