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Are Changes to the 49ers Offense on the Horizon?

The changes start with the addition of Trey Lance.

The 49ers wrapped up the NFL Draft on Saturday, and looking at the selections they made it seems to indicate there may be some adjustments to the offensive attack moving forward.

The changes start with the addition of Trey Lance. Lance is a big, strong, athletic quarterback who can beat the defense with his arm from the pocket or run through them with his legs. This skillset is something that Kyle Shanahan hasn’t had in a quarterback since drafting Robert Griffin III while with Washington in 2012.

With Griffin, Shanahan made some minor tweaks to his offense to take advantage of his rookie quarterbacks unique skillset. While the passing game looked pretty similar to what 49ers fans have become used to, the biggest differences in the offense were how often they lined up in the shotgun formation, and how Shanahan utilized Griffin in the running game.

While it has become common to see the quarterback under center during Shanahan’s first four seasons in San Francisco, in 2012 Washington utilized the shotgun formation for 65% of their offensive snaps, and this number does not include snaps that came out of the pistol formation which is a variation of shotgun in which the quarterback is not under center and a running back is lined up behind him.

The increased use of the shotgun was done for a couple of reasons, Griffin had used it extensively in college, and it allowed Washington to run the quarterback read. The “read” is an option play in which the quarterback looks at a defender, usually the defensive end, and if the end crashes down along the line of scrimmage the quarterback keeps the ball and runs around the end, if the end stays wide the quarterback will give the ball to the running back. In 2012, Washington ran this play at least a few times each game, and Griffin finished with 120 rushing attempts in the regular season.

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It would make sense to see Kyle Shanahan rekindle some of those wrinkles with Trey Lance. Lance is bigger and stronger than Griffin, and in 17 games at North Dakota State he ran the ball 192 times for 1,325 yards and 18 touchdowns. This addition to Shanahan’s running game could prove deadly for 49ers opponents.

The changes go beyond the quarterback. The 49ers have made it a priority to add running backs with more bulk in recent weeks. After adding Wayne Gallman through free agency, the 49ers added Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell through the draft. All three running backs are bigger than current 49ers starting running back, Raheem Mostert, weighing in at over 210 pounds compared to 196 pounds for Mostert.

You may be asking why this is important. When Kyle Shanahan changed up his offense in 2012 his starting running back was Alfred Morris. Morris was a big back, weighing in at 222 pounds, and Shanahan used him frequently to help restrict the exposure of his rookie quarterback in the passing game.

In 2012, Griffin attempted slightly more than 26 pass attempts per game, the fewest for any quarterback under Kyle Shanahan. Limiting the number of pass attempts, especially early on, could be a key to success for Lance and the 49ers. Lance played in only 17 games with North Dakota State, attempting more than 23 passes in a game only twice.

Limiting the exposure of a rookie quarterback in the passing game doesn’t necessarily mean that a team is limiting its opportunity to win. That 2012 Washington team won the NFC East division, and in 2004 the Pittsburgh Steelers went all the way to the AFC Championship game with their rookie signal caller, Ben Roethlisberger, attempting just over 22 passes per game.

While Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have been steadfast that Jimmy Garoppolo will be back with the team for the 2021 season, when the time comes for Lance to step in, look for these to be a few of the tweaks to the 49ers offense.