Will Trey Lance play vs. Packers in NFL playoffs? 49ers would be smart to use rookie QB

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Jimmy Garoppolo has two injuries affecting his throwing hand and arm (right thumb, right shoulder), but he is set to start again at quarterback for the 49ers in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Packers (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox). That doesn't mean the Niners should totally sit rookie first-round QB Trey Lance.

Lance made two starts filling in for Garoppolo in the regular season, well spaced out in Weeks 5 and 17. As expected, he had mixed results, struggling against the Cardinals and lighting up the Texans. Before then, Lance got significant action passing and running at home against the Seahawks in Week 4.

He also made a brief appearance in a 30-28 home shootout loss to the Packers in Week 3. Lance got one rushing attempt and turned it into a 1-yard TD run.

Coach Kyle Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel didn't build off that to design special packages for Lance, sticking with Garoppolo getting the snaps in a scheme where the QB is still pass-first, playing off the traditional running game. The 49ers keep using the wrinkle of wide receiver Deebo Samuel as a change-of-pace back, but they haven't needed Lance as much to move the ball or score while Garoppolo has been healthy, as they won seven of their final nine games.

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Lance is a dynamic runner while he's still developing as a green passer at only 21. In the games he played the most as a rookie, he combined for 164 yards rushing on 31 carries. That's 5.3 yards per attempt.

The Packers gave up 456 rushing yards to quarterbacks in the 2021 season, second only to Washington. QBs averaged 5.9 yards per attempt against them. The biggest producers were fellow rookie Justin Fields (twice), Tyler Huntley and Taylor Heinicke. Garoppolo did score three rushing TDs, but he had only 51 rushing yards on 38 attempts in 15 games for 1.3 yards per carry.

Green Bay ranked No. 12 in rushing defense in terms of yards per game allowed (109.1), but it was No. 30, ahead of only Kansas City and Pittsburgh, in terms of yards per carry allowed (4.7). San Francisco was the No. 6 rushing offense, averaging 127.4 yards per game. It was also tied for fifth with an average 29 rushing attempts per game.

Shanahan will stay committed to the run unless his team is trailing by three possessions late in the second half. Rookie Elijah Mitchell has seen more than 20 carries in five consecutive starts. He wasn't healthy for the first Packers meeting.

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Attacking the Packers on the ground is the best strategy. It's their defensive weakness and the 49ers' offensive strength. It also can come with extra ball-control and time of.possession benefits, limiting how much Aaron Rodgers touches the ball and protecting the Niners' defense.

Mitchell has been effective with volume. In seven of his 11 games he had 90 or more rushing yards. His last big game was Week 17 against the Texans, which Lance started.

The 49ers tend to load up one preferred back and that's Mitchell. Lance would be their way to incorporate a further change of pace via a unique committee in certain situations. It would make the most sense to reintroduce the wrinkle in the red zone, where it's imperative for the 49ers to finish long drives with TDs with Rodgers on the other side.

Lance, despite his hot second half in Week 17, didn't see action in the must-win Week 18 game at the Rams or in the wild-card playoff at the Cowboys. Shanahan may remain reluctant to use two QBs, but the 49ers also need to consider elements of surprise to win as underdogs. Just the presence of Lance on a few snaps could open up big plays elsewhere.

Shanahan hasn't been afraid to experiment, given Samuel at running back is a smashing success. One shouldn't be shocked if he makes Lance a little bit of a factor against the Packers.

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