49ers quarterback Trey Lance’s 2022 preseason was a bit of a mixed bag

Unsurprisingly, Trey Lance’s first NFL preseason as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback had its ups and downs.

Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 of the preseason, Lance completed 4 of 5 passes for 92 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and the highest possible passer rating of 158.3. good start Lance didn’t play last week against the Vikings, but he got plenty of reps in San Francisco’s preseason finale on Thursday night against the Houston Texans. And in that 17-0 loss, he completed 7 of 11 passes for 49 yards, with no touchdowns, no interceptions and a 73.7 passer rating.

Overall, head coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t amused.

“It was pretty tough,” Shanahan said after the Texans game. “I didn’t play fair at all. I think we struggled to stop the race in that first race, which was tough. When we played well in defence, I thought we had a couple of bad penalties, I kept them on the pitch. Offensively, too many penalties. I’m thinking especially of offense, but also defense and special teams. And then I thought we had trouble running. I thought it was a pretty sloppy game, and I wish it had been cleaner.”

More specifically with regards to the offense against the Texans, San Francisco was rolling with a relatively inexperienced offensive line, and it showed. Lance was under pressure and out of pocket more than anyone would like in a preseason game, and that was evident on tape. Shanahan sat Trent Williams, the best offensive tackle in the NFL, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey has been out since the second half of last season with a quad injury.

“It’s been sporadic every week, so hopefully we’ll get Trent back, hopefully we’ll get McGlinchey back,” the coach said. “We’ve been mixing these young guys up there, so it’s been good for them to get a lot of reps. You always want more, but we’ve got 17 days left in the first week, so hopefully we’ll get some guys back. If you don’t, keep working on continuity throughout the year.”

As for Lance, Shanahan didn’t like what he saw, but he wasn’t about to make a big deal out of it, just yet.

“I wish it was cleaner just as a whole, but I’m not going to make too much of it. We wanted you to get only two units. I ended up giving him three because I wanted to give him a little more there, but there weren’t too many opportunities and we got into some long distances, which made things difficult.

Part of Lance’s problem was that the Texans’ defense played very well. They matched Lance’s receivers, created constant pressure and presented him with many different coverage looks.

“There were some ups and downs, for sure,” Lance concluded. “It never feels good to lose, but we will learn from it and turn the page. We’re not going to make a bigger problem than we need to for sure. Yeah, like I said, it never feels good to lose. Sure there were ugly things out there. Man, it definitely wasn’t our best night, but like I said, we’re not going to make too much of it. We will watch the film tomorrow, we will learn from it and we will improve.”

We’re watching the tape now, and this is what we saw regarding Lance’s preparation for the regular season. The 49ers open against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, September 11, so time is of the essence and things need to be corrected.

Act on what you see.

(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

If you’re running a Kyle Shanahan offense, two things are certain: You’re going to have things open to you in the passing game, and you’d better react on time and with pace when those opportunities present themselves. Lance said more than once after the Texans game that he could have gotten the ball out quicker, and it was obvious.

In this sack midway through the first quarter, Lance had Deebo Samuel (No. 19) wide open on a cross shot from his rear, and if Lance had thrown the ball earlier, it would have been an easy completion, as Samuel was running opened up through what appeared to be a miscommunication in Houston’s middle coverage. But Lance didn’t, and in the NFL, half a second is a lifetime.

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ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky made the point that on this throw, Lance should have been more deliberate in a sense. I’m not sure how much the free rusher influenced the design here, but hey — quarterbacks have to make throws under pressure. That’s part of the deal.

This one-yard scramble is another example. Yes, Lance has to adjust for quick pressure again (the line REALLY didn’t play well), but he also had George Kittle open and waiting across the middle as the short crossing route developed. In cases like these, you’d like to see less of a frantic demeanor under pressure. Lance will get used to getting the ball out on time under pressure, but at this point, it’s a work in progress.

