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Inside the 49ers

How the 49ers are developing Trey Lance

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What has Trey Lance learned on the bench that will help him next year?

This is a question that keeps coming up with regards to the lack of game action for the 49ers’ rookie quarterback. It is rooted in the belief that a player will only improve and grow through game action, and that the player’s growth will be stunted by not participating in games.

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The reality, though, is that there are several ways for quarterbacks to improve that don’t require them to play on Sundays.

In the NFL, most practice reps, if not all of them, go to the starting quarterback once the season starts. San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel was asked recently how the 49ers can manage grooming Lance for the future while Jimmy Garoppolo is getting the bulk of the plays in practice.

“One tool we’ve used is to look at the opponent’s offense, and during scout team, when you are servicing the defense the QB coach, and the offensive coaches have to put the time in to look through those type of plays and be able to apply it to our offense so that you can steal reps in your offense while doing someone else’s offense,” said McDaniel. “The terminology, the reads, the progressions. We don’t know the opponent’s playbook, but we know what the plays are and then we can take the extra time to make sure that it’s written down on the card in the corresponding language of our offense.”

This means that during every practice, while Jimmy Garoppolo is running plays against backups and scout team players, Lance is running a wide array of 49ers plays against the starting defense.

Prior to the draft, one of the top quarterback prospects that many had going to San Francisco was former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. One of the knocks on Jones was his lack of starts during his time with the Crimson Tide, when he only had 17 total.

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What many missed was that Jones practiced regularly throughout his career as the scout team quarterback. This meant that, day after day, he was forced to go against the starting defense of the best team in the country. This is just one of the reasons why he thrived from the moment he made his first start.

It’s also one of the reasons why Lance did not look like a fish out of water when he was forced to start against the Arizona Cardinals in week five with Garoppolo out due to injury.

For an example of this in the NFL, look no further than Colin Kaepernick. During his first season in the NFL, Kaepernick was limited to only mop-up duty in two games. When he finally took over for Alex Smith, following an injury midway through the 2012 season, he stepped in, and the 49ers offense didn’t miss a beat.

With the 49ers, the development of Lance isn’t limited only to his duties on scout team.

According to McDaniel, “There’s countless number of things, staying after practice. Having some of the receivers that are fresher, or tight ends and running backs stay out there to execute plays and timing. You don’t just say ‘it is what it is’ and you can’t get reps. That’s not part of our process. When there’s only a finite number of reps and our starting quarterback is getting a high percentage of those, or all of those, then we need to find workarounds.”

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When it comes to developing quarterbacks, there’s no surefire method. But just because it is happening away from the view of fans and media doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.



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Inside the 49ers

Can the 49ers get back to .500? 5 questions to watch for against Arizona

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San Francisco 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo (10) waits to take the field before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

The reeling 49ers desperately needed a win last week, and they got just what the doctor ordered with a 33-22 victory over the Bears in Chicago.

Now, San Francisco returns home still looking for their first win at Levi’s Stadium in over a year when they host the 7-1 Cardinals. After the win over the Bears, the mood around this team has shifted quickly from “tear it all down” to “playoffs?!” with the 49ers potentially moving into the newly added third wild card spot.

With a 49ers victory on Sunday, coupled with a Panthers loss to the Patriots and a Vikings loss to the Ravens, San Francisco will take over the final position in the NFC playoffs at the mid-point of the season.

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Here are my five questions to watch out for on Sunday.

1. Can Jimmy Garoppolo back up his performance against Chicago?

In the 49ers first matchup with the Cardinals this season, it was rookie Trey Lance making his first start of his career.

In the rematch, it will be Jimmy Garoppolo running the offense.

Coming off one of his best starts since 2019 in Chicago last week, Jimmy Garoppolo will face a team that he has been very successful against so far in his career.

