Takeaways after 49ers offense starts slow, roars back to life under Trey Lance

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Well, that certainly felt like a preseason game. Until there were about two minutes left in the first half, the 49ers’ offense looked like it was going to sleepwalk its way through the night. It was a brutal start until Kyle Shanahan made an adjustment to his game plan; then the Trey Lance-led offense woke back up in delightfully entertaining fashion. The 49ers also won 15-10, not that it matters.

Shanahan adjusts game plan, lets Lance go… and boy did he go

It truly couldn’t have been a more disjointed first half. The game plan, according to general manager John Lynch on the pregame broadcast, was for Garoppolo to start the game, and for Lance to follow him for two series, then for Garoppolo to return.

That did not happen. Garoppolo opened well, then began a bizarre trend for three-straight series, and did not return.

Garoppolo led the 49ers to three-straight first downs, the last of which he got by scrambling for 10 yards impressively. There was a fourth first down on a fourth-down JaMycal Hasty run, before the unseemly trend began of quarterbacks overthrowing receivers.

It started as Garoppolo sailed a ball high over Brandon Aiyuk’s head on an in-cutting route over the middle of the field. Aiyuk, for all his length and athleticism, couldn’t make the catch, tipping it into the hands of Asante Samuel Jr. for an interception.

Samuel, by the way, could have who been drafted by the 49ers 43rd overall before they traded back to 48 for Aaron Banks.

Despite the initial plan to get him back in the game, he would not return, finishing 3-for-6 with 15 yards and an interception.

Then it was Lance’s time, and it did not start well. Like Garoppolo, Lance missed his receivers, throwing high and wobbly over Deebo Samuel to end his first drive. On his ensuing drive, he overthrew Mohamed Sanu slightly, but really threw the ball with too much pace, with Tyson Campbell intercepting it.

Lance’s next drive was brutal, too. He missed Charlie Woerner badly, and two plays later, took a sack he could have avoided.

In his first three drives, Lance was 1-for-5 for nine yards and an interception, with one sack. But the entire momentum and vibe of the game shifted on his final drive.

With 57 seconds left in the first half and two timeouts, Lance and the 49ers’ offense took over at their own 25-yard line. Then things got interesting. He was let down on the first play by a Wayne Gallman drop on a screen pass he just looked away from.

But then Lance got his mojo back with maybe his favorite target thus far, Trent Sherfield. He found Sherfield for nine yards, then a 12-yard Gallman run kept the momentum, but necessitated a timeout.

Then Lance went right back to Sherfield, hitting him in stride and wide open down the right sideline for a 41-yard gain, which Sherfield managed to extend by making a defender miss before cleverly slipping out of bounds at the Chargers 13-yard line.

Lance threw behind Aiyuk for a three-yard gain down to the Chargers five, burning the 49ers’ last timeout. But he made the most of the opportunity, ripping this ball to Sanu for his first touchdown of the day. He would have converted the two-point conversion, too, which he ran for, but which was negated by a holding penalty. Robbie Gould followed that with his second missed extra point of the preseason.

Then it was on. Shanahan let Lance continue into the second half. It began in less than inspiring fashion, with Lance taking a sack, then being let down by the stone-handed Richie James Jr., who dropped (or whiffed) on a short curl pass.

His final drive was just as impressive as his half-ending touchdown drive. He used his legs again, escaping pressure and rushing for eight yards and the first down. Two plays later, on third-and-four, he found Travis Benjamin for an 8-yard completion and another first down.

There was one dicey, short throw to James which followed, but Lance came back to James for an 11-yard completion a few plays later. After three-straight Hasty rushes, Lance made his most impressive throw of the day. It was another third-and-four, and again, Lance turned to Benjamin.

It looked like he manipulated the middle-field linebacker, then fired this absolute missile to Benjamin for his second touchdown (and final play) of the day.

After starting 1-of-6 for 9 yards and an interception, Lance finished 7-of-8 with two touchdowns, 93 yards through the air and 8 yards rushing, for a total tally of 8-of-14 with 104 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception and two sacks on the day.

