This week, the Denver Broncos get their second prime-time game of the season on Sunday Night Football against the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams sit with a 1-1 record on the season, and both are coming off of a win in Week 2.
While the Broncos lost the season opener to the Seattle Seahawks, the Niners made them look terrible in Week 2, emerging victorious, 27-7. Seattle's lone touchdown came on a blocked field goal returned to the house. It was a complete shift from the Week 1 rainstorm game the Niners lost to the Chicago Bears.
The Broncos' win came in a game replete with coaching gaffes with an offense that couldn't get anything going (without help from some penalties) until the fourth quarter. It was an ugly victory for a team with high expectations and a win against a team viewed as one of the worst in the NFL.
The Niners have their issues, but they are viewed as one of the better teams in the NFL. The Broncos cannot show the same problems they did in the first two weeks, especially being 0-for-6 in the red zone when it comes to getting touchdowns, and still walk out with a win in this one.
There are some vast steps the Broncos must take to emerge from Week 3 at 2-1 instead of 1-2. Before we get to this game's key matchups, let's get the Cliff Notes version of the Niners' young season.
Takeaways from San Francisco's Two Games
The Niners' offense struggled against the Bears in the season opener. However, it was a rain storm, and San Fran still had a decent running game. The Niners' defense did well, but with how hard it was raining and the state of the field, it was a difficult game to evaluate.
The Niners followed up the loss by blowing out the Seahawks, where Jimmy Garoppolo relieved an injured Trey Lance, who is out for the season. Garoppolo played well, leading the team to 21 points — 24 if you count his one play on the drive Lance got hurt on that ended with a field goal.
The Niners' defense looks tough, and they shut down the Seahawks' running game allowing 36 yards on 14 attempts. San Fran has also limited the passing game behind the strength of its pass rush.
Let's get to the key matchups the Broncos cannot afford to lose in this game.
Russell Wilson vs. Niners' Defense
Wilson had a rough game against the Texans. His mechanics were all over the place, leading to some errant throws. To compound that, he was late with his reads, getting rid of the ball, and making multiple questionable decisions.
Wilson has to be significantly better than he has been in the first two weeks against the Niners.
As for the Niners' defense, they're an opportunistic unit. So when Wilson makes errant throws or poor decisions, San Fran will take advantage of them more than the Texans could.
Of all the teams for Wilson to somewhat bounce back against, the Niners are a good opponent to bet on that happening. He has a career record of 16-4 against the Niners and he's 8-2 since Kyle Shanahan became head coach. Wilson has led his team to a victory in the last four games and five of the last six.
In that span, Wilson has averaged 24 completions on 36 attempts for 215 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions while being sacked three times. The Niners are young in the secondary, with a rookie as their third corner.
If the Broncos' pass catchers are healthy, and Denver isn't stuck with only Courtland Sutton, Wilson should be able to do well. This could help out the run game, which is facing a tough matchup.
Advantage: Slightly Broncos.
Broncos' Pass Protection vs. Niners' Pass Rushers
Left tackle Garett Bolles has been good this season in pass protection, and right tackle Cameron Fleming exceeded expectations — granted, expectations were extremely low. Denver hopes Billy Turner is good to go at right tackle this week, which would come against Nick Bosa.
Bosa already has 10 pressures on the season and three sacks, and if Turner is good to go, Bosa will be his first assignment without any game reps. That would be a tough task for someone who has been playing. For Turner, who hasn't played meaningful football since last fall, it'll be even harder.
The Niners can also get pressure inside with Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead. The three Broncos' interior offensive linemen have given up a combined seven pressures. There is also the case of Wilson, who has a habit of bringing pressure on himself.
This Niners' defense can take over with their ability to get after the quarterback. They have the pieces to attack where Denver is most susceptible to pressure. But, whether it is Fleming or Turner, Bosa is the most significant threat on the Niners' defense.
Broncos' Rushing Game vs. 49ers' Run Defense
Even though Kinlaw and Armstead have struggled against the run, this is a good run defense unit. The Niners have relinquished the second-fewest rushing yards and currently rank No. 5 in run defense DVOA (Football Outsiders). LB Fred Warner flies around and consistently makes plays, but Azeez Al-Shaair and both of San Francisco's safeties have been outstanding as run defenders.
While the Broncos have succeeded in their run game in the first two weeks of the season, it likely won't come easily against the Niners. The Broncos' rushing offense DVOA is only slightly better than the Niners', coming in at 17th overall. Although the Broncos have taken advantage of linebacker struggles against the run and poor run fills from the safeties, that won't be the case here.
The Niners don't miss tackles the way Seattle and Houston have. Both teams have more than 10 missed tackles, with Houston having 23 in two games.
There have been issues upfront with the Broncos blocking, putting a lot on Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams to make defenders miss or break tackles. Denver has to do better upfront if they want to get their run game going against the Niners.
The advantage goes to the Niners because of how good they are on the back end with their run fills. They're an extremely well-coached unit, while Denver is having issues handling their blocks and getting push in the run game.
Broncos' Passing Game vs. Niners' Coverage
The Niners are fine at the cornerback positions, but their linebackers are great in coverage. So this will be a game to work outside and attack Emmanuel Moseley and Charvarius Ward. San Fran's third corner is rookie Sammel Womack, which also should be a focus when he is on the field.
Tashaun Gibson and Talanoa Hufanga have had a great start to their season, so the Broncos' passing game will need to be cautious of them. In addition, Warner is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, and you typically don't want to challenge him too often in coverage.
Overall, the Niners have statistically done a great job against the pass, though that is a bit inflated with their game against the Bears in a rain storm. That said, the Niners allow a league-low of 142.5 passing yards per game and rank No. 7 in passing defense DVOA.
Wilson's experience facing the Niners will be counted on in this matchup. He has done a good job consistently, leading his teams to a 16-4 record in the regular season. If Denver has Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler back, that will be a major benefit to taking the pressure off of Sutton and easing his coverage.
For the Broncos' offense, they rank No. 9 in passing offense DVOA and are No. 8 in passing yards per game. They're moving the ball but have to get that last yard to punch it in.
If Jeudy and Hamler are back, the advantage is slightly in Denver's favor. If both of them miss Week 3, then it is slightly in the Niners' favor. Denver's depth at receiver has not answered the bell in order to be trusted.
Advantage: Slightly Broncos (pending injury report)
Takeaways from Broncos' Two Games
The Broncos' on-field product, on offense, has been rough. This season, penalties, coaching errors, and turnovers have killed momentum multiple times. As for the defense, the Broncos are playing good football, though they do have their lapses in the run game.
All eyes are going to be on the coaching staff in this game. Will Nathaniel Hackett and company look like they're not in over their heads?
Despite the issues, you can see the Broncos' potential if they would get out of their own way. To win this game, they have to do just that.
Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Broncos' Defense
Garappolo has always done well when he can be kept clean and work with a quicker passing game. While it was only 22 dropbacks against the Seahawks, his average time to throw was 2.19 seconds. That is the fastest in the NFL, edging out Tom Brady and Davis Mills.
If the Broncos can get Garoppolo to hold the ball a little longer and get pressure on him, he will make mistakes. The flip side is, in the 2021 season, Garoppolo threw nine touchdowns when pressured.
Denver needs to disguise its coverages enough to make Garoppolo take a second longer to process, take away the quick-throw options, and get pressure as it has through two weeks so far. That shouldn't be an issue.
Broncos' Pass Rushers vs. 49ers' Pass Protection
The Niners rank No. 4 in pass blocking efficiency. They have done a good job keeping the quarterback protected this season, which stems from allowing 11 total pressures. LT Trent Williams is their leader for pressures allowed with four, but he is one of the best tackles in the game. It's hard to rely on getting pressure there.
Opposite Williams, RT Mike McGlinchey has done a good job, allowing two pressures, with one being a sack. LG Aaron Banks and center Jake Brendel have allowed five pressures between the two of them.
Many point to that interior offensive line as a weak spot, but they have done well in pass protection. Rookie Spencer Bruford going against Dre'Mont Jones is one battle to watch.
Denver has done a great job getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and will need that again, though Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb don't have an easy matchup.
The advantage is slightly in Denver's favor. DC Ejiro Evero has some great pressure packages that can create confusion for the younger Niners' offensive line. That is where the advantage comes.
Advantage: Slightly Broncos.
Broncos' Defense vs. Niners' Running Game
If there is one thing you can trust from Shanahan's Niners, it's the running game. No matter who is running the ball, they are consistently successful. What helps San Fran's running game is Deebo Samuel and how they use him. It adds another layer to defending this offense, making life difficult for defenses.
The Broncos' defense has been hit-or-miss against the run, though they rank No. 5 in the fewest rush yards allowed per game while also ranking No. 8 in run defense DVOA. They are facing the Niners' rushing offense that ranks No. 4 in rush yards per game, though they're 19th in rush offense DVOA.
This is a tougher matchup than many may think going into the game. However, the advantage goes to the Niners due to the Broncos' lapses in run defense. Those lapses are what the Niners can exploit.
Broncos' Coverage vs. Niners' Passing Game
The Niners' passing offense ranks 12th in DVOA, and they're facing the Broncos' sixth-ranked overall passing defense in DVOA. So this will still be a tough game for the Broncos, but fortunately, they should have CB Patrick Surtain II out there on the field.
Getting LB Josey Jewell back should help in the middle of the field, where opposing offenses have had some solid luck attacking Alex Singleton. If the Niners don't get TE George Kittle back from a groin injury, Jewell's return will have an even bigger impact.
The question is whether the Broncos' coverage can limit the short and quick passing game Garoppolo executes extremely well. He has a knack for dinking and dunking before taking that big shot as the secondary starts to cheat its coverage.
Denver will need to stay disciplined on the back end, which has been an issue with SS Kareem Jackson. His issues there helped Seattle put some points on the board. This isn't an ideal game to be missing Justin Simmons, though Caden Sterns did well in coverage filling in for him.
The advantage goes to Denver as Coach Evero was the passing game coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. He has his experience against the 49ers and will carry that over.
Nathaniel Hackett vs. Kyle Shanahan
Two weeks into the season, there is a lot of pessimism about hiring Hackett. His decision-making has been atrocious, and the woes of his offense have compounded the other issues. Hackett needs to work on a lot, including cutting back on the penalties with a team that leads the NFL in that category by a wide margin.
Shanahan isn't perfect, but his offense has been relatively consistent. Losing Lance would hurt more if they didn't have Garoppolo to turn to. Shanahan's offense clicks with Garoppolo, and while it wasn't an outstanding statistical game vs. Seattle, Garoppolo moved the offense leading three touchdown drives.
Is this a must-win for Denver? Well, this early in the season, it isn't exactly, but at the same time, it is. There is a lot of pessimism about this team with all of the issues it has shown in its two games so far.
Being able to beat the Niners at home in a prime-time game would do well to turn Broncos fans around. The Niners are a good team, and Denver has struggled against two bad teams that are likely drafting quarterbacks early in 2023.
Both teams boast good defenses, a solid running game, and a hit-or-miss passing game. That combination could lead to a low-score defensive slugfest where turnovers play a vital role.
However, both teams can get their passing game going. Jimmy Garoppolo is more consistent than Trey Lance, which should help San Fran's passing offense. While the Broncos also depend on Russell Wilson, but seemingly need everything to click for them. Drops have not helped the Broncos one bit, with five on the season.
Whether it's a win or a loss for the Broncos, there is a lot more on this game with how the team goes about it. Can Denver clean up its mistakes?
Can Hackett fix the issues? If the Broncos lose this one but show improvement in that department, optimism may start to return. A lot is riding on this game, not only in the final score, but on the road to getting there.
Follow Erick on Twitter @ErickTrickel.
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