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This showed up against the Packers in Week 1 from time to time. Here, with 5:38 left in the first quarter, Lance had stuff open to his front side, and yes, he was pressured again, but you start to wonder if he needs to wait for things to be readily defined, or if he’s waiting too long for receivers to go through their routes. If he’s more a “See it and throw it” guy as opposed to an anticipation thrower… well, you can adjust for that as a play-caller, but it’s far from ideal.

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Throwing from an undefined base.

(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Another thing that will happen if you’re Shanahan’s quarterback: You’re going to throw from boot and boot-action looks. Like, a lot. Lance was iffy against the Texans when asked to get out of the pocket, work with his own mechanics to get the ball out and on time, and make the accurate throw. Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, 49ers quarterbacks threw outside the pocket with play action 34 times, completing 24 of those passes for 308 yards, 137 air yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Lance completed five of nine of those attempts for 93 yards, 63 air yards, and two touchdowns.

This is supposed to be a fairly major component of Lance’s skill set, but against Houston, it was off more often than not when he was asked (or forced) to throw outside the pocket. On this pass attempt to receiver Brandon Aiyuk early in the first quarter, Lance was immediately flushed out of the pocket by pressure from his right side, linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis deflected the pass after dropping into coverage, and that was that.

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This attempt with 11:47 left in the second quarter was going to be tough for any quarterback. Lance was pressured again, this time in a way that had him rolling to his left. Making a bang-on throw to your receiver in this way isn’t easy, and veteran pass-rusher Jerry Hughes (No. 55) made it tougher by interfering with Lance’s throw.

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Fixating on the first thing.

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

There were also times against the Texans when Lance appeared to focus on one thing, even when that thing did not present the best possible opportunity, and this led to at least one missed opening. With 12:59 left in the first quarter, Lance really wanted to hit Deebo Samuel up the boundary on this deep throw, but cornerback Steven Nelson got outside position, and covered Samuel about as well as it can be done.

One imagines that Lance thought Samuel would be able to make the contested catch no matter what (and that’s a decent theory), but Brandon Aiyuk is wide open on the crosser, and as they say, you never go broke taking a profit. I think Lance should have gone from touchdown to checkdown here.

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The deep stuff wasn’t a plus this preseason for Lance — here against the Packers, he’s trying to hit preseason star Danny Gray on a deep out, and whatever throwing your receiver open is, this isn’t that.

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Where it did work well was on this 76-yard touchdown pass to Gray against Green Bay. This is velocity, timing, and anticipation, and you’d certainly like to see more of it.

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It’s Trey Lance’s time, but it might take a while.

(Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

The decision to switch from Jimmy Garoppolo to Lance for the 2022 season was based on one primary concept: Lance’s ceiling is several floors higher than Garoppolo’s. We’ve seen Garoppolo take his talents as far in Shanahan’s system as they will go. Lance, on the other hand, is a relatively unknown, somewhat raw quarterback who will need more real reps before he really puts it together.

That’s not uncommon at all. Quarterbacks who come right into the NFL and set things on fire from Day 1 are exceedingly rare. Perhaps the hope here is that the 49ers can live on the Patrick Mahomes plan. Mahomes barely played in his first season — he sat behind Alex Smith and learned Andy Reid’s offense. Everybody knew that Mahomes had far more tools than Smith did, but Smith had been around long enough to be a functional NFL quarterback in just about any system, and that established the foundation for Mahomes to come in for his second season, and start to go thermonuclear.

The reality may be that Lance gets in there and takes his lumps for a while until he can move past his considerable physical gifts, and really understand the offense he’s running, and the defenses he’s seeing. Josh Allen was a total work in progress on that program for a while, and over time, the Bills gave him what he needed to fill in all the blanks.

If that’s where Lance winds up, it’s all good. But in the shorter term, Trey Lance’s developmental curve could have a different arc than Shanahan and his staff expected.

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