It was a brilliant decision by Shanahan to ride Lance. The kid clearly needs reps, and the longer he went, the more comfortable he looked. Shanahan also pulled the plug at the right time, allowing Lance to finish on a high note. After the brutal start to this one, Shanahan, Lance and the 49ers got what they needed out of Sunday’s game.

That defensive line depth is real

The other standout from Sunday’s contest was the defensive line. It didn’t matter whether it was the first team (which featured Arik Armstead and Samson Ebukam early, but no Nick Bosa or Dee Ford) or the second team. Everyone got involved.

Armstead was the early beneficiary of a D.J. Jones pressure up the middle, with Armstead chasing down Easton Stick from behind. Ebukam got one of his own, too, and later had another quarterback hit.

Maurice Hurst, Zack Kerr, Kentavius Street and Darrion Daniels all had solid nights, too, splitting gaps and wreaking havoc in the backfield. It’s clear this defensive line has depth just about everywhere. Street finally got rewarded in the final seconds of the game with a sack of his own.

Even safety Kai Nacua got in on the action late, rushing off the edge to force Chase Daniel to curl up into a ball and protect himself for the 49ers’ fourth sack of the night.

The most impressive defensive line play of the day was early on, when Jordan Willis — who is suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy — had a safety. He came screaming off the edge, bending low and showing tremendous balance to beat Trey Pipkins II.

The 49ers’ coverage, too, looked fine. Granted, they didn’t face Justin Herbert, but there weren’t any egregious coverage busts that come to mind. There was one would-be interception, by Jared Mayden, which he took 54 yards for a pick-six, before a penalty on Shilique Calhoun got it called off.

San Francisco’s linebacker corps, too, had moments of its own. Jonas Griffith and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles got extended run; both inserted well in run fits, as did the third-team group of Justin Hilliard and Elijah Sullivan.

On the whole, it was a very impressive night from the defensive line, and the defense as a whole. There were too many penalties on either side, but the Chargers really struggled to move the ball, finishing with 171 net yards.

Other notes:

  • Absences: Azeez Al-Shaair, Aaron Banks, Nick Bosa, Shon Coleman, Dee Ford, Jalen Hurd, Javon Kinlaw, George Kittle, Alex Mack, Elijah Mitchell, Emmanuel Moseley, Raheem Mostert, Trey Sermon, Jason Verrett, Jimmie Ward, Fred Warner, K’Waun Williams, Trent Williams, Jauan Jennings and Tavon Wilson.
  • Notable absences: Trey Sermon and Jauan Jennings were the only two surprise absences. Sermon missed out with an ankle injury and Jennings with a heel injury. Those injuries are not expected to be serious.
  • In-game injuries: After an impressive early start, Maurice Hurst left with an ankle injury, as did Mychal Kendricks, with a toe injury.
  • No clarity with back end of receiver room: I don’t envy Kyle Shanahan’s decision on who the 49ers’ last receiver should be, assuming the first five are Aiyuk, Samuel, Sanu, Sherfield and Jennings. Richie James Jr. whiffed on another ball, and caught one pass on a bootleg and was lucky not to be called for a fumble. On the positive side, he returned a punt for 31 yards, and his main rival at the position, Nsimba Webster, do too much to help his case. Webster dropped one ball himself, but had one 27-yard kick return.
  • Gallman and Hasty get their chance: If all you want as a player is a chance to prove yourself, both Wayne Gallman and JaMycal Hasty got it. With Jeff Wilson Jr. out for the foreseeable future, Raheem Mostert on ice, Elijah Mitchell out with an adductor strain and Sermon out with an ankle issue, it was all Hasty and Gallman, who might be fighting each other for a roster spot. Both got their chances to impress and did so. Gallman ran 15 times for 72 yards, but dropped a screen, while Hasty had 19 carries for 58 yards and two catches for 52 yards.

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