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Garoppolo has won three of his four starts against the Arizona Cardinals and thrown the for the most yards and touchdowns against them of opponent he has faced. In four games, Garoppolo has completed 105 of 148 pass attempts for 1,264 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

2. Can the 49ers take advantage of the Arizona run defense?

The Arizona defense comes into the game on Sunday ranked second worst in the NFL against the run, allowing 4.9 yards per rushing attempt.

When these two teams last faced off, the 49ers were able to gain 152 yards rushing on 28 attempts. However, 16 of those carries came from 49ers quarterback Trey Lance and the offense struggled to get into sync.

With Garoppolo behind center this week, look for the 49ers to go back to their conventional run game. Last week, they were able to run through a better Chicago Bears defense for 145 yards and three touchdowns on only 26 attempts.

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Arizona will be without veteran defensive lineman J.J. Watt on Sunday. In the first matchup, Watt dominated against Mike McGlinchey, shutting several plays down with solid penetration.

For the 49ers, running back Elijah Mitchell is listed as questionable with a rib injury suffered last week. Mitchell currently leads the 49ers in rushing with 433 yards. If he is unable to go, the team may turn to veteran Jeff Wilson Jr. Wilson returned to practice this week for the first time this season and Kyle Shanahan hinted on Friday that his status could depend on where or not Mitchell would be able to go.

3. How will the return of George Kittle impact the 49ers offense?

After missing the last three games with an injury, George Kittle will return to the field on Sunday.

This is a familiar situation for Kittle who last season returned from missing six games to face Arizona. In that week 16 contest a year ago, Kittle made his presence felt with 92 receiving yards on four catches. With Deebo Samuel nursing a calf injury, which is worse this week than last according to Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers could use a similar impact from Kittle on Sunday.

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While Kittles’ last touchdown reception came more than a year ago, he is the best run blocking tight end in the NFL, and his presence on the field should provide a boost for the 49ers running game.

4. Who will be the quarterback for Arizona?

Kyler Murray has yet to practice this week for Arizona due to an ankle injury suffered against the Green Bay Packers. The Cardinals have listed Murray as questionable for Sunday.

If Murray is unable to go, Arizona will turn to veteran Colt McCoy.

While not having to face Murray would provide a big advantage for the 49ers defense, they need to be careful.
Replacing the starting quarterback is nothing new for McCoy. Last season as a member of the New York Giants, McCoy led the Giants to a 17-12 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle.

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5. Can the 49ers offense hold onto the football?

The Cardinal’s defense has been among the best in the NFL this season at creating turnovers and the 49ers offense is among the worst at avoiding them.

Arizona has forced a turnover in all but two of their eight games so far this season. Those two games have been their tightest contests, a one-point victory over Minnesota in week two and their loss last week to Green Bay.

On the flip side, the 49ers have not turned the ball over in only two games, victories at Philadelphia and Chicago.

Prediction:

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49ers 23 Cardinals 16



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How the 49ers were able to take down Chicago

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San Francisco 49ers cornerback Josh Norman (26) intercepts a Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields’ pass intended for wide receiver Darnell Mooney (11) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Chicago. The 49ers won 33-22. (AP Photo/David Banks)

The San Francisco 49ers (3-4) put an end to their four-game losing streak with a 33-22 victory at Soldier Field over the Chicago Bears. With the victory, the 49ers kept their playoff hopes alive.

Unlike a week ago, the 49ers were able to clean up most of their self-inflicted wounds. Let’s look back at some of the key plays from Sunday’s game.

First Quarter, 3rd and 10, San Francisco 33

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After a drop by Deebo Samuel and incompletion on a deep throw to Brando Aiyuk, the 49ers face their first third down of the game.

Garoppolo is able to beat the Chicago blitz, even with a somewhat free rusher in his face, delivering a strike to Mohamed Sanu over the middle.

This play really shows off Garoppolo’s early release, starting his throwing motion well before Sanu gets to the top of his break. While the Joey Slye would eventually miss the field goal on this drive, the big play was a sign of things to come.

