Broncos-49ers grades: Josey was a defensive Jewell
Let’s go to the report card, shall we …
In the first three quarters, Wilson showed why the adjustment to this scheme will take time. In the fourth, he showed that he still had “it.” In this case, “it” is the ability to leap beyond the play structure after going through progressions, using his instincts and feel to keep plays alive. The flashes are there in the first three games. It’s just a question of when Wilson pulls it all together.
RUNNING BACKS: C-plus
Let’s start with the bad: ball security. Neither of Melvin Gordon’s fumbles resulted in a giveaway. But Gordon, Javonte Williams and Mike Boone all dropped passes. As a result, Wilson must cope with the league’s third-worst drop rate among eligible QBs. The good: Williams and Gordon had scant room to operate, but maximized it. Their yardage came the hard way. Williams kept the offense from stagnating when he got into a rhythm. Gordon’s blitz pickup made Wilson’s 34-yard pass to Courtland Sutton possible.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B-minus
It’s all about Courtland Sutton, for the most part, who was his usual self. Jerry Jeudy was a non-factor as a pass-catching target. Kendall Hinton perfectly broke back toward Wilson on his 27-yard, third-down reception in the fourth quarter. Hinton provides an intriguing option because he brings a quarterback’s mindset to the receiver position, and it’s possible that he could be a primary target for off-structure plays if he gets more chances.
TIGHT ENDS: C
The Broncos are trying to create production in the aggregate. The results are mixed. The entire group has 119 yards on nine receptions so far this season. That puts the tight ends on a 51-catch, 674-yard pace as a group. Noah Fant exceeded both of those numbers on his own last year.
But in the meantime, usage trends are developing, particularly with Albert Okwuegbunam, whose presence meant “pass” on Sunday. The Broncos already had a pass trend with Okwuegbunam on the field — 69.4 percent in Weeks 1 and 2 — and now it is 75.7 percent.
And don’t hold your breath for Greg Dulcich to transform this room when he returns from injured reserve. (He’s eligible to come back next week.) He missed a chunk of OTAs, much of training camp and all of the preseason. Tight ends have a stern task as rookies, effectively learning three distinct skill sets: that of a run blocker, pass protector and receiver. No position other than quarterback has more tossed at them early. Dulcich should be helpful in spots, no doubt. But being an every-down, all-around threat who leads this collective is likely some distance over the horizon. Be fair and patient and you’ll see him blossom.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-plus
Too much pressure seeped into the pocket, and holes were scarce and fleeting for running backs as the Broncos’ offensive line buckled against its biggest challenge to date in the season. Bolles had a holding penalty that was probably three weeks in coming, to be fair. But he didn’t let it explode into a cluster of infractions. And the work on the 1-yard Gordon touchdown run saw outstanding execution across the board, with Dalton Risner drawing particular note by pulling to the left flank and sealing the edge, allowing Gordon to score.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Mike Purcell had his most impactful game of the season, especially against the run. His old team — and an increase in snaps after D.J. Jones left with a concussion — brought out his best. Purcell played 29 snaps — 52 percent. Dre’Mont Jones got to Jimmy Garoppolo once, but his role proved to be more about drawing attention and setting up the edge rushers to finish the job.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS: A-MINUS
Over a year had passed since Josey Jewell’s last regular-season game, but it looked like it hadn’t been a day. He was ubiquitous, effective against the run and in the pass rush. Not only did he have a sack, but he generated the pressure that led to Jonas Griffith’s deflected interception. As for Pro Football Focus, which gave Jewell a 57.1 grade, I’m uncertain what film their fine folks watched. Maybe they cued up the new Star Wars series Andor instead?
EDGE RUSHERS: B-plus
Long-term health will tell the tale, but after another stellar performance, it would be hard to argue that the duo of Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory isn’t a collective success. Gregory was actually more consistent at generating pressure than Chubb, but this isn’t to say Chubb struggled. As for coverage, in the fourth quarter, Chubb found himself in a one-on-one matchup against Kyle Juszcyk. There was nothing wrong with that; Chubb maintained his coverage as the fullback went toward the left sideline. Garoppolo simply completed a perfect pass. Sometimes you do your job and you get beat. As John Fox would often say, “The other guys get paid, too.”
In addition to not allowing a catch in five passes thrown his way, Pat Surtain II got in front of Jeff Wilson Jr. in the first quarter to prevent a 55-yard cutback touchdown. Ronald Darby continued his solid start to the season; although he allowed three first downs, he didn’t let the 49ers make any explosive plays (20-plus yards) at his expense.
Caden Sterns hasn’t jumped out yet, and the 49ers’ passing game largely stayed away from his area. But Sterns, Kareem Jackson and P.J. Locke played with initiative. Together, Locke and Jackson punctuated the night with a forced fumble and recovery to seal the game in the final moments. Locke played just 10 snaps as the dime backer, but they were eventful; he had a missed tackle that set up the 49ers for a field goal, but he redeemed his night by knocking the ball free from Jeff Wilson Jr.
Brandon McManus set a goal of improving his form from 50-plus. And while he’s 2-of-3 from 50 to 59 yards this season, his third-quarter miss from 53 yards nearly proved costly. Since 2015, McManus has hit 35 of 55 attempts — including postseason — from 50 to 59 yards. That’s slightly below the league average of 65.8 percent. Among 44 kickers with at least 10 attempts from 50 to 59 yards, that’s tied for 25th with Nick Folk. (Of course, it must be noted that No. 24 is someone literally nicknamed “The Leg,” Greg Zuerlein.) But McManus has also now missed his last three attempts from 50 to 59 yards when the Broncos trailed by one score.
If McManus is to reach the Pro Bowl level he seeks, his percentage from 50 to 59 yards needs to climb into at least the 75-percent range. He’ll have opportunities to do that, and leg strength will never be a problem.
Corliss Waitman answered every lingering question with a phenomenal display of placement punting, with six punts inside the 20-yard line in 10 attempts. He gave his gunners and coverage teammates a chance to get downfield with hang times that were always above 4.00 seconds, then gave them space inside the 20-yard line to play the bounces.
Montrell Washington made the smart call to not try to catch a punt inside his 10-yard line, letting it bounce into the end zone. But in general, this was a non-descript night, and a holding penalty against Justin Strnad to wipe out a punt return sullied things.
KICKOFF/PUNT COVERAGE: A-minus
Good coverage design by the Broncos and poor execution by the 49ers led to Aaron Patrick being unblocked on the opening kickoff, allowing him to be the first man to arrive, forcing San Francisco to start at its 10-yard line. It flowed from there. I liked how Jacob Bobenmoyer blasted downfield on the first punt, forcing Ray-Ray McCloud outside to where Alex Singleton tackled him. And Mike Boone delivered exquisite work to down a Waitman punt inside the San Francisco 5.
Denver’s core special-teamers are tough, tenacious and know how to compete. You’d like to see fewer penalties, but that’s a minor quibble. George Paton’s restoration work on the back of the roster has done its job.