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49ers vs. Broncos: Breaking Down San Francisco’s Game Plan

There will be no rest for the weary as the San Francisco 49ers take to the road to face the Denver Broncos in Week 7 on Sunday Night Football.

San Francisco is faced with a short week after knocking off the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football in Week 6. The victory moved the 49ers to 4-2 and alone into a second-place berth within the NFC West.

Denver is coming off a 31-17 victory against the New York Jets and will boast a 4-1 record—placing them at No. 2 in the AFC West—heading into the contest.

Much of the focus will center around Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Denver’s vaunted passing game, which is tied for No. 2 in the NFL with 15 passing touchdowns on the season.

Manning’s targets will also draw plenty of attention. Bona fide receivers like wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, along with tight end Julius Thomas, provide legitimate threats out of the Broncos’ offensive approach.

While it might be a stretch to suggest the 49ers can stop this attack entirely, we can at least hope for San Francisco’s defense to limit the damage and slow down Denver’s offense to the best of its abilities.

But the best way to prevent Manning and Co. from beating you is to not let the Bronco’s offense take the field. Therefore, look for the time-of-possession battle to be a crucial element in the 49ers’ game plan. If San Francisco can eat up the majority of the clock, the 49ers stand a good chance to stage a road upset.

That will mean, of course, that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have to back up his impressive Week 6 performance with yet another strong showing on Sunday.

Kaepernick is coming off one of the best games of his career—a matchup that saw him pass for more than 340 yards and three touchdowns against zero interceptions.

But the offense will have to do more than just pass the ball effectively against an improved Broncos defense. The 49ers will have to move the ball on the ground, especially when factoring in possession time.

Frank Gore and the running game were limited in St. Louis, which forced Kaepernick and the passing offense to take advantage. It’s hard to speculate that this sort of approach will generate similar results in Week 7.

In this article, we analyze the 49ers’ approach and game plan as they attempt to upend the Broncos. According to Odds Shark, San Francisco sits as a six-point underdog, so it is safe to assume the 49ers have their work cut out for them.


Slowing Down Denver’s Offense

As stated previously, much of San Francisco’s game plan will revolve around keeping the Broncos offense off the field. We’ll get to the 49ers’ offensive approach in a moment, so let’s start our analysis by examining what San Francisco must do in order to stave off Manning and his plethora of targets.

NFL Films Senior Producer Greg Cosell joined the Murph and Mac Show on the 49ers’ flagship radio station, KNBR 680, on Wednesday. 

In his analysis, Cosell suggested that San Francisco’s defense would have to stop Manning by scheme and not necessarily through individual matchups of talent. This was the type of approach utilized by the Jets in Week 6, and it paid off in the first quarter, according to Cosell.

Cosell admitted that New York’s defensive scheme confused Manning sufficiently enough early on. Only the Jets’ offensive ineptitude and worn-out defense allowed Denver to eventually run away with the game.

If Cosell is right, what should we expect out of Vic Fangio‘s defense on Sunday? How will the 49ers defensive coordinator offset the abilities of the Broncos offense?

Fangio will have to figure this out likely without the services of All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who sustained a toe injury in St. Louis. Willis is not expected to play on Sunday, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area (h/t Michael Hurcomb of CBS Sports).

San Francisco also lost rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward to a quadriceps injury and has been without the services of veteran cornerback Tramaine Brock since Week 1.

While Ward’s return is listed as questionable, Brock’s likely return will be after the 49ers’ bye in Week 8.

Combine these losses with the incumbent absences of linebackers NaVorro Bowman (knee) and Aldon Smith (suspension), and San Francisco’s defense appears quite thin.

On a positive note, the 49ers have gotten some excellent play out of their backups and reserve players. Cornerback Perrish Cox has emerged in Brock’s stead and is tied for the NFL lead for interceptions on the season with three.

Michael Wilhoite has assumed the void left by Bowman in admirable fashion, and rookie Aaron Lynch is quickly emerging as a pass-rushing favorite in his first pro year.

So how will this makeshift defense thwart Denver’s offense? That is the primary question and concern.

Scheme will be the name of the game here, as Cosell suggested. Unfortunately, the 49ers have one fewer day to prepare for this vital challenge given their appearance on Monday Night Football. But Cosell also hinted that San Francisco’s coaching staff started its preparations prior to the team’s Week 6 matchup in St. Louis.

Should we see a combination of well-timed blitzes, players showing blitz before dropping into coverage or the use of various man-zone looks? 

Most likely. The 49ers defense will have to get creative to a great extent here.

But San Francisco has a few things going in its favor. First, the 49ers have shown competence in thwarting high-flying offenses. Look at what they did to Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4—allowing the Eagles offense to gain just 213 yards, forcing four turnovers in the process.

Manning is obviously a few steps above Foles, but it is worth pointing out that San Francisco has allowed the second-fewest yards allowed per game during its current three-game winning streak per Katie Sharp of SB Nation.

On top of that, the Broncos running game is a bit banged-up after having lost No. 1 back Montee Ball to a groin injury. This will put a lot of pressure on backup running back Ronnie Hillman, who is averaging 4.0 yards per carry on 41 attempts.

The 49ers have yet to allow a 100-plus yard rusher since DeMarco Murray of the Dallas Cowboys crested this number in Week 1. Look for San Francisco’s defense to attempt the continuation of this trend.

Even if the 49ers can stop the run, they face more than a difficult task of thwarting Manning and the passing game. We’ve talked about the various schemes Fangio might employ during the contest, but we can’t get too far away from focusing on the need to generate a pass rush.

