Trey Lance named starter. What does that mean to the 49ers offense?

San Francisco’s Trey Lance scrambles from the pocket late in the fourth quarter during the 49ers 28-21 loss to the Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 in Santa Clara. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Rookie quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the 2021 draft, will make the first start of his NFL career on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. 

So, what does this mean for 49ers offense?

While there will be some tweaks, the offense will look very similar to what we’ve seen since Shanahan took over in 2017.

There are a number of concepts that have been a part of the 49ers offensive system that Trey Lance is familiar with from his time at North Dakota State. Here are some examples of what we could see from a Lance-led offense on Sunday.


1. Outside Screen


This is a very simple play designed to get an offensive playmaker quickly on the edge of the defense. It doesn’t require much from the quarterback with regards to reading the defense, but a well-placed pass can help lead the receiver upfield. In fact, we saw Lance execute this against Seattle on Sunday for a touchdown to Deebo Samuel late in the fourth quarter.


2. Bootlegs and waggles


Bootleg and waggle passes off play action is one way to take advantage of your quarterback’s athleticism and take advantage of an over-aggressive defense. Generally, these plays allow the quarterback to have basic high to low reads with receivers flooding into a specific portion of the field. By getting Lance onto the edge of the defense you provide him an easier read along with an option to run if the receivers are covered.


3. Over routes with and without play action.


Over routes is a staple of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system. You see this when a receiver crosses the defense from one side of the field to the other. Usually, these routes are coupled with a deep vertical threat and another option short to flood a side of the field. You can see examples of this in both of the above plays.


Pairing the over route with play action can be especially difficult to defend. The play action element creates conflict for the linebacker, if they step up to play the run, they create an open hole for the receiver to run into but if they stay back the offense has one less player to stop the run.


We actually saw the 49ers run the over concept last week against Seattle and it was open but Lance chose to scramble instead of taking the throw.


4. Leak Concept


This concept is play action in the backfield with a player sliding across the formation to leak out for a pass, hence the name. This play is designed to take advantage of the defense over playing the run.


The 49ers often make it look like they are running outside zone for the leak, but they have also shown it with the full back off inside play action.


Lance’s athletic ability only adds to the stress of this play for the defense, due to his ability to stretch out the play fake which also forces defenders to worry about him just taking off and using his legs.


5. Jet Sweep and outside zone


The 49ers often try to attack the edge of the defense through the use of jet sweeps, a forward shovel pass, and wide outside zone runs from the shotgun.


With Jimmy Garoppolo these plays don’t threaten any part of the defense other than where the ball is going. That changes with Trey Lance in the game. Using a concept known as counter bash, Lance provides an inside run element that forces the defense to account for the middle of the field.


In the above examples, you can see Lance giving the ball on a jet sweep as well as faking the jet sweep and taking the ball up the middle for a touchdown. We saw Kyle Shanahan call this last week against Seattle during Lance’s first series in the game.


6. Zone read


There are a number of different ways to attack the defense with a zone read. At its core, this play requires the quarterback to read a defender, usually the defensive end. If the defensive end stays outside the quarterback gives the ball to the running back on a zone run, however, if the defensive end steps inside the quarterback will keep the ball and run it outside.


The 49ers have been running the zone read throughout Shanahan’s tenure, however, the quarterback keep was never really an option with the previous quarterbacks that have been on the roster.

This article has 8 Comments

  1. Jack: Thank you for the informative article. You have given me a few things to watch for as the game progresses.

    I would like to offer two other thoughts regarding Lance as the Niners quarterback. First, he is still erratic as a passer, and I expect the scheme will involve short passes that don’t require him to read the defense. Second, a critical element of Lance as a runner is the offensive line, which has been less than stellar so far. He can certainly do a lot on his own, but the line providing openings will be fundamental to success.

  2. Thanks for those examples Jack, fantastic stuff.

    The Athletic did a piece on this exact subject back in July, titled “What option concepts Kyle Shanahan might use to take advantage of 49ers rookie Trey Lance’s abilities”

    I’ve expressed my concerns about the way in which Kyle is attempting to develop Lance, and I’ve used RG3’s rookie season as an example, but apparently this concept is a little too advanced for some of your readers. I don’t think they understand that Robert Griffin III entered the NFL extremely raw in terms of NFL passing concepts. I don’t think they are aware of Baylor’s Veer and Shoot offense, which is a variation of the Run and Shoot, that RG3 came out of. However, Kyle was aware, and Kyle understood who RG3 was as a QB coming out of Baylor. He understood that the Veer and Shoot leaned almost exclusively on the concept of option-routes for the wide receivers, which was derived from the run and shoot offense, and developed alongside the spread-option run style for the quarterbacks, running backs, and offensive line.

    What your readers probably don’t know, because it wasn’t well known back then, is that the Redskins originally planned to draft both RG3, and Russell Wilson, two mobile QB’s with similar skillsets. We know now that Wilson was the superior pocket passer, but back then, Kyle wanted to build an offense around RG3’s skillset, so naturally it would make sense that they would prefer similar style young QB’s. That didn’t end up happening, but Kyle stuck to the plan of crafting an offense specific to RG3 …. and the results were absolutely spectacular. RG3 took the Redskins to the postseason, and he was named Offensive Player Of The Year as a rookie, and made the Pro Bowl.

    Most people credited the Shanahan’s for designing a system that played directly into the strengths of RG3, while taking the focus away from his shortcomings in the process. The Redskins weren’t afraid to go all in on RG3 during his rookie season, and the results speak for themselves. This year, Kyle is taking a very different approach to his prized rookie QB’s development. Kyle did not go all in on Trey Lance, instead opting to ride a very different style starting QB in order to win now. I guess we’ll have watch and see how it plays out, but so far, the early signs are not promising!

    1. The Shanahans never wanted to draft RG3. They were forever to draft him and start him by the owner. Mike wanted to draft Wilson in the 4th but he went in the 3rd so Kyle got his wish and they drafted Cousins.

      The problem with RG3 and Kaepernick is that once teams figured out how to defend their running game, they had to be pocket passers and they weren’t. It has no relationship to Trey. Kyle wanted Trey and he had Jimmy so he could develop Trey, the right way.

  3. It is official. Lance is starting this Sunday! Playing a div rival that is still undefeated on the road is probably the least ideal place to start an inexperience rookie. We are going to have a good idea of the mental toughness of this kid. I am interested on how is he going to handle the ups and downs of the game. And there will be a lot of it!

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