Continuing our Drive by Drive series, we take an in-depth look at the first start of Trey Lance’s career. The rookie No. 3 overall pick was pressed into the starting role after an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo. This game was the first taste of potential life beyond Garoppolo in year’s to come, and while a mixed bag, showed enough promise for 49ers fans to be excited.
Trey Lance v. Arizona Cardinals
First Drive: Starting at own 25, 15:00 left in 1st quarter
First play, Cardinals bring the blitz and get to Lance immediately; he evades the rush and scrambles for 15 yards. Second play, pistol formation, Lance play-action (though the RB went right, and Lance faked left, clear miscommunication) and finds Kyle Juszczyk open near the sideline for an easy 16-yard gain. A designed QB draw goes nowhere, bringing up 2nd and 10 from the Cardinals 45. Run formation, power I, play-action pass. Lance has time, steps up into the pocket and throws way high over the receiver’s head (Travis Benjamin), right into the arms of the safety, Budda Baker. Trey Lance has his first career interception as a pro.
Shanahan and the 49ers seem very confident in Lance, putting the ball in his hands on every play of the first drive. On the INT, Lance steps up towards the line of scrimmage and throws while still on the move. He had time to set his feet, but didn’t, and that probably had a lot to do with the overthrow. Needs to learn to reset himself after stepping up, especially when there’s no pressure and he’s throwing across the middle of the field. He also had Juszczyk slipping out of the backfield open for an easy gain, or he could’ve run for a nice gain, as well. A little bit of a forced throw to Benjamin.
Second Drive: Starting on own 25, 9:02 left in the first quarter, Cardinals lead 7-0
After a short run, 49ers go to the RPO and Lance throws to a well-covered Travis Benjamin, who draws a DPI. 1st and 10, Lance again drops to throw and gets his toss batted down at the line. After a timeout (play clock was running down), 49ers ran a designed swing pass to Elijah Mitchell. Lance does a nice job of holding the ball until the edge defender clears, giving him a lane to get the ball to his running back. Mitchell does the rest and picks up the first down. SF ends up in a 3rd and 7 from the ARI 39 and then run another designed QB draw. Lance picks up 5, bringing up 4th and 2. They go for it. Empty set shotgun, and they run ANOTHER QB draw, this one comes up short, turnover on downs.
SF running a college-style offense. They’re using the Pistol formation, running a lot of RPO, zone reads, and designed QB runs. They continue to put the ball in Lance’s hands, but Arizona doesn’t seem to respect his arm, stacking the box on most plays.
Third Drive: Starting on own 6, 2:24 left in the first quarter, Cardinals lead 7-0
Starting deep in their own territory, SF starts with an RPO. Lance keeps, looks to throw, escapes the pocket and scrambles for 10 yards. A couple nice Mitchell runs get the ball out to the SF 35. RPO on 1st and 10 from the 35, Lance keeps and again steps up in the pocket, again throws on the move, but this time he hits an open Deebo Samuel for 26 yards. Again, Lance doesn’t set his feet, and again the throw is slightly off-target, but Deebo was open and made the adjustment for the catch. Lance’s rushing ability forces the nearest defender to come up and defend, and that’s why Deebo is so open. First quarter comes to an end.
1st and 10, now in ARI territory, Lance throws a quick slant to Deebo, who drops it. Good throw, just dropped by Samuel. 2nd and 10 and the 49ers go with yet another QB draw, picking up 7 yards. 3rd and 3, Lance makes his best throw of the game. Brandon Aiyuk is extremely well-covered on a quick out route just past the sticks, and Lance leads Aiyuk toward the sideline, putting it in the only spot where he can make the catch, first down.
1st down zone read, Lance keeps and picks up another 7 on the ground. Next play, Mitchell makes a great run to the outside and sets up SF with a 1st and goal from the 5.
1st and goal from the 5, 49ers set up a quick WR screen to Samuel and Lance makes a poor throw. It was a catchable ball, but Deebo is expecting the ball on his outside hip so he can make the catch and start heading toward the goal line, but Lance instead puts it on his back hip, forcing Samuel to stop his momentum, and ultimately the ball hits the turf. Even if he makes the catch (which he could have), he’s now on his heels instead of heading up the field. 2nd and goal, shotgun snap and another designed QB run, this one goes down to the 2-yard line. 3rd and goal, play action, Cardinals get pressure and Lance is forced to throw it away. 4th and goal from the 2, and the 49ers elect to go for it. Lance starts out in the Pistol, runs up under center and quickly gets the snap. It’s a designed rollout out to Lance’s right, and he’s got the option to either run or pass. All his receivers are covered, so he tries to take it himself. Two Cardinals’ defenders step up and make a hit just shy of the goal line. Lance is stopped, turnover on downs.
