49ers vs. Broncos: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for in San Francisco

Dylan DeSimone@@DeSimone80Correspondent IAugust 24, 2012

49ers vs. Broncos: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for in San Francisco

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    The regular season kicks off merely days from now, when the Dallas Cowboys travel to the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants in the opener on September 5.

    Week 3 of exhibition is currently underway as the San Francisco 49ers prepare for their second to last preseason game. On Sunday, August 26, the 49ers will be away from Candlestick Park for their second consecutive road exhibition game. 

    The Niners will travel to Mile High Stadium in Denver to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The 49ers and Broncos are currently 1-1 in the preseason and both are looking to do big things in 2012.  

    Continue through the following slides for a breakdown of what to watch in this week's match-up. 

49ers Backup Safeties

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    The San Francisco 49ers have created quite the tandem at starting safety. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner emerged in 2011 as a hawking, hard-hitting duo capable of limiting even the best offensive pass attacks.

    The Niners staff continues to evaluate the safety position, looking for depth. They have been waiting for someone to step up and assert themselves in the backup role. As far as the defense goes, San Francisco has premier depth at defensive line and all the backer positions.

    Ricky Jean-Francois, Larry Grant and Parys Haralson are all excellent backups and substitution players.

    The 49ers have youth and inexperience across the board when it comes to depth at safety. 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio spoke to the media this week, addressing the competition at backup safety. 

    Fangio on the depth at safety:

    There are some jobs that are up for grabs in the backup area and we'd like to see somebody step forward and make the decisions easy for us. You know, particularly at the safety position, you know we've got [Donte] Whitner and [Dashon] Goldson, but we're looking to see who's our third, fourth and possibly fifth safety. We need for that to clear itself up and hopefully guys will step forward and make it easy. Right now, it hasn't been an easy decision for us.

    San Francisco has Trenton Robinson, Colin Jones, Michael Thomas and Darcel McBath competing at the position, and as of now, there is no clear-cut front-runner.

    With the NFL's first official cut-down day scheduled in a matter of days, the 49ers need to get a better idea of which players they are going to retain. The easiest way for this to be decided is by an irrefutably solid game day performance by one or two of the competing players.

    Clearly, nothing will be handed to these players. Fangio wants to see them earn it, and his bold request in Santa Clara this week should hopefully light a fire under this position group.  

Denver's Signal-Caller

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    After a roller coaster offseason that saw it's first ever "Peyton Watch," everyone witnessed one of the NFL's all-time great signal-callers sign with the Denver Broncos.

    Peyton Manning has not had the smoothest start to his career as a Bronco. The former Colts quarterback is returning from neck surgery and has been labeled fragile by many. At this point, he has not been the player we are used to seeing. In two preseason games, Manning has 48.7 QB rating, zero touchdowns and three interceptions.   

    Regardless, Peyton Manning is still an elite passer and this will be a challenge for the first-team defense, particularly the cornerbacks and safeties.

    A Peyton Manning-run offense inherently presents challenges for defenses because of the adjustments he is able to make pre-snap. Fortunately, the 49ers have veteran players like Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Donte Whitner at every level of San Francisco's defensive infrastructure.

    It will be quite the show watching Manning quarterback his offense, while Willis quarterbacks his defense.

    The 49ers will face a number of elite passers during 2012, not including any potential postseason match-ups. It will be nice to see how the 49ers cornerbacks plan to take away the receivers of an elite passer. Granted, there is no real game-planning in preseason, but the athleticism and awareness of San Francisco's defensive backs will still be on display.   

    Through 2 games: Alex Smith: 1 TD, 0 INT, 108 passer rating; Upcoming opponent Peyton Manning: 0 TDs, 3 INT, 48.7 passer rating.

    — Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 20, 2012

Eric Bakhtiari, OLB

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    49ers linebacker Eric Bakhtiari has made some noise this offseason but can he be consistent?

    For NFL players, consistency is one of the greatest measures when evaluating talent. In his first game against the Minnesota Vikings, Bakhtiari registered two sacks. In his second exhibition match-up against the Houston Texans, Bakhtiari had a team-high seven tackles

    Bakhtiari should be on close watch because there is a strong indication that he could make the final 53-man roster.

    It is for this reason that fans should be paying attention to Bakhtiari's performance against the Broncos. After all of his hard work, the NFL journeyman may finally make a roster—and a very talented one at that.  

    Gotta grind, compete, and always get better. In this game and in life. Blessed and humbled to have support from everywhere. Y'all keep me up

    — Eric Bakhtiari (@ebak92) August 19, 2012

Alex Boone & Leonard Davis

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    In preseason Week 2 against the Houston Texans, 49ers right guard Alex Boone struggled a bit as quarterback Alex Smith was hit repeatedly, including two sacks. 

