The Broncos will be without two key starters, one on both sides of the ball. Namely, Montee Ball (groin) and Danny Trevathan (leg). Trevathan was placed on Injured Reserve-Designated to Return yesterday.
It's looking like the Niners will be missing star inside linebacker, Patrick Willis, on Sunday night. They're also missing NaVorro Bowman, Willis' partner in crime. Troubled outside linebacker, Aldon Smith, is in the midst of serving out his 9-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with NinersDigest's Editor-In-Chief, Chris Biderman about what Broncos Country can expect from Colin Kaepernick and the Niners offense. Here's what we learned.
MileHighHuddle: The San Francisco 49ers currently rank 7th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 135.7 yards per game. Frank Gore (403) has almost as many yards rushing as the entire Denver Broncos offense (456). In his 10th season, is there any sign that Gore is slowing down and how much can the Broncos expect to see from rookie, Carlos Hyde?
Biderman: Gore came into camp in great shape and continued to look strong in the early portion of the season. But that’s nothing new, even in his advanced age. The problem the 49ers have run into with Gore is wearing him down by the end of the season. By drafting Hyde, San Francisco is able to take more off Gore’s plate than in the past.
They can run the same kind of plays with the rookie, whereas in years past the backup running back was Kendall Hunter, who is much more of a change-of-pace back. In the first nine games of 2013, Gore averaged 4.3 yards per carry. In the remaining seven games, he averaged 3.75, and in the playoffs that number fell to 3.42. So with Hyde, the 49ers can afford to give Gore more breathers as the season goes on to save him for the stretch run.
MileHighHuddle: The 49ers currently rank 18th in the league in passing. Last week, Colin Kaepernick threw for a season-high 343 yards vs the St. Louis Rams, on the road. Will we see the 'Niners follow suit in week 7 on the road and seemingly lead with the pass?
Biderman: It depends on how they are defended. Offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, attacked the Rams through the air last week because they were consistently crowding the line of scrimmage and selling out against the run. So Roman continued to dial up passes, despite St. Louis entering the game with the league’s No. 1 passing defense, while being 29th against the run.
If the Broncos try to stop the 49ers running game by stacking the box, I’d expect Colin Kaepernick to try and make plays down-field to Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd sprinkled in. But if Denver keeps their safeties deep, expect the 49ers to stick with the running game until they adjust.
The data says no team faced more loaded fronts than the 49ers last year, and their goal in the off-season was to force defenses to play them more straight up; hence the acquisitions of Lloyd and Johnson. So far, Kaepernick has career highs across the board in his passing stats, and can still extend plays with his legs if need be.
MileHighHuddle: Brandon Lloyd had a big game last week vs the Rams. As a former Bronco, some in Broncos Country still have an interest in him. How has he fit in with the 'Niners on his one-year deal?
Biderman: I wrote about LLoyd this week and the impact he’s had on the last two games. He gives the offense a dimension it was lacking in the last few seasons: a down-field threat outside the numbers. Crabtree and Boldin aren’t speedy receivers, and Vernon Davis usually does his damage over the middle of the field. Lloyd gives them a vertical threat that teams have to be aware of.
The interesting thing about Lloyd is the faith Kaepernick has shown in him. The passing game struggled last season, in part, because Kaepernick didn’t trust his pass catchers outside of Davis and Boldin. But in a key play against the Chiefs two weeks ago, Kaepernick was pressured and threw a jump ball for Lloyd, which he won over corner, Sean Smith, that Kaepernick probably wouldn’t have thrown to any of his targets last year. It went for 29 yards on third-and-10 and led to the go-ahead field goal.
MileHighHuddle: Anquan Boldin is on pace for (barely) another 1,000-yard receiving season. But he's getting long in the tooth. How much has the combination of Lloyd, Stevie Johnson and Michael Crabtree effected his production and who is the clear-cut #1 WR?
Biderman: Through the season’s first six games, the 49ers have had four different players lead the team in receiving. And six have caught touchdown passes, after just three had TDs in 2013. To this point, the offense is reaping the benefits of the added weaponry for Kaepernick. Over the last few weeks the receivers have all said they believe they have four No. 1 wideouts and don’t mind sharing the load, as long as it leads to victories. All four of their wideouts have 1,000-yard seasons on their resumes, giving the 49ers their best receiving corps since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens were around.
But when you watch this team, it’s clear Boldin is Kaepernick’s most trusted option, especially on third down. He leads the team with 42 targets while Crabtree has 40, Johnson 25 and Lloyd 15. Boldin’s numbers were inflated last season because the 49ers simply didn’t have any other options outside of Davis until Michael Crabtree came back after an 11-game absence. For now, it seems like all the wideouts are content with their roles as long as it leads to a championship.