Battle Lines: Injuries, indecision have Broncos in spotlight against 49ers

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To hear the national pundits spin things, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Denver Broncos are winless, unhappy and hopeless. Although there were more than a few hiccups in the team’s inconsistent first two appearances under new head coach Nathaniel Hackett, the Broncos are still 1-1 as the San Francisco 49ers (1-1) come in Denver for a Sunday night showdown on national television. The expected return of tight end George Kittle makes Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team even more dangerous, especially for the Broncos.

This is how the battle lines are drawn:

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DENVER OFFENSE vs. SAN FRANCISCO DEFENSE

While quarterback Russell Wilson wasn’t bad in his first two games as a Bronco, he wasn’t exactly good either. Wilson, who has thrown for 559 yards, two touchdowns and one interception so far, looks decidedly average. With an 85.9 quarterback rating that ranks 16th in the NFL and a 48.9 QBR in 17th place, the numbers back it up.

The Broncos could also miss starting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (hip) after an injury in last week’s win, further complicating matters. With a lack of size in the position of KJ Hamler – who is also listed as questionable with a leg injury – and rookie Montrell Washington, it’s possible undrafted rookie speedster Jalen Virgil will play a surprisingly bigger role, given that the availability (neck) of Tyrie Cleveland in doubt.

There’s still talent in that position, but behind top dog Courtland Sutton he’s inexperienced — and that’s a problem against a Niners defensive backfield that looks otherwise beatable on the outside, where Wilson prefers to throw. Even if Jeudy and/or Hamler are able to play, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam will be relied upon to play in the spotlight, and Wilson will need to focus on midfield work.

Denver’s makeshift offensive line currently ranks second in pass blocking at Pro Football Focus with a 79.5 rating, behind only… the 49ers. Wilson’s average throw time of 2.84 seconds ranks eighth among qualified quarterbacks. The line has given up five sacks, however, and there’s still an alarming amount of “punching” by opposing defensive linemen. The right side of the line, in particular – substitutes Graham Glasgow at right guard and Cameron Fleming at right tackle – will have their hands full with Nick Bosa destroying the game plan. Arik Armstead, Bosa’s running mate on the defensive line, will likely miss the game with a foot injury.

Sunday night, the Broncos might be better off hammering the Niners to the ground behind sophomore star Javonte Williams and veteran Melvin Gordon III. While both backs need to be better at ball safety – each fumbled in the season opener in Seattle – both have been steady behind a Broncos line that is more effective as a blocking unit race. Williams (5.4 yards per carry) and Gordon (4.8) have both been consistent field winners, despite sharing exact carries (22 each), but that’s Williams’ impact in the game of assists which was a pleasant surprise; his 12 receptions lead the team.

Niners linebacker and fielding general Fred Warner is still as sure a tackler and as smart a diagnostician as there is in the NFL, and he will find a way to make an impact. Head Coach Hackett needs to be more decisive against a San Francisco defense that leads the league in average yards allowed per game — even on early-season behemoth Buffalo — with 210.0, and Wilson will have to settle for what ‘He’ll get out of the way while avoiding any critical reversals. Until the Broncos start finishing practices in the end zone, the questions will remain.

ADVANTAGE: 49ERS

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DENVER DEFENSE vs. SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE

While Denver’s defense put up some good numbers — the top five per-game averages for total yards allowed (243.5, 3rd), passing yards allowed (165.5, 5th), yards floors allowed (78.0, 4th) and most important points (13.0, 3rd) – a lot of it has to do with the no-punch offenses the Broncos have faced in the first two weeks . There’s no doubt the Broncos have the knack to be a top-10 defensive unit, but injuries are already taking their toll.

Star safety Justin Simmons (thigh) will miss more weeks on injured reserve, and prodigy cornerback Pat Surtain II (shoulder) is listed as questionable. Center linebacker Josey Jewell (calf) is struggling with injuries for a second straight season, and lineman Dre’Mont Jones – who had a pair of sacks last week – isn’t just listed as questionable with a neck injury, but he didn’t. practice on Fridays either, which is never a good sign.

