BRONCOS

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

Sep 24, 2022, 8:04 AM
Deebo Samuel...
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

To hear the national pundits spin things, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Denver Broncos are winless, hapless and hopeless. While there have been 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 to Denver for a Sunday night showdown on national TV. The expected return of tight end George Kittle makes coach Kyle Shanahan’s team even more dangerous — especially for the Broncos.

Here’s how the battle lines are drawn:

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DENVER OFFENSE vs. SAN FRANCISCO DEFENSE

While quarterback Russell Wilson’s hasn’t been bad in his first two games as a Bronco, he hasn’t exactly been good, either. Wilson, who’s thrown for 559 yards, two touchdowns and one interception thus far, has looked decidedly average. With a quarterback rating of 85.9 that ranks 16th in the NFL, and a 17th-place QBR of 48.9, the numbers bear that out.

The Broncos may also be missing starting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (hip) after an injury in last week’s win, which would complicate matters further. With a lack of size at the position in K.J. Hamler — who’s also listed at questionable with a leg injury — and rookie Montrell Washington, it’s possible that undrafted rookie speedster Jalen Virgil may play a surprisingly larger role, given that Tyrie Cleveland’s (neck) availability in is doubt.

There’s still talent at the position, but behind top dog Courtland Sutton, it’s inexperienced — and that poses a problem against a Niners defensive backfield that otherwise looks beatable on the outside, where Wilson prefers to throw. Even if Jeudy and/or Hamler are able to play, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is going to be counted on to perform under the lights, and Wilson will need to focus on working the middle of the field.

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 time-to-throw of 2.84 seconds ranks a solid eighth among qualifying quarterbacks. The line’s surrendered five sacks, however, and there’s still an alarming amount of “blow-by’s” by opposing defensive linemen. The right side of the line, in particular — fill-ins Graham Glasgow at right guard and Cameron Fleming at right tackle — will have their hands full with the gameplan-wrecking Nick Bosa. Arik Armstead, Bosa’s running mate on the defensive line, is likely to miss the game with a foot injury.

On Sunday night, the Broncos might be better off hammering the Niners on the ground behind second-year star Javonte Williams and veteran Melvin Gordon III. While both backs have to be better at ball security — each fumbled in the season-opener in Seattle — both have been steady behind a Broncos line that’s more effective as a run-blocking unit. Williams (5.4 yards per carry) and Gordon (4.8) have both been consistent ground-gainers, despite splitting carries exactly (22 each), but it is Williams’s impact in the passing game that’s been a pleasant surprise; his 12 receptions leads the team.

Niners linebacker and field general Fred Warner is still as sure a tackler and as clever a diagnostician as there is in the NFL, and he’ll find a way to make an impact. Head coach Hackett has to be more decisive against a San Francisco defense that leads the league in average yards allowed per game — even over early-season juggernaut Buffalo — with 210.0, and Wilson will have to make do with what he’ll have at wideout while avoiding any critical turnovers. Until the Broncos start finishing drives in the end zone, questions will remain.

ADVANTAGE: 49ERS

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DENVER DEFENSE vs. SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE

While Denver’s defense has put up good numbers — top five in per-game averages in total yards allowed (243.5, 3rd), passing yards allowed (165.5, 5th), rushing yards allowed (78.0, 4th) and all-important points (13.0, 3rd) — much of that has to do with the punchless offenses that the Broncos have faced in the first two weeks. There’s little question that the Broncos have the talent to be a top-ten defensive unit, but injuries are already wreaking havoc.

Star safety Justin Simmons (thigh) will still miss weeks on injured reserve, and prodigy cornerback Pat Surtain II (shoulder) is listed as questionable. Middle linebacker Josey Jewell (calf) is battling injuries for a second straight season, and d-lineman Dre’Mont Jones — who had a pair of sacks last week — is not only listed as questionable with a neck injury, but he didn’t practice on Friday, either, which is never a good sign.

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

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

The Broncos can’t sleep on the Niners’ passing game, however, especially if Surtain can’t play. Deebo Samuel is a walking, talking Swiss Army knife on offense, capable of gashing defenses on the ground or through the air, and third-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk is especially dangerous after the catch. Even though San Francisco doesn’t force the ball downfield often, Samuel and Aiyuk still present 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 both Mitchell and Lance has hampered their otherwise dynamic ground game; Wilson is steady but not particularly explosive, meaning that Samuel will continue to pick up more of the slack. He’s gaining 8.8 yards per carry and trails Wilson for the team lead by only a single yard. The Niners will use Samuel in creative ways throughout the game, and the Broncos will have to be alert; off-ball linebacker Jonas Griffith in particular.

Then there’s Kittle, who Shanahan called “good to go” for his season debut Sunday night, after a groin injury that kept him out of San Francisco’s first two games. One of the league’s very best when healthy, Kittle’s a devastating blocker in the running game, and a lethal weapon through the air. The Broncos know that already; back in 2018, Kittle famously dissected the Broncos’ defense to the tune of seven catches, a whopping 210 yards and a touchdown in the Niners’ 20-14 win. Quite simply, Denver doesn’t have an answer for Kittle, and his performance may end up as the deciding factor in the game… if he can stay on the field.

ADVANTAGE: 49ERS

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SPECIAL TEAMS

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

Aussie Mitch Wishnowsky is one of the league’s more reliable punters, 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 further back to give Washington a chance to be a difference-maker.

Denver’s Corliss Waitman’s strong left leg and ability to generate major hang time is why he took the job away from veteran Sam Martin prior to the season. Meanwhile, 39-year-old Robbie Gould is a steady kicker for San Francisco, but his range is limited, even in Denver. Not so for Brandon McManus; the last man standing from the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 win is a threat at Denver’s mile-high altitude from 65 yards and in, though his accuracy notably drops outside of 50 yards.

ADVANTAGE: BRONCOS

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COACHING

The contestants in the most lopsided matchup of them all won’t ever hit the field, except to shake hands.

Nathaniel Hackett’s become 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 that he’s been promoted into. Hackett, who vowed to improve this week, might be better off handing play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Justin Outten, but that’s not in Hackett’s plans. Now in the bright spotlight of a national television audience on the NFL’s premier weekly product, Hackett faces the most pressure of his still very young career.

On the other side of the field stands Kyle Shanahan, picking up where his father Mike left off as the architect of a new and eye-catching iteration of the West Coast offense. While Shanahan does have his detractors — his record without Garoppolo foremost among them — there’s no question that, at this stage, he’s the superior coach by an exponential amount… and he’ll have Garoppolo on Sunday night, too.

If Hackett can just keep the Mile High crowd from having to call out the play clock to help his offense, it’ll qualify as a success.

ADVANTAGE: 49ERS

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