GLENDALE, Ariz. — Win or lose, it’s how Trey Lance played the game that made his San Francisco 49ers starting debut so compelling.
How much would he run? (A lot). Would his high-speed passes hit their mark? (Sometimes). Exactly what devilish schemes would coach Kyle Shanahan unveil with his prize from the No. 3 overall draft slot? (Fourth down failures ensued).
Lance, overall, proved a dual-threat with his running and passing, but the 49ers lacked explosive plays and could not upend the undefeated Arizona Cardinals, who won 17-10 on Sunday, Oct. 10.
Five times the 49ers went for it on fourth down, and four times they failed, with Shanahan only summoning new kicker Joey Slye once for a field-goal attempt, which he made from 47 yards with 4:12 remaining.
The 49ers’ only other points: Deebo Samuel’s 13-yard run, upon taking Lance’s lateral, following blocks by Trent Williams and Mohamed Sanue, then stiff-arming a defender en route to the goal line with 1:42 left in the third quarter.
Not only did the 49ers fail four times on fourth down, they missed a play-making element, which could be attributed to play calls, the absence of George Kittle (he went on injured reserve Saturday) and an erratic rookie quarterback who started at least this game in place of an injured Jimmy Garoppolo.
When Lance wasn’t bobbing and weaving his way in or out of the pocket, he looked more lethal as a rusher than as a passer, and not just because of a first-series interception. The passing wasn’t as bad as the stat line may indicate, considering drops by Samuel (two), Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Aiyuk.
Lance threw for 192 yards (15-of-29, no touchdowns, one interception, 58.4 rating) and he ran for 89 yards on 16 carries.
Lance’s runs came with an element of danger. But not to him. Rather, it was his offensive linemen or Cardinals defender who often were collateral damage on some carries. Mike McGlinchey and Alex Mack each got hit awkwardly from behind on Lance runs.
When Lance ran, he’d either shuffle his way out of trouble or, in one photogenic case, give a second-effort lunge forward even after a defender pulled off his helmet, which happened on on the 1-yard run preceding Samuel’s touchdown.
Fourth-down failures cost the 49ers multiple possessions and points. Shanahan’s calls backfired 4-of-5 times, including a Lance incompletion that J.J. Watt deflected in the fourth quarter. Kyle Juszczyk sneak for no gain on fourth-and-1 with 9 minutes to go.
Shanahan called Lance’s number on a pair of fourth-down runs that did not convert, and none was bigger than the fourth-and-goal run from the 1, in which Lance ran into a hellacious collision short of the goal line. That begs the question: Was Shanahan so intent on showing off his hot-shot quarterback that he passed up points with none on the scoreboard?
Lance’s earlier fourth-down try was a second-series run up the middle that was bland and unproductive. Even when the 49ers finally converted on a fourth-down (Mohamed Sanu 6-yard reception), that drive sputtered out because of a sack and the third holding penalty that series.
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