First Quarter, 1st and 10, San Francisco 25

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San Francisco was able to dominate on the ground, especially when running to the left side, and it showed up early.
On the opening play of the 49ers second possession, Elijah Mitchell took a toss from Jimmy Garoppolo and broke free for an explosive run of 26-yards. Charlie Woerner and Kyle Juszczyk get the play started with a kickout block on the outside linebacker. Meanwhile, Trent Williams and Alex Mack get up to the linebackers at the second level and seal them off, and Deebo Samuel gets downfield to block the safety.

The 49ers would come back to this later in the game when they needed a big play, and Mitchell would rip off gains of 27 and 39 yards to seal the victory.

Second Quarter, 2nd and 11, San Francisco 24

Chicago is in man coverage with a single free safety in the middle of the field, and their secondary does a good job early in the play.

The 49ers offensive line does a good job protecting the quarterback, but with nobody open downfield, Garoppolo escapes the pocket out to his left. Brandon Aiyuk sees this and mirrors Garoppolo, who finds the receiver open for a gain of 23 yards.

This is the type of pocket presence and ability to make throws on the run that San Francisco needs to see on a more consistent basis from Garoppolo to be successful on offense.

Third Quarter, 3rd and 20, San Francisco 15

San Francisco opened the second half facing a tough third and long situation following a block in the back penalty on Kyle Juszczyk and an incompletion from Garoppolo to Charlie Woerner.

The play is a simple screen to Deebo Samuel on the left side, and while he gets credit for the 84 yards, the execution by his teammates is flawless. The first blocks which set the play up are a kickout by Juszczyk and a seal by Trent Williams, both tough blocks out in space.

Brandon Aiyuk then makes a nice block on the cornerback, and Samuel is off to the races where we find Alex Mack making another key block. That is a 35-year-old center getting 20 yards downfield to make a block.

Mohamed Sanu screens off the last Bears defender and Samuel gets all the way to the Chicago one yard line before being caught from behind.

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This type of teamwork shows up all over the 49ers offensive film from Sunday.

Fourth Quarter, 3rd and 11, Chicago 40

Wrapping this up with a defensive play.

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With San Francisco holding on to an eight-point lead, Chicago moves the ball out near midfield. That is when free agent acquisition Samson Ebukam comes up with his biggest play to date as a member of the 49ers.

On this play, the 49ers have three defensive ends on the field, Nick Bosa, Arden Key and Ebukam with Key and Ebukam both lined up on the right side. Ebukam takes a hard inside rush with Key twisting around to secure the outside and is able to bring Chicago quarterback Justin Fields down for a sack.

This was only the second Chicago possession of the game that did not result in points. Their final possession would end with an interception by Josh Norman.





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5 questions the 49ers must answer against Indianapolis

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Coming off their bye week, the San Francisco 49ers will look to end their three-game losing streak when they host the India

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton during action against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Santa Clara, CA. The Saints pummeled the Niners 41-23. (Daniel Gluskoter/AP Images for Panini)

napolis Colts on Sunday night. This marks the return of former 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to Santa Clara for the first time since he was traded following the 2019 season.

Here are the five questions I am looking for answers to during this game.

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1. Can the 49ers’ offensive line spoil the homecoming of DeForest Buckner?

When San Francisco decided to trade Buckner to Indianapolis they lost a lot more than just his on-field production. Jimmie Ward was asked earlier this week about his feelings on the trade, “You know what Buckner brought to this team. He was the heart and soul when he was here,” said Ward. “We ended up getting Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, but we lost a leader on this defense, on this team, in this building.”

Buckner is ready to face his former teammates, “It’s a little personal if you want to say that,” Buckner said when asked about his emotions heading into Sunday night.

On the field, Buckner has been a force on the Colts’ defense. In 2020 he was named first-team All-Pro, and Buckner this season he again ranks among the league’s best. He’s fifth among defensive tackles with 28 stops and has two sacks.