Luckily for the Broncos, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — who returned to his starting role after a season-ending injury to Trey Lance — isn’t exactly a mad bomber. Garoppolo’s dink-and-dunk style is crippled at times by his inconsistent delivery, and he’s prone to making mistakes under pressure.

It’s music to the ears of rushers Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory, who have already combined for three sacks. Chubb looked like the rookie sensation he once was last week against the Houston Texans, and free agent addition Gregory has been Denver’s best defense player so far. Imagine what they could do if the Broncos offense could give them a meaningful lead.

However, the Broncos can’t sleep on the Niners’ passing game, especially if Surtain can’t play. Deebo Samuel is a walking and talking Swiss army knife on offense, capable of slashing defenses on the ground or in the air, and third-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk is particularly dangerous after the catch. Even though San Francisco doesn’t often force the ball down, Samuel and Aiyuk still pose major risks.

The Niners lost starting running back Elijah Mitchell to a knee injury in Week 1, leaving North Texas product Jeff Wilson Jr. as the lead runner. The loss of Mitchell and Lance hampered their otherwise dynamic ground game; Wilson is stable but not particularly explosive, meaning Samuel will continue to take on more of the slack. He’s gaining 8.8 yards per carry and trailing Wilson for the team lead by just one yard. The Niners will use Samuel creatively throughout the game, and the Broncos will have to be vigilant; off-ball linebacker Jonas Griffith in particular.

Then there’s Kittle, whom Shanahan called “ready to go” for his season debut Sunday night after a groin injury kept him out of San Francisco’s first two games. One of the best in the league when healthy, Kittle is a devastating blocker in the run game and a deadly weapon in the air. The Broncos already know this; In 2018, Kittle dissected the Broncos defense to the tune of seven catches, 210 yards and a touchdown in the Niners’ 20-14 win. Quite simply, Denver has no answer for Kittle, and his performance could end up being the deciding factor in the game…if he can stay on the field.

ADVANTAGE: 49ERS

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Montrell Washington of the Broncos and Ray-Ray McCloud of the Niners handle all returns for their respective teams. McCloud is more experienced, while Washington is more explosive; if he can avoid making the occasional rookie mistake, the Broncos will have a chance to turn the field around.

Aussie Mitch Wishnowsky is one of the most reliable punters in the league, and if he has a chance to put the ball out of bounds with the 20, he rarely misses. The Broncos need to force punts from farther to give Washington a chance to make a difference.

Denver’s Corliss Waitman’s strong left leg and ability to generate significant hang time is the reason he took the job away from veteran Sam Martin before the season. Meanwhile, 39-year-old Robbie Gould is a regular kicker for San Francisco, but his reach is limited even in Denver. This is not the case for Brandon McManus; the last man standing since the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 win is a threat at Denver’s one-mile elevation from 65 yards and inside, though his accuracy drops dramatically outside of 50 yards.

ADVANTAGE: BRONCOS

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FRAMING

The contestants in the most lopsided match of all will never take to the field except to shake hands.

Nathaniel Hackett became a running joke on national television, radio, and print after a pair of games in which he appeared hesitant, confused, and unprepared for the game management role he was promoted to. Hackett, who has vowed to improve this week, might be better off handing call-up duties to offensive coordinator Justin Outten, but that’s not in Hackett’s plans. Now in the spotlight of a nationally televised audience on the NFL’s first weekly product, Hackett faces the greatest pressure of his still very young career.

On the other side of the field is Kyle Shanahan, picking up where his father Mike left off as the architect of an eye-catching new iteration of the West Coast offense. While Shanahan has his detractors — his record without Garoppolo at No. 1 — there’s no doubt that at this point he’s the top coach by an exponential amount…and he’ll have Garoppolo on Sunday night as well.

If Hackett can just save the Mile High mob from having to call the game clock to help his offense, it will be considered a success.

ADVANTAGE: 49ERS

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