Fourth Drive: Starting at own 25, 5:27 left in the second quarter, Cardinals lead 10-0
First down, RPO, Lance keeps and looks to throw but the Cardinals are all over him, sack. 2nd and 12, empty set shotgun and Lance quickly checks it down for a short gain. 3rd and 11, Lance back to pass and hits Mohammad Sanu right in the hands for a first down … but Sanu drops it. The pass was wobbly — definitely not Lance’s best throw from a ball-motion standpoint — but as far as location it hit Sanu in the hands right in front of his facemask, a catch that must be made. Lance threaded the ball into a hole in the zone between three defenders. 49ers forced to punt.
Fifth Drive: Starting at own 31, 13:50 left in the third quarter, Cardinals lead 10-0
1st and 10, shotgun snap, play-action. 49ers running a max-protect; eight guys stay in to block, just a two-man route (49ers have run a couple of these in the game). Lance dances around for a while, eventually is forced toward the sideline and has to throw it at the feet of a well-covered receiver as the rush was getting there. A second-down run goes for very little, setting up 3rd and 9. Cardinals bring the blitz, Lance sees it, and he quickly floats it out to Juszczyk who’s able to pick up the first down. An offensive holding penalty on the ensuing play pushes the Niners back to 1st and 20. Lance runs another QB draw to get back some of the penalty yardage. Next play, they go back to the WR screen to Deebo, this time Lance gets it to his speedy WR, and they get into a manageable 3rd and 7 at the ARI 42. 49ers run another QB draw, but they also get caught holding again and it’s now 3rd and 17. Lance drops back and hits Dwelly on a quick comeback route, picking up 12 yards and setting up 4th and 5. 49ers are going for it again, despite being 0-2 so far on fourth down. Cardinals bring the blitz; Lance gets rid of it just before he gets hit and is able to get it to Mohammad Sanu for the first down. Another wobbler, but the location is good again, squeezing it between two defenders, and the Niners finally convert on fourth down and they have it just inside the ARI 35. But on the next play, another offensive hold, their third of the drive, and they’re behind the chains again. A short completion on first down is followed by a sack on second down and it’s third and long, now well outside of field goal range. Cards get pressure again (this time with just four rushers), Lance escapes to his left and can’t find anyone open, and essentially throws it away. 49ers forced to punt.
Sixth Drive: Starting at own 41, 5:10 left in the third quarter, Cardinals lead 10-0
First play, false start. 1st and 15, incomplete pass. 2nd and 15, yet another offensive hold on San Francisco pushes the ball back to 2nd and 25. Empty-set shotgun snap, four-man rush for the Cardinals and SF sends out five receivers into the pattern. Lance fires a pass into Aiyuk, hits him in the back shoulder with a defender draped on the front shoulder. Aiyuk makes the catch, breaks the defenders’ tackle and then eludes another and scampers to pick up the first down. Plus, ARI is called for a personal foul, adding another 15 on top of the 26-yard catch and run by Aiyuk. Really a great effort from the SF WR who boxed out the defender to make the catch. A good throw by Lance, as well, hitting the back shoulder because that was the only place Aiyuk was going to have a shot at it.
Now first and ten from the ARI 33, designed QB run for Lance who picks up eight. A big run by Mitchell sets up 1st and 10 from the 14-yard line. Zone read, Lance keeps and runs wide to the right, short gain. Lance’s helmet pops off as he continues to fight for yards. Camera cuts to Lance’s mom who covers her eyes as her son tries to pick up extra yards without a helmet. Funny moment. 2nd and 9 from the 13, Niners come out in the Pistol formation with Deebo lined up behind Lance. Pitch to Samuel left and he takes it to the house for the 13-yard score. 49ers now trail 10-7.
