We learned that the Niners are on a roll on offense, led by quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. That unit has been impressive thus far. We also learned that the Niners are banged up on defense and will be missing several key starters on Sunday night. 3 of their 4 starting linebackers won't suit up vs the Broncos; Patrick Willis (toe), NaVorro Bowman (knee), and Aldon Smith (suspension). But even without these 3 Pro Bowlers, this is still a very talented and very deep defense and they'll pose a significant challenge to Peyton Manning and company. Let's get to it.
Protect The Ball
Ball security is a primary focus of all NFL teams every week, obviously. However, against a team as poised and well coached as the Niners, it's even more paramount. For the most part, the Broncos have been very careful with the ball thus far, only turning it over 4 times. But the flip-side is that they've only been able to take the ball away on defense 5 times, which puts them at +1 in the turnover differntial.
The Niners are +5, good for seventh in the NFL. With their 11 takeaways on the season, the Niners have turned them into 33 points. Translation: if the Broncos turn it over, the Niners will make them pay.
Peyton Manning has only thrown 3 interceptions, to 15 touchdowns. That's 5-1 TD/INT ratio. The Broncos biggest vulnerability to turning the ball over comes in the form of Ronnie Hillman. In only 206 touches in his career, he's fumbled 5 times. In the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, last week vs the New York Jets, he fumbled, but Andre Caldwell was in the right place in the right time and made the recovery.
With the progress Hillman has made, I'd hate to see him get benched because of ball security issues, because Juwan Thompson is waiting in the wings. If Manning and the offense can play smart with the ball, it will put them in position to win this game.
When the off-season began, offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, the brain-child behind the team's NFL-record 606 points in 2013, made it clear that this year's Broncos would try to find better balance on offense. However, if that was the plan, 5 games into the season, the team hasn't been able to execute it very well.
Last week was the first time we saw a relatively balanced Broncos offense. And it came on the road. In the 66 offensive plays they ran last week, they struck a perfect 50/50 balance between the run and pass. And the result was a prolific day on the ground for Hillman and 3 touchdowns for Manning.
In the high-flying Manning offense, some fans wonder why they should even bother to run the ball. It's important to understand, however, that although they may be a "pass first" offense, they need to run the ball, in order to set up the pass. If an opposing defense doesn't believe you're going to run, then like the Jets did at times last week, they can drop 8 guys into coverage and make it difficult to complete a pass.
You don't want to render yourself one-dimensional on offense. The goal is to keep the opposition guessing and on their heels. The only way to do that is to execute in the running game. It's no secret that the Broncos offensive line has struggled to find cohesion as a unit thus far, but last week, they made some strides.
They'll need to use that momentum as a launching pad for this week. Because if the Broncos can't be effective on the ground this Sunday, it could spell a long night for Manning. The Niners secondary is playing extremely well, and you can believe that Niners defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, will find a way to manufacture a pass rush.
Establish the run and wind some time off of the clock. Get the linebackers sucked into the box and the safeties looking into the backfield and then gash the secondary on the play-action. Yin and yang, people. Balance.
Can Emmanuel Sanders Get In On The Endzone Action?
Emmanuel Sanders has been an absolute revelation in Denver thus far. He's currently 11th in the league in receptions and 10th in receiving yards, but the one glaring omission from his stat sheet? Touchdowns. He's yet to catch a single touchdown.
Of Manning's 15 touchdowns, 13 of them have gone to a Thomas. Tight end, Julius Thomas, leads the league with 9 touchdowns, but eventually, opposing teams are going to find a way to take him away in the redzone. That's why Manning has to get Sanders involved and toss some TD love his way.
The Broncos are literally shouting from the rooftops, "When we get in the redzone, the ball is going to a Thomas." And I suppose the impressive thing is that teams still haven't been able to stop them, even knowing that. The man Sanders replaced, Eric Decker, had double-digit touchdowns in each of the two seasons he played with Manning. When is Sanders going to get in on that action? Hopefully, this week.
Keep Kaepernick In The Pocket
The Broncos have faced a mobile quarterback in 4/5 games they've played thus far. You could argue that they've faced a mobile quarterback in every game, since Logan Thomas played most of the second half in week 5. The Broncos have been stalwarts at stopping the run, ranking fourth in the NFL in yards per game average with 76.8. A whopping 30% of those rushing yards have been by quarterbacks, however.
That's not good with Kaepernick coming to town. He leads all quarterbacks in rushing with 242 yards on the season. He's one of the best dual-threat signal callers in the NFL. But the Broncos have to stop him on the ground and force him to make his plays from the pocket. Kaepernick is a talented passer, but he's not particularly polished. If it means putting Brandon Marshall or Corey Nelson on him as a spy, defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, has to limit Kaepernick's rushing on Sunday night.
Execute A Full 60 Minutes
This is something I've been hammering on all year long. And from what left guard, Orlando Franklin, said on Denver 104.3 the FAN this Tuesday, the Broncos are aware of it. They haven't executed for a full 60 minutes yet. Here's what Franklin said:
"We're 4-1 but we feel like we're 0-5."
He went on to say that they feel that way because they know they haven't performed up to their level of expectation, throughout a full game. And like their NFC West counterparts in Seattle, to beat the Niners, you have to play smart, physical and outlast them. The margin for error vs a team of this caliber is very small.
The Broncos can't afford to get out to a slow start. The Niners are missing 3 key starters on defense and Manning and company have to find a way to exploit that. We've seen the 2014 Broncos display flashes of brilliance, on both sides of the ball. But they have to find a way to sustain those flashes throughout an entire game.