For the first time in six weeks, we got to see Trey Lance in action on an NFL field. The 49ers rookie quarterback got his second start of the season—and first in 12 weeks—in Week 17, once again filling in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. It was an opportunity to see another glimpse of the future under center in San Francisco with Lance’s first win. But with Garoppolo reportedly still not 100%, would Lance give the 49ers their best chance to win a must-win game on Sunday? Let’s start to answer that question by breaking down his game against Houston this past weekend. For starters, it was a much better performance than Lance’s first start against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5. He was statistically more accurate with his throws and looked more comfortable airing the ball out. He also tacked on two more passing touchdowns, which were his first since he threw a couple in his Week 4 relief of Garoppolo. Lance could’ve had another touchdown on the ground as well, but it was called back for holding. The rookie finished the day with 249 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception on 16-of-23 passing (69.6%). He also added on another 31 yards rushing in eight attempts as well. Still, Lance looked raw in his second career start. He hasn’t seen much action since his one season as a starter in college in 2019, and his play seemed to reflect that lack of experience. There were several instances in which Lance’s eyes locked onto the first read of his progression and that led to some missed opportunities for deep throws downfield and easy-to-defend passes. At least once, those missed opportunities and easily defendable passes happened on the same play. The result was an interception. https://twitter.com/dbs408/status/1478090020837675008?s=20 Another display of Lance’s rawness was his “happy” feet in the pocket. There were several instances of the rookie dancing around and not setting his feet before making a throw. Often, this led to underthrows, wobbly balls, and generally inaccurate passes. Sometimes those happy feet also coincided with Lance taking too much time to get rid of the football. In at least one instance, he held onto the ball too long, and that plus his lack of poise led to an unnecessary scramble out of a clean pocket. He ended up making a nice throw to get the first down, but the play was there if he set his feet, made a quick read, and threw the ball. A further indication of the rookie’s inexperience was the very simplified playbook that San Francisco used against the Texans. The shifts, motions, and pre- and post-snap adjustments that are usually so common in a Kyle Shanahan offense were less frequent. So, once a play was called in the huddle, the 49ers were running with it, regardless of what the defense was showing. Lance’s start wasn’t completely marred by the plays that showed his lack of NFL experience, though. The rookie clearly settled down as the game went on, and when he began to set his feet and get rid of the ball sooner, the results were there. He’s got a rocket arm that he can use to both squeeze throws into tight coverage and air it out for big yards (and touchdowns). https://twitter.com/OurSf49ers_/status/1477857275570057216?s=20 https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1477783857642434560?s=20 Throws like those two have to have 49ers fans salivating. According to Next Gen Stats, Lance’s 11.5 air yards per attempt and 205 yards on 10-plus air yard passes were both the highest marks of any San Francisco quarterback in the last three years. Pair that arm talent with the rookie’s abilities with his legs, and you’ve got exactly the guy the 49ers were hoping for when they took Lance third overall. As a super-mobile, dual-threat quarterback, Lance is a much better fit for today’s NFL than Garoppolo. Quarterbacks are more often expected to have mobility both inside and outside the pocket, both as a passer and a runner in the modern-day NFL. Lance fits that bill, Garoppolo less so. 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk outlined the difference between the two perfectly in an interview on NFL Network: “Jimmy is so good at just being an efficient, on-time passer, getting the ball out quick, letting his guys do things with it. And Trey, he can do a little bit more improvising, getting outside of the pocket and getting the ball downfield. And that is a stress for defenses,” he said. Going forward into the 49ers’ biggest game of the season (and potentially beyond), the key for Lance will be getting comfortable earlier. We have seen what he can do when he does get more comfortable in the pocket: more progression through reads, less happy feet, more poise, and stronger throws. As far back as the preseason though, that comfort has tended to take some time to build up in games. If Lance is tasked with a third start in a must-win game against a divisional rival, it will be crucial that he gets settled and finds his rhythm early. A slow start against a really talented team like the Los Angeles Rams could put San Francisco in an early hole that would be hard to climb out of.
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