Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Risk and Reward of the 49ers Starting Trey Lance on Sunday

Chris Beno
Jan 5, 2022 at 10:00 AM--

Last Sunday, rookie quarterback Trey Lance showed improvement since his first, and only start in Week 5. Lance completed 16 of 23 pass attempts for 249 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception—a very Jimmy Garoppolo-like stat line.

After struggling to find an offensive rhythm early in the first half, Lance came out guns blazing in the second, spreading the ball all over the field, especially outside of the numbers, and targeting the deeper and intermediate routes on pass plays.

What was even more impressive was the ball placement on many of the throws. Aside from his interception in the first half, Lance consistently threw the ball in places only the receiver could catch. For example, here's a look at the touchdown pass to wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

With the safety over the top, Lance flattened out the route to prevent a contested catch. That ball placement also gave Deebo the opportunity to evade the tackle and avoid going out of bounds before scoring.

Plays like that are what you get from playing Lance. Shots taken downfield, elusiveness in the pocket, throws outside the numbers. These are the things that Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't bring to the table. That's not a knock on Garoppolo. It's just simply who he is. Garoppolo lives in the middle of the field, targeting between the hashes, relying on a quick release and playmakers doing something after the catch. That is fine, and it has won a lot of games. But it's riskier.

As Chris Simms explains, Garoppolo tends to throw into the heavily crowded areas, leading to interceptions, tipped passes, or big hits on wide receivers.

What Garoppolo brings to the table is experience, especially against the Los Angeles Rams. Garoppolo is used to different defensive fronts and how to adjust to them. He has a quick release which is good when the Rams have Aaron Donald and Von Miller wreaking havoc in the backfield. Given Lance's natural ability and big play potential, the Rams might still prefer to face him over Garoppolo.

Defensive coordinators might be confident in being able to confuse a young quarterback with different looks. Lance is also more willing to stay in the pocket and let the big plays develop, which could be a problem if the Rams dial up that pass rush.

For me, the decision at quarterback this week is easy. You play Lance 10 times out of 10, especially with a banged-up Jimmy Garoppolo. Name a game where Garoppolo tried to tough it out through an injury, and it turned out well? I'll wait.

Plus, you get the upside of Lance being relatively un-scouted and therefore harder to prepare for defensively. If the 49ers want to beat this red-hot Rams team on Sunday, there are a few things I would like to see them do to help out their young quarterback.

Avoid Slow Starts

Last week against Houston, it took the 49ers the entire first half to get into a rhythm. That can't happen against the Rams on Sunday. I would imagine there is a growing period for head coach Kyle Shanahan to figure out a play-calling rhythm with his young quarterback. Using the run to open up the pass wasn't working last week.

During his Monday conference call with reporters, Shanahan talked about the difficulty of play calling with a new quarterback.

"No, having Trey in the whole game allowed us to get a feel for how Houston was defending him," Shanahan said. "When you put on a gameplan to how a defense plays a quarterbacks, they're always going to play quarterbacks somewhat similarly, until you get to a quarterback run and guys always have to adjust a little bit for the different types of plays that come with the threat of a running quarterback. And those are adjustments you want to see. How much does shotgun affect the defense, pistol? When they are accounting for them, what type of defenses does that get you? And it definitely got us some different defenses versus Houston than what we had seen on tape than what we were anticipating. But, when he is going be in there the whole game, then you start to get a feel for it and see how they want to stop Trey. And that's what was so hard when we were bringing him in for a play or too earlier in the year."

I would like to see Shanahan move Lance out of the pocket early and often against the Rams. The kid has natural athletic ability, so use it. Very similar to a Jimmy Garoppolo script at the beginning of the game, get Lance into a rhythm early with short passes and bootlegs outside of the pocket.

Earlier this year, the 49ers capitalized on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford struggling to throw the ball. Don't bank on that happening again. If the 49ers start slow and fall behind early, I'm not sure they can catch back up.

Establish the Run

It's no mystery that a solid run game can hide the flaws of your quarterback. We've seen it with Jimmy Garoppolo as well as Colin Kaepernick. When the 49ers beat the Rams earlier this year, 31-10, the 49ers ran the ball 44 times. That type of commitment to running the ball that many times requires a ton of dominance in the trenches.

Against the Houston Texans last week, the run game was shut down for the majority of the first half. Houston sold out to stop the run. When the 49ers opted to air it out more and push the ball downfield, Houston could not adjust. Those shots taken downfield opened up the run game allowing 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell to rush for 119 yards on 21 carries.

The 49ers need to find a way against the Rams to win in a similar fashion. A successful run game controls the game. It controls the clock, and it physically beats down the opponents. Fans can remember the playoff run in 2019 when that was virtually the entirety of the 49ers offense. The ball was taken out of Garoppolo's hands, and the 49ers dominated in the ground game.

Most importantly, if the run game is working, the pressure is taken off Trey Lance to make the big play. If Lance can avoid 3rd-and-long situations, then there's no reason this offense can't move the ball successfully.

Win the game in the Trenches

When the 49ers and Rams faced off in week 10, the 49ers dominated in the trenches. The offensive line will need another performance like that. 49ers guard Daniel Brunskill seems to play his best against Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The team needs that to continue. As of late, the pass protection has improved across the board for the 49ers offensive line. Even offensive tackle Tom Compton has stepped up in place of injured Mike McGlinchey and has played great.

Make no mistake, this game is won or lost in the trenches. The 49ers have to win that battle to establish the run and protect Lance. This time, it's a bigger task having a quarterback who is both mobile and willing to hang in the pocket. Those two things always run the risk of offensive holding penalties.

I firmly believe that the 49ers can win this game with Trey Lance and make a deep run in the playoffs with him. Combining the big-play capability, athleticism, and big arm with the fact that there isn't much film on him gives the 49ers an advantage over opposing defenses. However, with any young player, you run the risk of making mistakes. Let's hope the upside of Lance can overshadow some of those mistakes.
  • Chris Beno
  • Written by:
    Coming from Elk Grove, California I grew up a Bay Area sports fan. I've been cheering for the 49ers for as long as I can remember. In 2005 I joined the Army when I was 18 and got stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. I just kind of hung around here. I've always enjoyed writing and have typically focused on writing music. I am truly blessed to get to cover the 49ers, and have my articles published on the 49ers Webzone. I didn't realize it was something I wanted to pursue as a career, but am now focused on doing just that. I appreciate all of the Faithful that take the time to read the articles people put out there.
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