Know Your Enemy
Since the 2014 schedule was released, many in Broncos Country had this week's game circled. It will be a showdown of the respective Western divisions of each Conference. The (4-1) Denver Broncos will host the (4-2) San Francisco 49ers, on national television, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
These two teams met up in the preseason, to christen Levi Stadium in Northern California. The result was a 34-0 shellacking perpetrated by the Broncos. But lest you should read too much into a meaningless preseason game, keep in mind that neither team game-planned for one another and Jim Harbaugh only played his starters through the 1st quarter.
This game will take on a much different personality than it's preseason predecessor. Both teams are currently in 2nd place in their respective divisions. The Broncos trail the San Diego Chargers and the Niners trail the Arizona Cardinals by a full game. Neither team can afford to lose ground in the standings. This will be a war of attrition.
On a yards per game basis, the Niners rank in the middle of the pack for NFL offenses, averaging 365.3 per game, good for 15th in the league. However, they have continued their trend under Harbaugh by being one of the premier rushing teams, ranking 7th with 135.7 yards per game.
Frank Gore (403) is on pace for his 4th consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. And despite playing in his 10th year, and being on the wrong side of 30, he keeps plugging away, like a machine. One of the reasons he's been able to keep the ball rolling is the fact that he plays behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, if not the best.
Of the Niners 5 starters in the trenches, 4 of them have earned a positive grade on the season via ProFootballFocus, although it must be said that right tackle, Anthony Davis (+1.7), has only seen 24 snaps. Left tackle, Joe Staley, currently has a +3.6 overall grade and maintains his role as one of the nastiest and fiercest blind-side protectors in the league.
Inside, the Niners have 3 studs in Mike Iupati (+6.2), Daniel Kilgore (+3.5), and Alex Boone (-7.0). Oddly, the only lineman to not grade in the positive thus far, Boone, was the one who made big waves recently by holding out from training camp, looking for a new contract. Now we see why the Niners make it a policy not to negotiate with hold-outs. The team won that stare-down and Boone came crawling back. But the hold-out seems to have affected his performance.
These big road graders do a great job of opening holes for Gore and rookie, Carlos Hyde, as well as protecting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. The Broncos defense have been phenomenal thus far at stopping the run. They currently rank 4th in the league, surrendering only 76.8 rushing yards per game. But like their matchups with the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, and New York Jets, all teams with proficient rushing offenses, the Broncos will be tested to their limits on Sunday.
And not just because of Gore. It's no secret that Kaepernick is one of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. Sure, he can beat you with his arm but he can also gash you with his legs. Just ask the 2013 Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick leads all quarterbacks with 242 yards rushing on the season. The Broncos will have to be disciplined in how they defend against him. In passing situations, it might be wise to deploy a speedy linebacker, like Brandon Marshall or Corey Nelson, to spy Kaepernick.
Broncos Country wished that defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, would have spied Russell Wilson in overtime in week 3, when he converted 3rd down, after 3rd down, to seal the victory for the Seahawks. Hopefully, Del Rio learned his lesson there. This will mark the 4th time this season that the Broncos have had to defend against a mobile quarterback. And the results thus far have been a bit of a mixed bag.
As mentioned by our Niners insider, Chris Biderman, no team faced more loaded boxes than the Niners last year. So, to take pressure off of the running game, the team brought in wide receivers, Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson, to give them a vertical threat down-field.
Last year, Kaepernick's favorite target was Anquan Boldin, but this year, he's been spreading the ball around. Biderman also pointed out that through the first 6 games, 4 different receivers have led the team in receiving, between Lloyd, Johnson, Boldin, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. This team is anything but one-dimensional.
The Broncos secondary will have their hands full with this versatile receiving corps. They'll need big days from their cornerback triumvirate, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr, and Bradley Roby. Expect safety, T.J. Ward, to draw the coverage of Vernon Davis, who is a major threat in the middle of the field.
Overall, this could be the Broncos toughest offensive opponent on the season. First thing's first; stop the run and make Kaepernick beat you with his arm. That'll be the primary focus of the new Orange Crush.
As usual, the Niners defense is dominating football games. But even more impressively, they've done it without stars like NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. They are currently ranked #2 in the league, behind only the Detroit Lions, allowing a meager 287.2 total offensive yards per game.
They've also managed to pull this off, despite losing both of 2013's starters at cornerback, Carlos Rodgers and Tarell Brown. The player to step up and take the lead has been former Bronco, Perrish Cox. He leads all Niners cornerbacks with 380 defensive snaps this season and has graded out at +6.8 via PFF.
Most Broncos know him as a former Josh McDaniels 3rd-round draft pick, who was released because of sexual battery charges, which he was eventually acquitted of. He has found a new home in San Francisco and a big role in their defense. He'll get to matchup against Demaryius Thomas on Sunday. If you know anything about Cox's sordid history in Denver, then you know about his connection with Thomas. But I'd rather not go down that road in this piece.
In a surprising move, the Niners decided not to bring back strong safety, Donte Whitner, allowing him to walk in free agency. In his place, they signed long-time Indianapolis Colt, Antoine Bethea. In their preseason meeting, Bethea was knocked unconscious and out of the game on a ferocious block by rookie wide receiver, Cody Latimer. Latimer has been a healthy scratch of late, otherwise, it wouldn't surprise me to see him get a little extra attention from that Niners secondary.
2nd-year safety, Eric Reid, has been everything the Niners hoped he'd be when they drafted him with the 18th pick in the 1st round last year. He's a versatile young stud and on the season, has earned an overall grade of +0.4 via PFF.
In their preseason matchup, the Broncos 1st-teamers moved the ball with ease vs the Niners 1st-teamers. But as I mentioned above, that doesn't mean anything. This defense is on par with the Seahawks and it'll take everything the Broncos have on offense to beat them.
I like Emmanuel Sanders in this game. His speed on the outside could be used to gash the Niners on play-action. It might be wise to finally get Wes Welker involved in the game-plan this week. At least on 3rd down. Demaryius and Julius Thomas have been on a roll lately but it'll be significantly more difficult for them to continue that vs a physical Niners defense, even at home.
If Patrick Willis is unable to go, rookie, Chris Borland, will get the start. This is will be a big area that Peyton Manning will look to exploit. Borland is a tackling machine, but isn't experienced enough in NFL coverages. He could be picked on this week.
Justin Smith, Ian Williams and Ray McDonald are very similar to the Jets 3 down-lineman the Broncos faced last week. They can get after the quarterback and be disruptive in the running game. Ronnie Hillman notched his first career 100-yard rushing game last week, on the road, but if he hopes to duplicate those results this week, he'll need a lot of help from the big boys up front.
The Broncos offensive line has struggled to find consistency thus far. Even All-Pros, Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez, have had their ups and downs. This unit will need to play out of their minds vs the Niners. Even without Willis and Bowman, it won't be easy to run the ball. This unit will need to do what they haven't done yet; execute for a full 60 minutes.
Despite this game being played in Denver, I expect this to be a one-score game. Left guard, Orlando Franklin, recently told Denver's 104.3 the Fan this:
"We're 4-1 but we feel like we're 0-5."
The Broncos offensive line knows that they've yet to play up to their potential. Last week was a step in the right direction against a formidable Jets front-seven. They'll need to play focused and execute on Sunday Night Football. If they can do that, I like the Broncos chances in this game.
Broncos 27 Niners 23