HOUSTON – It would be easy to say that facing a rookie quarterback should bode well for any roster. However, it’s harder to judge when presented with a plethora of veteran pass catchers.
Barring a miraculous last-minute recovery from starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers look to rookie Trey Lance Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. Against the Houston Texans. Lance, the No.3 pick last April, hasn’t seen the action since a loss of week 5 at the Arizona Cardinals.
This game marked his first start in the NFL. It wasn’t pretty, but then again, how many rookies shine under this kind of pressure? Lance completed just 51.7% of his passes for 192 yards and threw an interception.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said last week that Lance has improved over the past month and is ready to start. Part of the reason San Francisco (8-7) could breathe easy is Lance’s supportive cast.
It starts with wide receiver Deebo Samuel. It ends with rear Kyle Juszczyk. In between, there are plenty of playmakers who can empower the Texans to end Houston’s two-game winning streak.
“When you’re the best player in the draft, we know you’re good,” cornerback Tavierre Thomas said of Lance. “I just have to go over there and just try to pick up some keys that we can play with and just go from there.”
Samuel, the third-year South Carolina playmaker, can no longer be described as “just” a wide receiver. Shanahan has chosen to expand his role in the racing game, making him a ground weapon for tough job sites after first contact.
Gadget players continue to make their mark in the league, and Samuel is another. He averages 6.7 yards per game as a running back and leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns. In the air, he recorded over 1,200 receiving yards and five scores.
“Deebo is a very special person. He’s a guy who can have the ball in his hands,” said cornerback Desmond King. “He can catch the ball. He’s a gadget guy, so we’ll have to prepare for what he has to come.”
Samuel is not alone in the receiving game. Second-year target Brandon Aiyuk averages 13.6 yards per catch and has five points. Jauan Jennings, another 2021 draft pick, has three touchdowns on 16 receptions.
Young shifts will often trust those working in the middle. This is where the problem lies in stopping tight end George Kittle. Considered by some to be the best tight end of the game, Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith sees him as a “safety blanket” for the offense.
He’s not wrong. Of his 65 receptions, 34 were first tries. He is currently averaging 15.5 yards per catch on the third down.
“How many tight ends do you know that is 6-4, 6-‘5 whatever it is and over 250, runs a 4.5,” Smith said Thursday. “He can jump vertically, sideways. All those numbers that mean something, showing an explosion.
“For a quarterback to have someone like that to throw the ball to, he can line up anywhere. That in itself is a difficult duty.”
When Lance last left, Samuel and Juszczyk were the most targeted players, each receiving three catches and at least four targets. Of Lance’s three touchdown passes, Samuel recorded two.
Texans hope their winning streak can improve to three games behind another rookie quarterback Davis Mills. Offensively, Mills must continue his success with a high completion rate and win in the red zone.
Defensively, Houston must contain Lance’s guns first and the quarterback second. Rookie or not, that’s easier said than done – just ask eight other rosters what they looked like in the loss.