Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The final Battle of the Bay, maybe ever, ended in a convincing 34-3 win for the 49ers over the cross-town rival Oakland Raiders. Undrafted second-year quarterback Nick Mullens led the 49ers on offense, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions, and giving the 49ers’ offense a spark. Mullens was impressive in the game, looking more like a veteran than an undrafted player making his first start. I want to take a look at some of the more impressive plays he made in the game.
So this first clip may not be a highlight reel play, but a quarterback has to make the play when it's there. In this instance, receiver Pierre Garcon is wide open off of the play-action boot -- a staple in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s playbook -- and Mullens does not miss him. Easy touchdown.
This is the first real impressive play from Mullens in this game. The Raiders are in a cover-2 zone, and Mullens does a nice job recognizing where the soft spot of the zone is. Off of play-action, Mullens hitches, then steps into the throw to receiver Pierre Garcon right as Garcon breaks on his route. Mullens is throwing this ball to a spot, knowing that Garcon will find the same soft spot in the zone. A perfect throw, just over the defender, and between the two safeties. This is the type of play you expect from a veteran quarterback.
This may look like a very simple well-designed play from Kyle Shanahan. But this is a play you see many quarterbacks fail at executing properly. The play is designed to have a free rusher at the quarterback. The rusher is free because the tight end lets him by. The tight end, George Kittle, does a nice job selling that he got beat on this play. In reality, Kittle let him by to create space. Now the hard part: Mullens has to complete the pass with a defender in his face. Some quarterbacks would panic and throw the ball high, or at the receiver’s feet. Mullens stays calm, and throws a sidearm pass to Kittle, who picks up nice yardage on the play. Cool, calm, collected. That's what you want in your quarterback.
RPOs, or run pass options, were all the rage last season. But defenses figured those out, right? Kyle Shanahan likes to use RPOs, especially in the red zone, and Mullens executes this RPO perfectly. Mullens sees the defender on the tight end playing off, and trusts his guy to get inside. Mullens throws a perfect ball, just enough outside the defender, but he has to get enough air on it to clear the linebacker and enough zip to get there before the safety. Fantastic ball placement by Mullens.
This may have been my favorite play from Mullens in this game. Not just because it was a great throw, because it was. Not just because Bourne did his best attempt to almost drop it. But this play stood out to me because Mullens used his eyes to manipulate the defense.
The end zone angle shows how he uses his eyes to manipulate the defense. Mullens knew he couldn’t complete this pass if the linebacker covered that side of the field. So Mullens stood in the pocket and looked off the middle linebacker with his eyes just long enough to give Bourne the space to get open. This is another veteran play from the young quarterback.
The Raiders sent the house on this play. Most defensive coordinators will blitz a young quarterback to get him off his game. Mullens recognizes the blitz pre-snap and knows he will have one-on-one coverage on his receivers. Mullens waits just long enough to let Richie James get out of his break, and puts the ball in the perfect spot to maximize the yards after the catch.
This is the play that everyone is talking about. The funny part of this play is that it’s not a concept that Kyle Shanahan runs. You don’t run two receivers into the middle of the field together like that. The radio in Mullens’ helmet, which Shanahan uses to call in the plays, cuts off with 15 seconds left on the play clock. In this instance Mullens heard only half of the play and called what he thought Shanahan was trying to call. Problem was Mullens called the wrong route combinations for one half of the field. But when you throw a perfect ball it doesn’t matter how many defenders are around. It also helps when you have one of the best tight ends in the NFL. George Kittle makes one of the better plays of the season catching this ball one handed, and almost taking this play to the house.
Nick Mullens was close to perfect in this game, the majority of the passing plays were simple throws that Shanahan gave his young quarterback to execute. On the play calls where Shanahan asked his quarterback to make a big time throw or decision, Mullens delivered. The offense hasn’t moved this well since the five-game winning streak to end the 2017 season. Mullens was rewarded by being named the starter for the Monday Night Football game at Levi's Stadium versus the New York Giants. This means that Nick Mullens’ first two career starts will be in prime time, and if the first game was any indication, Mullens is up for the challenge.
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