San Francisco 49ers (1-6) vs. Denver Broncos (2-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: CBS (Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf)
PREDICTION: Broncos 30-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: There's growing sentiment that both once-popular coaches are on tenuous turf with their teams fading. The 49ers, who've been in London all week, elevated No. 3 QB Troy Smith to the start with Alex Smith (shoulder) out. Troy Smith hasn't started since late in 2007 in Baltimore. The Broncos are banged up in the secondary and are 30th in the NFL vs. the run, which beckons a healthy diet of RB Frank Gore from the Niners, who will take chances off of play-action. Broncos QB Kyle Orton is only 26-of-63 passing in the past two games but there's strong potential for a rebound -- the Niners have allowed 11 TD passes in seven games.
FAST FACTS: 49ers TE Vernon Davis has a TD in four straight games. ... The Broncos are 4-13 in their past 17 games.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Mike Johnson was on the Baltimore Ravens coaching staff when quarterback Troy Smith, then a rookie, started two games for the Ravens at the end of the 2007 season.
Still, the 49ers offensive coordinator said he was racing to learn as much as he could about Smith, Sunday's starter, in order to formulate a game plan Sunday against the Broncos.
"I'm still trying to figure out some of the things he does well," Johnson said. "... Now that I have a chance to really see what he can do, I can put a game plan together. So I'm still learning basically what he does well also."
Wednesday was the first time that Smith had thrown a practice pass with the 49ers first-team offense. He had shared scout-team snaps with David Carr since joining the 49ers on Sept. 6. Because of Smith's lack of familiarity with the first-team unit, the 49ers dedicated extra practice time this week to the offensive group.
Johnson also has been busy watching old game film of Smith and having long chats with him in an effort to figure out what the quarterback does best.
Still, Johnson said Smith's lack of familiarity with the first-team offense means that he'll have to simplify the game plan.
"You have to cut back, you have to scale back, and you can't pull from as many things," Johnson said. "So third-down (plays), red zone -- they are going to be things that suit him."
The Broncos have two choices as they head to London to face the 49ers, not only sporting a 2-5 record but coming off an embarrassing 45-point loss.
They can stay on the mat and begin playing out the string, or take out their frustrations out on San Francisco on the field.
It's not surprising that players and coaches would suggest the latter is coming. But the Broncos have been here before and failed miserably.
Denver opened 2009 with a 6-0 record. Its first loss turned into four straight and eventually eight of 10. Actions will speak louder than words.
"Anytime you are coming off a game where you don't feel good about what you did, the six days leading up to the next game take forever," coach Josh McDaniels said. "I think everybody was kind of excited that we were starting on Tuesday instead of Wednesday this week (because of trip logistics). They have a great energy about them and the right attitude about this preparation.
"I think they're looking forward to going over there, getting acclimated and then getting ready to go for Sunday. The mindset that we have received from our players this week has been exactly what you would hope it would be."
Defensively, the team will get two starters back in cornerback Andre' Goodman and safety Brian Dawkins. That should help stabilize the back end and avert the kind of communications issues made by their less experienced counterparts.
Denver also will play the same offensive line for a third straight week, perhaps meaning added continuity to a run game that has shown flashes that it can at least provide a legitimate threat, though still unable to carry the team.
Perhaps getting away will do the Broncos good, too. Negativity has surrounded the team from outside team headquarters since the 59-14 stunner against Oakland last Sunday.
"I believe we have the right mindset to do what we're supposed to do. That last game was unlike any other game we played this year. And we don't want anything like that to continue to be a part of who we are, because that's not us," Dawkins said. "And the way we can prove that's not us is doing our jobs this week, learning from our mistakes from last week -- both mental mistakes, because we made a lot of those, and physical -- and putting out what we're supposed to on the football field for one another."
--TE Vernon Davis has missed practice the last two days with an ankle sprain. If he can't play Sunday, Delanie Walker would take his place in the lineup. Still, Davis is walking without a limp and his practice absence appears to be precautionary.
--RT Anthony Davis has allowed six sacks this season. One mitigating factor -- the 49ers have not given Davis the help, in the form of a tight end or chipping running back, other teams supply rookie tackles.
--CB Nate Clements again was limited in practice with an ankle injury. Clements struggled in Sunday's loss to Carolina.
--OLB Ahmad Brooks practiced in full after missing Wednesday's session with a knee injury.
--S Chris Maragos was re-signed to the practice squad after being released Wednesday. The 49ers used his active-roster spot for CB Tramaine Brock because fellow cornerbacks Clements and Tarell Brown (back) are not fully healthy.
--RB Knowshon Moreno was back on the field for a second straight day practicing despite a very public grab of his hamstring Wednesday. Coach Josh McDaniels said Moreno's "fine" and the player wasn't listed on the injury report.
--CB Perrish Cox (concussion) won't make the trip to London. Cox has been experiencing migraine headaches this week and with Denver's bye after the San Francisco game, the cautious route was taken.
--WR Eddie Royal (groin) practiced Thursday before the team departed for London. McDaniels said he wasn't going to take anyone on the trip that he believed couldn't play. But Royal's official designation likely will be questionable.
--DL Kevin Vickerson (groin) has been ruled out Sunday. Denver signed Le Kevin Smith earlier in the week and since he spent the entire summer with the Broncos needed only to learn the game plan for San Francisco and not assimilate the entire defense. Smith will be part of the line rotation.
--OLB Robert Ayers, according to previous reports, would miss 2-3 months with a foot injury. But asked Thursday why the team wouldn't just put Ayers on injured reserve if that was the case, McDaniels called the information "likely incorrect" and said he was looking forward to having Ayers back in the "near future."
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