Ready or not, Trey Lance could be 49ers' starting QB
San Francisco may have to turn to the former Bison star fulltime with starter Jimmy Garoppolo's status unknown because of an injured right calf.
Amid questions about his scant usage of Trey Lance, Kyle Shanahan explained Wednesday why the rookie quarterback had only played seven snaps in the first three games.
"This isn't the preseason," the 49ers head coach said.
On Sunday, it became evident why Lance had been limited to spot duty: He's probably not quite ready for the regular-season stage.
The third overall pick was shoved into service in a 28-21 loss to the Seahawks because starter Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a calf injury, and his shaky performance made this the most pressing question after the 49ers (2-2) lost their second straight game: When can Garoppolo return?
Garoppolo apparently injured his right calf in the first half, but did not leave the game then nor appear notably hobbled. Given that, it was a surprise when Lance entered for the 49ers' first drive of the second half while Garoppolo stood on the sideline, about 15 yards from Shanahan, without his helmet. ESPN reported that Garoppolo said he is set to have an MRI on his injured calf on Monday.
Lance's statistics weren't horrific. He completed 9 of 18 passes for 157 yards with two touchdowns and ran for a two-point conversion. He carried seven times for 41 yards. However, Lance entered with the score tied 7-7 and his first five drives ended with three punts, a loss of downs and a 76-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel, who was left all alone on a busted coverage. Before Lance's final drive, when Seattle was giving him checkdown passes, the Seahawks led 28-13 with 4:30 left and Lance had completed 2 of 7 passes.
Garoppolo's injury was part of a painful afternoon for the 49ers, who lost kicker Robbie Gould to a groin injury in pregame warmups. In his absence, punter Mitch Wishnowsky missed an extra point and a 41-yard field goal. In addition, Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams exited in the fourth quarter with an elbow injury of unknown severity.
The 49ers dominated for the first 25 minutes. And they set the tone immediately: Their first possession was an eight-play, 71-yard drive in which Garoppolo played the starring role. Garoppolo completed 6 of 6 passes for 70 yards and capped the march with a 21-yard toss to reserve tight end Ross Dwelley, who became the 12th player to score one of the 49ers' 12 touchdowns this season.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks had zero offense. Actually, less than zero. After 25 minutes and 11 seconds, they had no first downs and minus-7 yards. A big reason was the 49ers' awakened pass rush, which had just one sack and two QB hits in their loss to the Packers the previous week. The 49ers had three sacks and five QB hits in the first 19 minutes Sunday with two takedowns by Dee Ford and another by Nick Bosa ending three consecutive Seattle drives.
The problem? The 49ers were dominating the Seahawks statistically, with 11 first downs (Seahawks: 0) and 198 yards (Seahawks: minus-7), but led only 7-0 with 4:49 left in the second quarter. One reason was the loss of Gould: Wishnowsky missed his 41-yard field attempt on 4th-and-8 in the second quarter.
Quarterback Russell Wilson and the rest of Seattle's offense finally awoke for a six-play, 80-yard drive that took less than three minutes. And after Wilson tossed a 12-yard touchdown to wideout D.K. Metcalf on the first play after the two-minute warning, the game was improbably tied.
With Garoppolo watching from the sideline, Lance's first two second-half drives went nowhere. The first three-and-out drive included three runs that gained 7 yards, ending with Lance's 1-yard run on 3rd-and-4. On Lance's second drive, he began by throwing a short pass to tight end George Kittle that fluttered incomplete at the tight end's feet. Lance ended it by sailing a 3rd-and-4 pass to Samuel well over the head of the double-covered wideout.
With the rookie struggling, Wilson went to work. First, he finished a 66-yard drive with a 16-yard scoring run in which he outran defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw along the left sideline and dove outstretched into the corner of the end zone.
Leading 14-7, the Seahawks received a gift when running back Trenton Cannon muffed the ensuing kickoff, recovered the ball and had it stripped, a loose ball Seattle recovered at the 14-yard line. Two plays later, Wilson pirouetted around blitzing cornerback Dontae Johnson and fired an on-the-run, 13-yard touchdown to wideout Freddie Swain to give the Seahawks a 21-7 lead with about four minutes left in the third quarter.
The 49ers closed to 21-13 on the next drive thanks to Seattle's busted-coverage gift. Lance located Samuel all alone down the right sideline, and he ran the final 52 yards without a defender near him for a 76-yard touchdown. Trailing 28-13, Lance threw an eight-yard touchdown to Samuel with 1:26 left in the game, but Wishnowsky's onside kick was recovered by the Seahawks.
Eric Branch — Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Eric_Branch — covers the 49ers for The San Francisco Chronicle, which is distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.