Prior to Week 6, San Francisco had totaled just five sacks in what had been a mostly abysmal pass rush. Lynch helped improve this to a large degree, but it is clear the 49ers are missing the services of Smith. But against the Rams, the 49ers were able to double their sack totals with an additional five during the game.

We know that Manning is as good as it gets when it comes to delivering the ball quickly from within the pocket. He doesn’t rush outside of the pocket at all. Simply put, he doesn’t need to.

This ability is in part behind why Manning has been sacked just six times on the season. But sacks can be misleading. While they are critical without doubt, merely applying pressure can make the biggest difference. If San Francisco’s pass-rushers can upset Manning’s decision-making process, perhaps the 38-year-old veteran will not have enough time to pick the defense apart.

This might be a big if, but we should guarantee that it will be a crucial one if the 49ers hope to walk away with a victory.


Sustaining the Offensive Rhythm

Unlike the reputation of Manning-led teams from years prior, the Broncos 2014 defense actually stands in good company when measured up against the rest of the league.

Denver’s defense is No. 1 in the NFL in total yards allowed (1,591). It has given up the second-fewest rushing yards on the season (384) and is ranked No. 6 in total passing yards against (1,207).

San Francisco still holds the edge in turnover differential (11 to 5), but it is safe to say that the Broncos defense presents a worthy challenge.

Getting the running game going once again will be a crucial thing for the 49ers. The combination of Gore and Carlos Hyde was limited to just 52 yards in St. Louis—largely due to the Rams stuffing the box to take away the rushing threat.

Denver’s stats against the run might be offset a bit by the fact that opposing teams often find themselves trailing the Broncos throughout the game, thus requiring more of a pass-first approach. The 49ers obviously do not want to find themselves in the same position, so maintaining an effective ground game will be a critical factor.

It will also help control the clock.

But, of course, Kaepernick will have to make plays of his own. The complement of receivers at his disposal certainly gives him a better chance to do this. But the Broncos’ combination of defensive backs like Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Rahim Moore and rookie Bradley Roby present a legitimate obstacle.

Compounding the issue will be Denver’s pass rush. 

Unlike the Rams—who have just one sack in 2014—the Broncos pass-rushers have amassed 15 sacks on the year. Defenders like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will look to chase Kaepernick out of the pocket frequently and often, as described by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Travis Wakeman.

Here is where Kaepernick‘s legs come into the equation. Kaepernick has already shown his ability to extend plays outside of the pocket. Salvaging broken plays can often prove the difference between a distant chance and an upset, so we should look to see how Kaepernick and the 49ers offense can take advantage of this.

On top of that, the Broncos will be without linebacker Danny Trevathan (knee) per Chris Wesseling of (h/t R.J. White of CBS Sports). This means Brandon Mashall will get the start in Trevathan‘s stead, and the 49ers will likely try to take advantage of this with tight end Vernon Davis.

This is an advantage that could play into San Francisco’s favor if the offense can capitalize on it. 

Most importantly, the 49ers will have to establish an offensive rhythm that will offset the Broncos’ own offensive prowess.

With Denver having the potential to move the ball quickly, San Francisco should consider a slow, ground-and-pound approach that will gradually wear out a tough Broncos defense. The 49ers do not need a shootout victory here. 

It will fall upon offensive coordinator Greg Roman to call plays that put his offense in a position to succeed. He needs to make calls that feature San Francisco’s strengths without becoming too predictable. He can afford to get creative without getting too cute.

But ultimately, it will fall upon the players themselves to execute the game plan properly.



Games are never won on paper. The football isn’t round.

We know the cliches. 

But there are certainly going to be additional factors and elements that play into Sunday’s contest. 

We’ve touched on San Francisco’s short week. How will this play into the equation? Will the 49ers be adequately prepared to take on one of the league’s best in a prime-time matchup?

Additionally, how will the altitude factor into the decision? Anyone from sea level who has ever performed a physical activity in the Denver area could tell you that altitude can play a role. Perhaps this is a key facet in wearing down a defense, be it that of the Broncos or 49ers.

Directly related to this will be the time-of-possession battle. San Francisco is 3-2 on the season when it possesses the ball longer than its opponent—the only losses being the Week 2 and 3 implosions to the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals, respectively.

Against Denver, this aspect will be all the more critical.

But perhaps an even more significant X-factor will be field position. Want to try to slow down Manning and the Broncos offense? Force him to march the length of the field on each possession. While Manning might be one of the best at doing this, the 49ers will at least try to make him earn it.

This is where special teams comes into play. Coffin-corner punts from Andy Lee and solid return coverage will play a deciding role in determining the battle for field position.

And then there are the penalties.

San Francisco’s reputation as a penalty-riddled franchise came to a stop in Week 5 when it was penalized just twice for 10 yards. After a shaky start in Week 6, the 49ers were able to clamp down in this area—five penalties for only 23 yards.

Against a team like the Broncos, one cannot afford to make the same sort of mistakes that hindered the 49ers’ chances earlier this season. San Francisco needs to play a clean game, especially on defense. There is almost zero room for free plays and extended drives.

The odds might be stacked against the 49ers on Sunday Night Football

A smart bet would likely suggest the Broncos as clear favorites in this prime-time contest. But it is not as if San Francisco is a lackluster team that does not possess the weapons or abilities to contend with one of the NFL’s best.

The combination of a crafty defense and an established offense will prove vital in this game. If the 49ers can muster up a nearly mistake-free effort against the Broncos, they stand a good chance to stage an upset.

Exactly how this happens is yet to be seen. 

But if the 49ers want to finish the season as the NFL’s best, they’ll have to do it by matching up against another elite franchise.

Consider it just another lofty step on the road towards another Super Bowl crown.


All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of and unless otherwise indicated.

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers’ news, insight and analysis.

Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

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