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Nick Mullens shines in NFL debut against Raiders

Making his NFL debut on the national stage, undrafted quarterback Nick Mullens tossed a trio of touchdown passes to lead the San Francisco 49ers to a 34-3 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the kickoff to Week 9. Here's what we learned on Thursday Night Football:

  1. An otherwise underwhelming West Coast matchup featuring one of the lowest combined winning percentages in prime-time history was given an immediate jolt by an unlikely hero. Presented with multiple options after breaking several of Brett Favre's records at Southern Miss, Mullens wisely chose to align himself with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the brightest quarterback gurus in football. With starter Jimmy Garoppolo out for the season and backup C.J. Beathard too banged up to throw effectively, Shanahan had Mullens fully prepped and ready to embrace the moment despite a short week's worth of practice time.
  1. Bolstered by Shanahan's scripted play calls, Mullens came out firing, nailing his first six passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. After finding Pierre Garconwide open on a 24-yard, boot-action score, Mullens tossed a 4-yard touchdown to a slightly less open Kendrick Bourne to take a 14-3 lead on the Niners' Bay Area rivals. San Francisco's third-string quarterback joined Tennessee's Marcus Mariota as the only players this century to unfurl touchdown passes on each of their first two NFL possessions. Throwing into a much tighter window to open the second half, Mullens was the beneficiary of a spectacular effort by George Kittle on an improbable 71-yard catch-and-run that set up a 5-yard scoring toss to the star tight end. Raheem Mostert broke the Raiders' backs on the next possession, racing 52 yards to pay dirt against a defense that appeared to have packed it in for the evening.

Mullens finished his debut 16 of 22 for 262 yards (11.9 YPA) for three touchdowns and a near-perfect 151.9 passer rating. How fanciful was this dream come true? Before the game, he was virtually unknown to the greater NFL world. By the start of the fourth quarter, he had become a household name -- finally verified on Twitter.

  1. As the Around The NFL Podcast's Gregg Rosenthal pointed out, the early-season loss of Garoppolo has provided cover for all of the other problems on a team that entered the evening tied for the worst record (1-7) in the league. What the 49ers do have going for them, though, is Shanahan's offensive mind, a consistently excellent ground attack and a game-breaking tight end making a serious run at Rob Gronkowski's perennial All-Pro spot. Without breaking stride, Kittle turned an outstretched, one-handed circus catch into the night's biggest gain and one of the most impressive plays of the season.
  1. Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert were cruising through Paul Guenther's nonchalant defense, running through gaping holes at nearly 7.0 yards per clip into the third quarter. That ultra-productive tandem was disassembled when Mostert went down with a fractured forearm. Veteran Alfred Morris, the power back displaced by Mostert in the rotation of late, came on to kill the clock in the fourth quarter. Look for Breida and Morris to split the load going forward.
  1. Alternately confused and irate, Raiders coach Jon Gruden had amateur lip readers deciphering the colorful language directed at his shaky offensive line and broken defense. Derek Carr led the offense into field-goal territory on the opening drive only to see the drive stall once rookie left tackle Kolton Miller re-injured his knee in the red zone. From then on, Carr's pass protection was relentlessly exploited by a front seven that had been woefully short of impact edge rushers for the first two months of the season. This is the second straight game -- sandwiching the Week 8 bye -- in which the tackle trio of Miller, fellow rookie Brandon Parker and swingman Ian Silberman sabotaged Carr's chances of running a viable offense. It's impossible to evaluate the play of Carr, who has already absorbed more sacks in eight games under Gruden and offensive line coach Tom Cable than he took all of last season.
  1. Featuring a collection of misfits, castoffs and fading veterans, Guenther's defense is surrendering more yards per play than any unit in NFL history. At one point in the third quarter, the Raiders had allowed points on 15 of their opponents' last 18 possessions, excluding kneel-downs. The talent level was an issue even before the preseason blockbuster that sent 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack to Chicago. Now the effort level is in question.
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