The last time the Denver Broncos played the San Francisco 49ers, it was a record-setting night. Peyton Manning passed Brett Favre on the all-time list, throwing his 509th touchdown pass, on the way to a 42-17 Broncos victory.
On Saturday night, the two teams will meet again at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, but the stakes will be much lower. It's the third week of the preseason, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of insights to be gleaned from the game.
I recently sat down with Chris Biderman, the Editor-In-Chief of NinersDigest.com, our San Francisco sister-site, to get the insider's take on what we can expect from the 'Niners.
You can find Chris Biderman on Twitter @ChrisBiderman.
MHH: With the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh and so many star veterans, on the outside, it feels like the 'Niners have been dismantled. What have you seen from Jim Tomsula's team? What's their identity?
Biderman: It’s a boring cliche, but they’re running with the next-man-up mentality. Despite all the losses, via retirements, free agency and off-the-field issues, the 49ers believe they have drafted well in recent seasons. All these departures will allow the team to see if those drafts will bear fruit, or if they have to kick start a complete rebuild in 2016.
To be sure, this offseason might be one of the most damaging in league history, let alone franchise history. Considering the 49ers made three straight conference title games and a Super Bowl in 2012, and then lost Jim Harbaugh, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and a slew of others, the expectations are as low as they’ve been in years.
But they can use that to their advantage. No one expects them to compete in a loaded NFC West and they still believe they have enough talent. NaVorro Bowman is back and many expect the shackles to be taken off Colin Kaepernick. The addition of Torrey Smith and an engaged Vernon Davis should help.
On defense, it will all start with their defensive line that’s deep and talented, despite losing long-time starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. But without Aldon Smith and potentially Ahmad Brooks, who was issued a misdemeanor charge for sexual battery this week, the 49ers might have a hard time manufacturing a pass rush.
MHH: On the outside looking in, it seems the onus is on Colin Kaepernick to put the 'Niners on his shoulders and lead. Does he have it in him to carry the 'Niners in 2015? Or are they in better shape then what it appears on the surface?
Biderman: When Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl three years ago, he benefitted greatly from one of the best offensive lines and running games in the NFL. Only two players remain from that unit: left tackle Joe Staley and guard Alex Boone, who is switching from the right side to the left. Gone are former first-round picks in right Anthony Davis (retirement) and left guard Mike Iupati (free agency). The 49ers will have three new starters along the line, including four playing new positions when factoring in Boone’s switch.
The changes might turn out to be a good thing, considering Kaepernick was sacked at the second-highest rate in the NFL in 2014. The offense is going from a power-based running game to more of a zone-blocking scheme, which should benefit Carlos Hyde and put Kaepernick in more favorable positions to use his legs.
But given the volume of losses this offseason, the 49ers’ success does depend on Kaepernick’s play. Not only did they lose talented players, but they lost key leaders in the locker room. Kaepernick had not established himself as one of those key leaders before this season, and the team needs him to grow into one.
When Kaepernick is playing well, he’s dynamic enough to put the team on his back. But the threat of his legs was a big part of that, and it looked like teams figured out ways to take that away last season. If he can improve as a pocket passer, it might open things up for him to scramble more effectively. After two-plus full seasons as starter, it looks Kaepernick’s arm won’t be enough to ascend a struggling offense. He needs the running game and offensive line to be good in order to flourish. That’s unlike, say, someone like Peyton Manning.
MHH: Which rookie(s) or lesser known player(s) should we keep an eye on to flash vs. the Broncos on Saturday night?
Biderman: Former Australian Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne has made all the noise for the 49ers this preseason. His arrival in the spring was viewed as a novelty story. But through two games, Hayne looks like he could be one of the best return men in football, and that’s not hyperbole. He’s averaged 21.6 yards per punt return, setting the continent of Australia on fire with excitement.
Hayne's currently the biggest sports story Down Under. I’ve been told by multiple Australian media members that Hayne’s story is the equivalent of LeBron James leaving the NBA to go play soccer in England.
Otherwise, the 49ers have a number of young players vying for key roles. They lost both starting cornerbacks last season and expect three second-year players Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker to compete for one of those spots alongside veteran Tramaine Brock, who won’t play Saturday because of a hamstring injury.
Along the defensive line, third-year players Quinton Dial and Cornellius Carradine (Tank) are worth monitoring. They are viewed as the next key cogs after the departures of Smith and McDonald, along with this year’s first-round pick Arik Armstead, who’s gotten a ton of playing time this preseason. Nose tackle Mike Purcell, and all 303 pounds of him, returned an interception for a touchdown against the Cowboys last week. That followed an impressive six-tackle performance in the preseason opener against Houston.
The 49ers are hoping receiver Bruce Ellington can turn into the playmaker the offense needs to compliment Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Third-year receiver Quinton Patton is a guy the team believes can compete for the third receiver’s job.