Buckner will provide quite a challenge for a 49ers offensive line that has struggled along with the interior, especially center Alex Mack and right guard Daniel Brunskill. Both Mack and Brunskill struggle to generate movement in the run game and get beat often in pass protection. If those two don’t step up on Sunday night, Buckner could make it a long night for the 49er’s offense.

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2. Will Jimmy Garoppolo make a strong return?

After missing the second half of the 49er’s loss to Seattle and the Arizona game with an injured calf, Jimmy Garoppolo will return to the starting lineup on Sunday night.

The forecast calls for rain throughout the game on Sunday night, marking the first game in the rain at Levi’s Stadium since the 49ers hosted the Seattle Seahawks in week 12 of the 2017 season. What’s notable about that game is it marked the debut of Garoppolo with the 49ers. In an otherwise dreary game, Garoppolo would thrill the home crowd with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy on his second throw in a 49ers uniform.

San Francisco’s most recent game in conditions similar to what is expected on Sunday night came in 2019 when they faced Washington in a downpour. The 49ers would come out on top 9-0 and Garoppolo would go 12-21, 151 yards and an interception. Garoppolo will need to improve on that performance to come out on top against Indianapolis.

3. Can the 49ers’ offense generate explosive plays?

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When fullback Kyle Juszczyk was asked Thursday about the issues facing the 49ers run game, his response actually could help explain why the entire offense has struggled to generate points in 2021.

“I feel like that’s what defines this league and makes great offenses is when you see these explosive plays. It’s tough in this league to go up and down the field, 10-12 play drives, and consistently do that and go score touchdowns,” said Juszczyk.

The San Francisco offense currently ranks 28th in the NFL in explosive plays. Explosive plays are defined as runs that gain 10 or more yards or passes that gain 15 or more yards. Only 8% of the 49ers’ 315 plays meet that criterion. A far cry from 2019 when the offense ranked second in this category at 13%. This drop represents three explosive plays per game less in 2021.

While the running game has seen a drop of approximately one per game from the 2019 level, it’s the passing game that has been most impacted. In 2019, 12% of 49ers’ pass plays went for 15 yards or more. That number has dropped to only 7% this season.

To bridge the gap the 49ers don’t necessarily need to push the ball down the field more in the passing game. Rather, they need to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers by any means possible. Finding ways to get more touches for an explosive player like Brandon Aiyuk should be the primary focus of the 49er’s offense over the next 12 weeks.

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4. Can the 49ers defense contain Jonathan Taylor?

Speaking of explosive plays, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is one of the best in the NFL. Through the first six weeks of the season 19.5% of Taylor’s rushing attempts have gained 10 or more yards, the second-year player is averaging just under three per game.

San Francisco’s run defense has been a little hot and cold this season, however, they’ve done a better job in recent weeks of limiting the big plays on the ground. With the weather conditions calling for rain, the 49ers’ defense could face a steady dose of Taylor throughout the game and will need to limit the big runs.

5. Will the 49ers defense get to Carson Wentz?

For the second season in a row, the 49ers will face Wentz at Levi’s Stadium. Last year Wentz led the Philadelphia Eagles a 28-18 victory over San Francisco. In that Sunday night contest, Wentz opened the scoring with an 11-yard touchdown run and later hit Travis Fulgham with a 42-yard touchdown pass to give the Eagles a lead which they would not relinquish.

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Wentz was traded to Indianapolis this offseason, and after a slow start to the season has begun to turn things around. Over the last four weeks,

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton during action against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Santa Clara, CA. The Saints pummeled the Niners 41-23. (Daniel Gluskoter/AP Images for Panini)
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton during action against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Santa Clara, CA. The Saints pummeled the Niners 41-23. (Daniel Gluskoter/AP Images for Panini)

Wentz has gone 79-124, 1,047 yards, and six touchdowns with no interceptions while leading the Colts to a 2-2 record.

The top target for Wentz has been Michael Pittman Jr. The second-year receiver from USC already has nearly the same numbers as he did during his rookie season and should draw plenty of attention from the 49ers secondary.

Prediction:

49ers 17 Colts 16



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