Seventh Drive: Starting at own 20, 14:11 left in the fourth quarter, Cardinals lead 10-7
Short Mitchell run and short completion set up 3rd and 7. Lance back to pass, pocket collapses and he steps up. Still looking to throw but doesn’t find anyone open and Lance takes off for 15 yards and a first down. The 49ers get called for yet another offensive holding on first down (their fifth of the game). Niners take a timeout before the 1st and 20 play, leaving them with one remaining for the game. SF comes out with another designed QB draw, but it goes nowhere. 2nd and long, Lance has all day to throw but can’t find anyone open. Eventually, he flushes out to the right and scrambles for a couple yards. Lance could have gone out of bounds, but stayed in to try and make something happen and took a big hit. Kid needs to learn to avoid those unnecessary shots; play isn’t going anywhere and he needs to get out of bounds or get down.
3rd and 14 at the SF 39, Lance back to pass and he finds Dwelly on a quick-hitter, and it picks up 13 yards, setting up another fourth down. Of course, the Niners are going for it again. Very odd play-calling here as Lance lines up in the shotgun, but then Juszczyk motions under center and takes the snap, running a “QB” sneak that does not pick up the first down. As soon as Juszczyk gets under center, Cardinals LB Jordan Hicks reads what’s coming and gets right up on the line of scrimmage, helping to make the stop. Turnover on downs for the third time in the game by the 49ers.
Eighth Drive: Starting at own 46, 8:39 left in the fourth quarter, 10-7 Cardinals lead
Following the turnover on downs, the Cardinals give it back two plays later, thanks to a Chase Edmonds fumble. Following the turnover, the SF defense ran into the end zone and mocked Kyler Murray’s “Buddha Pose” meditation celebration (from a couple weeks ago) by doing one of their own.
Niners have the ball again with a chance to tie or take the lead, starting near midfield. Lance’s first-down pass is tipped at the line, incomplete. 2nd and 10, another designed Lance keeper brings up 3rd and 4. Lance tries to hit Aiyuk on a quick slant past the sticks on the third-down play, but the throw is off-target, high and behind Aiyuk who has no chance, incomplete. 4th down and, of course, the 49ers are going for it again. Lance drops to pass and again he gets the ball tipped at the line, and it falls incomplete. It’s the fourth turnover on downs for the 49ers, who are now 1-5 on fourth down.
Ninth Drive: Starting at own 25, 5:13 left in the fourth quarter, 17-7 Cardinals lead
The Cards take advantage of the field position they got from the 49ers missed fourth-down conversion and turn it into seven points, taking a two-score lead with just over five minutes to play. First play of the drive, Lance is back to pass, slides to his right and throws on the run, hitting Deebo Samuel for 26 yards. It’s a great catch by Deebo, who goes up to get it over the outstretched hand of a defender, but it’s a terrific throw by Lance; Samuel was well-covered, and Lance put it in a spot just past the defender’s hand and gave his athletic WR a chance to go make a play, which he did. Now just across midfield, Lance hits Sanu on a quick out for another 13 yards. A run by Trey Sermon (his first touch of the game) goes for 7 yards, setting up second and short. Lance tries to go deep to Samuel down the sideline, but he’s well-covered and the throw lands out of bounds. 3rd and 3 from the ARI 29, Cardinals bring the blitz and get a free rusher from Lance’s throwing side but he doesn’t see him coming. Lance is hit as he throws and the ball falls incomplete. Down by 10, SF elects to kick a field goal, which they convert to make it 17-10.
The 49ers would kick it deep and never touch the ball again, as the Cardinals pick up a pair of first downs and run out the clock.
It was a mixed bag from Lance, as you’d expect from a rookie in his first start. He seemed very comfortable and the moment never felt like it was too big for him. He missed some throws, and made some nice ones and looked good in the pocket and ran when he needed to. Credit to Kyle Shanahan who completely tailored the offense around Lance, putting him in comfortable formations. The 49ers run a different offense with Garoppolo under center, so to see a team put in a game plan like this on a week of preparation is a good sign for the staff. The 49ers defense was very good against arguably the best offense in the league, and if the offense was able to convert on a couple of the fourth downs where they were stopped, it could have been a different game.
Shanahan seems very comfortable having Lance run the offense, keeping the ball in his hands often and going for several fourth downs with a rookie quarterback where other coaches may have gone more conservative. It was quite a contrast between them and the Chicago Bears, who seem keen on protecting Justin Fields and taking the ball out of his hands as much as possible, giving him very easy reads and throws. The Niners let Lance drop back and takes some shots down-the-field and he showed some solid promise in the performance, despite the loss.
Find other work from Dan Zaksheske at STAT Stack