Broncos defense provides 49ers a stiff test

Peyton Manning is typically the first player that comes to mind when thinking about the Denver Broncos. But the team's rebuilt defense has played very well in the early portion of 2014 and will provide the 49ers a tough test Sunday night.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Peyton Manning has a way of hogging the spotlight.

And rightfully so. The five-time MVP is two touchdown passes away from tying Brett Favre’s all-time record of 508.

If not Sunday, that record will fall soon. It’s no matter to Manning, 38, who is trying to get back to the Super Bowl after last season’s 43-8 drubbing by Seattle. So what did the Broncos do in the offseason to rebound? They added talent, and a lot of it, to the defense.

Denver had the league’s 18th ranked defense in 2013 while Manning led an offense that set new single-season records in points (606), touchdowns (76), passing first downs (293) and players with 10 or more TDs (4).

Meanwhile, last year’s defense was mediocre at best, but rounded into shape in the playoffs, allowing 17 points to the Chargers in the divisional round and 16 to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the conference title game.

Throughout the year, the defense didn’t need to be great given the historic season the offense had, but its weaknesses reared their ugly heads in the 35-point loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

This year, Denver’s defense is the NFL’s fourth-ranked unit, thanks to a haul in free agency that included defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and corner Aqib Talib. The Broncos are ranked in the top 10 in points allowed, total defense, rushing defense and sacks.

General Manager and Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway signed those three players to a combined $109.5 million over the duration of their deals. The Super Bowl-winning QB knows the importance of being good on the other side of the ball. The Broncos’ D was in the top 10 in scoring and yards during their back-to-back championships in 1997-98 with Elway under center.

Rushing the edge, Ware brings seven Pro Bowl seasons of experience to his new team, helping mentor fourth-year star linebacker Von Miller and the rest of the Broncos defensive front.

”To have a guy in the room like that and be able to talk about his experience in the last few years of the NFL, to the guys who haven’t been in the NFL as long, is invaluable,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers told the team’s website in August. “You always like a guy who’s a coach out on the field and he talk to those guys.”

Ware dealt with a myriad of injuries in 2013, ranging from ailments in both elbows to a torn quad. He managed to play in 13 games and had six sacks in 2013 before the Cowboys severed ties to save a reported $7.4 million against the cap in the spring.

”He looks like the player he was in 2012 and before,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Think he’s moving really well. They have 10 sacks between the two outside linebackers, putting pressure on the quarterback, getting hurries, getting sacks. Playing extremely well.“

On the other side, Miller is a dark horse defensive player of the year candidate with 7 sacks and 19 QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. In any other year, without J.J. Watt having an all-time great defensive season, Miller might be a favorite to land DPoY.

”Athletic as all get out, really great change of direction,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Got a great spin move inside. Can run the rim on the hoop really well. Dip, get low and run and trim the fat, as they say, on the edge. So, he’s a really good player against the run and pass.”

The 49ers have faced some of the league's top pass rushers in their last two games in the Chiefs Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and Robert Quinn of the Rams. But in noisy Sports Authority Field in Denver, Miller and Ware might provide tackles Joe Staley and either Anthony Davis or Jonathan Martin their toughest test of the young season.

Davis, who made one start before leaving on the last play of the first quarter against Philadelphia in Week 4, returned to practice this week after dealing with left knee and ankle injuries. He will be a game-time decision Sunday night.

With Ward and Talib, the Broncos upgraded their secondary with one of the league’s hardest-hitting safeties and elite cover corners. Talib sealed last week’s win over the Jets with a 22-yard pick six with 15 second left. The play was eerily similar to 49ers rookie Dontae Johnson’s late interception return against the Rams. Both were the last scoring plays of their teams’ 31-17 wins.

”Turnovers, man, they come in bunches,” Talib said after the game, netting the Broncos' fifth turnover of the year. “Hopefully that will be the spark that gets us going.”

The 49ers have committed just two turnovers in their last four games while getting seven from opponents. With Manning on the other side, holding on to the ball will be key to upsetting Denver. San Francisco enters Sunday at 6.5-point underdogs.

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