The San Francisco 49ers lost 17-10 yesterday to the Arizona Cardinals, and now are 2-3 as they take a three-game losing streak into their bye week. In addition, Trey Lance suffered a sprained left knee and could miss one to two weeks.
Now that some time has passed, here are my three takeaways from the game:
1. Kyle Shanahan needs to find the identity of his offense.
The way Kyle Shanahan called this game reminded me of watching a little brother playing against his big brother in Madden on Xbox. From passing up points, to running Trey Lance all over the place and choosing not to punt, the game management on Sunday was classic Kyle.
On the 49ers’ second and third offensive possessions of the game, the offense moved the ball into scoring position, and instead of attempting to get points on the board, Shanahan made the decision to go for it. Statistical modeling will tell you Shanahan made the correct call, unfortunately, football isn’t played inside computer simulations. The Arizona defense stepped up and stuffed Trey Lance short both times.
There’s no way of knowing how different the game would have played out if the 49ers had applied pressure on Arizona by getting points on the board to make it 7-3 or 7-6 midway through the second quarter, but those lost opportunities kept the momentum of the game with the Cardinals.
This leads us to the way Shanahan utilized Trey Lance. The 49ers ran 59 total plays, 47 of those were put in the hands of a rookie making his first NFL start. Interesting choice. The only real issue here was how Shanahan took the ball away from his running backs.
Kyle Shanahan called 24 running plays against Arizona, 12 of them put the ball in the hands of Lance and the other 12 were split between Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon, Deebo Samuel and Kyle Juszczyk. Lance averaged 3.7 yards per attempt compared to 5.3 by the other four which also included a touchdown run by Samuel.
Giving his running backs more opportunities instead of falling in love with quarterback runs would be a good place for Shanahan to recapture the identity of his offense and it’s crucial for a couple of reasons; the running backs have been able to get going the last two weeks is one and the other would be there’s a reason that running backs have short careers. Continually putting the ball in the hands of your prize quarterback to run the ball between the tackles doesn’t generate better results than handing it off and it is a good way to ensure Trey Lance will have a short career, and now after his first start he may be out for a week or two with a sprained knee.
2. Trey Lance was fine.
Making his first NFL start, Lance had a bit of an up and down day. His performance against Arizona resembled what he did throughout training camp due to not consistently being accurate.
This showed up on Lance’s first two throws of the game and carried throughout. The first throw was a strike to Kyle Juszczyk in the right flat, and the next throw would sail over the head of Travis Benjamin for Lance’s first NFL interception.
One of the biggest differences between Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo is his willingness to push the ball downfield more often. This is why Lance has a much higher average yard per completion than Garoppolo while having a lower average yard per attempt. The issue with this is it results in Lance completing passes at a 15% lower rate which causes the offense to be a bit choppy.
If Lance can get a handle on his accuracy the sky is the limit. He has the arm strength to hit every area on the field and there were some flashes of what this could look like, highlighted by throws to Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk that beat tight coverage with good ball placement.
The sooner that Kyle Shanahan starts focusing on Lance as a quarterback instead of using him as a running back the better it will be for Lance’s development and long-term prospects in San Francisco.
3. 49ers’ defense deserves better.
Despite being without a starting cornerback, nickelback, and linebacker, the 49ers’ defense has put up back-to-back games that went wasted due to the offense being unable to generate points.
Last week against Seattle, the 49ers held the Seahawks offense to only 4.3 yards per play, their lowest total by nearly three yards over the first four weeks of the season.
Against Arizona, the San Francisco defense was able to hold a Cardinals offense that came in averaging 35 points per game and 6.6 yards per play to only 17 points and 5 yards per play.
During the second half the defense held Arizona to only 41 yards on their first four possessions and forced a turnover when Dontae Johnson stripped the ball away from Chase Edmonds. The 49ers’ offense could manage only seven points during that time, including back-to-back possessions that ended with failed fourth down conversions.
One area in which the defense has shown great strides in the past two weeks is limiting the damage done by mobile quarterbacks. Facing two of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league, Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, San Francisco was able to hold them to only 27 yards rushing on 11 attempts.
New defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has definitely done a better job through the first five weeks than new offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel.