When it comes to previewing the Denver Broncos' Week 3 matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, it's difficult to narrow it down to just three keys. With Jimmy Garoppolo back in the fold, the Niners represent a very different challenge than they may have last week.
The Broncos do not seem like a bad team per se, but a lot has to go right to have a chance of beating the Niners. It would be remiss to not discuss a talented Niners' pass rush, but it goes without saying that Broncos offensive tackles Garett Bolles and Billy Turner, or Cameron Fleming, have to win against Nick Bosa and Samson Ebukam.
The Broncos have had a lot of success, albeit against lesser on-paper defenses, in moving the football. The Niners present a stern challenge for this Broncos offense, despite Russell Wilson’s steller record against them.
So what are the keys to a Broncos victory in Week 3? Let's dive in.
Clean up the Self-Inflicted Miscues
It's inexcusable for the Broncos, in two games, to be flagged 28 times, with 25 accepted penalties against them. It's the first time in franchise history that the Broncos have had 25 accepted penalties in any two-game span, and it's juxtaposed against the Vic Fangio-coached teams that had a relatively low number of penalties called against them.
After the Houston game, Wilson said, “We have to quit hurting ourselves... We have to quit getting penalties as players. That’s on us. That’s discipline.”
The good news is that cleaning up the penalties is fixable. The not-so-good news is that Shawn Hochuli’s crew generally calls for a higher number of penalties than the league average. That puts the onus on the Broncos' players and coaching staff to show improvement and more discipline, as the last thing they'll need is to give the Niners free yardage or more chances to beat them.
In addition, it also means the Broncos' offensive hive needs to get the play calls in quickly and Wilson needs to break from the huddle much faster. Often, through two games, the Broncos' offense is breaking from the huddle with around 10 seconds left on the play clock, and therefore, most snaps feel rushed, and that's when negative plays happen, or else the coaching staff has to call a time out.
Nathaniel Hackett also has to have more trust in his scheme and coaching decisions, as his scheme is the principal reason why the Broncos made him the 18th head coach in team history. That means not over-correcting, like not running the ball in goal-to-go situations against the Houston Texans because of miscues in rushing the ball in goal-line situations against the Seattle Seahawks, for instance.
Finally, it's frankly embarrassing that the fans at Mile High had to count down the play call last week. It goes without saying this is something that the Broncos' offense should want to avoid.
First, it keys to the defense when the snap comes in, and with teams utilizing every advantage, the last thing the Broncos’ offensive line needs is Bosa timing the snap perfectly. Second, it also takes away from the Broncos' ability to audible and exacerbates the communication difficulties especially prevalent on the offensive line through two games.
Imagine the crowd counting down for Peyton Manning. It’s unthinkable.
Having so many difficulties getting the play calls in on time is inexcusable. To his credit, Coach Hackett has suggested that the process of getting in the plays will be tightened up, so in front of a national prime-time audience, it's time the Broncos show it.
Stop the Niners’ Short Passing Game
This is one aspect of the Niners that has changed significantly since last week. Firstly, Garoppolo, while he has a lower ceiling than Trey Lance, has a significantly higher floor at this stage of their respective NFL careers.
Garoppolo has shown to be dependable and accurate when throwing short, timing-based routes, and he has significant experience running this offense. It would be nice to see the Broncos' cornerbacks line up closer to the receivers because allowing eight-yard cushions consistently is a recipe for disaster as it limits their ability to be physical at the catch point, limits their ability to tur to run with the receivers, and limits their functional change-of-direction ability.
Garoppolo can fit it into the soft spots in zone coverage, and will feast on the off-man coverage, which Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero seems to utilize at a much higher clip than Fangio did on all downs, but especially the money downs.
The Broncos must also be aware of Niners WR Brandon Aiyuk, who's in his third season and showing more glimpses of why he was so highly rated in the 2020 NFL draft. He has elite length and wingspan and is a dangerous yards-after-catch (YAC) specialist who is hard to bring down with the ball in his hand.
It's another reason why the Broncos should make their coverage tighter, for example, with their cornerbacks lining up closer to four yards off the line of scrimmage rather than eight yards. If the Broncos can keep the coverage tighter, it will present chances for the pass rush to get home.
The Broncos can win against the Niners' tackles. While they are very good, they have shown some weaknesses thus far in the early season in pass protection, and RT Mike McGlinchey has usually been susceptible to edge rushers who can convert speed-to-power. The play of OLB Randy Gregory, in particular, has been one of the highlights for the Broncos in the early season, especially with his freaky size and athleticism.
The Broncos will need to win against a young Niners interior offensive line, push the pocket and flush Garoppolo. Garoppolo can pick apart the Broncos’ secondary if he has a pocket to step into.
And then, because the Broncos have not struggled against tight ends enough already, they have to slow down George Kittle making his season debut. He will be healthy, and the Broncos will not have the luxury of slowing him down with Justin Simmons, out for the season.
The last time Kittle faced the Broncos, he cut through the defense with seven receptions for 210 yards, with a long of 85 yards and touchdown. The Broncos may be able to call on the services of CB Patrick Surtain II, who participated in full on Friday and is officially listed as questionable on the injury report.
LB Josey Jewell would be a welcome return but is also listed as questionable. At safety, Kareem Jackson has lost a step, and Caden Sterns has a lot to prove overall, but slowing down Kittle somehow will be critical.
Defensive Integrity Against the Run
Kyle Shanahan’s offense runs through a talented running game. While the outside zone is a staple of the Shanahan system, the rushing schemes are multifaceted, making it difficult to prepare for.
Niners RB Jeff Wilson, elevated to a feature role, had 18 carries for 84 yards last week, at 4.7 yards per carry, although he had a long of 16 yards, and was held to zero touchdowns. However, WR Deebo Samuel, is a multifaceted offensive superstar who will get his fair share of rushing and receiving opportunities. Samuel exploded for a 51-yard rush against the Seahawks, and he has made the Niners' running game very difficult to stop.
Kittle’s return will also be felt in the running game with his physicality and blocking ability. Again, Jewell is listed as questionable, but if he can play, he is the straw that stirs the drink of the Broncos' defense.
Jewell is the defensive field general and leader in the absence of Simmons, organizes players to line up in the right place, and gets the plays in. The Broncos must limit the missed tackles and keep defensive integrity against the run.
The defensive line cannot be pushed back in the run game, and as such, the Broncos may benefit from limiting the snaps in obvious running situations given to DL DeShawn Williams, who, while he has shown flashes in previous years against the pass, has given up almost an 85% rushing success rate when teams run in his direction.
Fellow D-linemen Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, and D.J. Jones are important to slow down the running game, while the Broncos' linebackers must read their keys, attack the correct gap and not miss their tackles, but Dre’Mont Jones is trending down and is likely to miss the Niners game, and Purcell is also listed as questionable.
It would be interesting to see rookie Matt Henningsen get a chance to play after impressing in the preseason. The edge rushers must not over-pursue because that will create numerous cut-back opportunities on the backside of the play.
The Broncos' secondary must show the requisite physicality, with fewer ankle-biting tackles, greater urgency in getting off their blocks, and turning tackles into stops short of the sticks.
Wilson Must his Receivers & Utilize the Whole Field
Wilson’s heat map so far this season is quite interesting. Through two games, he has heavily targeted the left side of the field, which is not surprising given that Courtland Sutton usually lines up on the left, and the Broncos' receiving corps has been injured.
Wilson has done a good job going through all of his reads but will often work through his progressions, go to his checkdown, go off his checkdown, go through more reads, and miss the checkdown opportunity because it becomes covered. He has historically had a very high percentage of pressures and sacks given up that are attributable to the quarterback.
Not trusting the receivers, not taking the checkdown option when that is what the defense is giving him, further exacerbates that situation. Wilson is not moving like he used to, and through two weeks, it's clear that he is still facing a significant adjustment to the new offense and is not yet comfortable in the scheme or throwing to receivers not named Sutton.
Tyrie Cleveland is trending down on the injury report, but there is hope that Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler can play, after being listed as limited and full participants, respectively, in practice. Wide receiver depth is an issue for the Broncos, but it will be a significant shot in the arm for the Broncos offense if Jeudy and Hamler are both able to play.
In particular, Hamler can create more opportunities for offensive spacing, and Jeudy is an easy separator that was much missed in the second half of the Texans game, although the set-up for his moves would indicate that he should not be the first read on most plays.
The Niners have a very good front seven, with linebackers who are exceptional in coverage and a secondary that is not to be overlooked. They play a physical brand of football and mix up their pressures quite well.
The Broncos have to match that physicality on offense, with the receivers doing a better job at run blocking, getting open, and winning the trust of Wilson. If the Broncos' wideouts can step up and make plays, they will win Wilson's trust in critical situations, especially in the red zone.
The Broncos do not seem to be a bad football team, and they are fully capable of putting things right and executing a complete game that can beat the Niners. It would certainly be a statement win if the Broncos can pull it off in prime time.
Follow James on Twitter @JamesC_MHH.
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