    As a security measure, San Francisco signed former Pro Bowl guard Leonard Davis to a one-year deal this offseason. Davis is a very capable interior offensive lineman and could be the better choice for the Niners in 2012. Though, at the moment, the staff is 100 percent behind Boone for the starting job.

    The Broncos are capable of bringing quite the pass-rush with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The 49ers first-team offensive line will be challenged by Denver and will have to answer the call. 

    If Boone's performance from last game carries over, his job security may dilute into an open competition. When it comes to dealing with complex pass rushes, Davis has more experience and a higher game day IQ. While the staff is behind Boone, nothing is guaranteed—he was not promised the starting job. 

    Onlookers should be on watch for the individual performances of these two players. Guard is perhaps the one position on the team where the starting job can be won by a current No. 2 before the regular season.     

First-Team Situational Offense

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    There is the expectation that the 49ers offense is going to be leaps and bounds better than they were in the past, particularly on situational downs. In 2011, San Francisco struggled often on third down and in the red zone.

    It was understandable given that the Niners offense was completely new and the organization was in the midst of a significant makeover. But this year, the 49ers will be adding to their offensive system rather than learning it from a simplistic standpoint. They will be adding layers and correcting past issues in order to make this a well-rounded offense.

    In training camp, the Niners have made strides, working on situational offense so it will not be their Achilles once again. 

    Smith spoke on situational offense:

    Coming off this season, into the offseason, OTA's, you have just a huge catalog of everything, you've got every third down in the entire season. Which is a lot of third downs, and you get to look at how teams are playing us, what we're doing, what we need to do better, things like that...

    ...We've kept ourselves in better situations, we've been ahead of the chains, a lot of positive plays. We talk a lot about negative plays killing drives. You continue to put yourselves in good situations, be productive on first and second down, that helps your third down. You know, we were in a lot of third and longs last year. And the entire NFL in general is not good at third and longs, it's a difficult situation. And that played into our lack of success last year.

Returning Players

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    Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, Perrish Cox and LaMichael James are all expected to return after being temporarily sidelined by injury. Since all of these players are expected to have featured roles come the regular season, their progress and performance is certainly worth observing. 


    Ahmad Brooks

    The 49ers linebacker returned to practice on Monday. Brooks assumed a starting role in 2011 and is looking to build on a successful debut campaign. The left outside linebacker is one of the premier players in San Francisco's front but remains a known sleeper because of his company. After accumulating seven sacks last season, Brooks could thrive in his second year starting.  


    Aldon Smith

    San Francisco's rookie standout last year is transitioning into a starting role and he's only received partial exhibition reps. With only two games remaining in the preseason, the coaches and fans want to get a better look at how Smith plays as a complete outside backer—particularly in coverage. 

    Just a heads up I'm doing ok. Thanks

    — Aldon Smith (@aldonsmithJETS) August 11, 2012


    Perrish Cox

    Cox is working to become the nickel cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers in 2012. He's been learning the complexities of the position and is coming along well. Cox had an athletic interception in his first preseason game and looks to provide strong depth at the position. 


    LaMichael James

    49ers running back LaMichael James was San Francisco's second pick in the 2012 draft. James will provide depth at the running back this year, but the particulars of his role have been successfully kept under wraps by the team. Against the Broncos, we'll look to see if the Niners get creative with James. 

    I will be 100% at practice Monday In full force believe that go 9ers thanks for all the support I love you guys!

    — LaMichael James (@LaMichaelJames) August 19, 2012

Kendall Hunter, RB

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    For the second straight year, Kendall Hunter has looked phenomenal in preseason action. As a rookie in 2011, Hunter was the exhibition rushing leader, displaying his potential at the NFL level. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy is the primary backup to Frank Gore but has received some company in the backfield. 

    Hunter has gone beyond proving he is a capable No. 2 and has many wondering what he can do as a starter someday.

    With Gore routinely being limited in preseason, Hunter should see prime carries against the Denver Broncos defense. And Hunter does it all: pass-blocks, catches out of the backfield, runs outside and inside. He has even tested his hand as a return man; he just brings that much dynamism and overall efficiency as a player.    

    Kendall Hunter will be an exciting player to watch on Sunday. 

UDFA Wide Receivers

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    San Francisco has bulked up on their wide receiving corps this offseason via the draft and free agency. However, the Niners also have some undrafted free agent wide receivers contending for a spot. 

    The names to watch are Nathan Palmer and Chris Owusu. 

    These two have made the most noise this offseason with solid training camps and flashes during the exhibitions. If the Niners have flexibility and versatility to carry less players at certain positions, there may be a roster spot available for one of the UDFA wide receivers. 

    However, one of them needs to step up and seize it or they will have to settle for the practice squad.  

Colin Kaepernick, QB

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    Another 49er on the ballot of players to watch is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. 

    As was clear in the game against Minnesota, his athletic ability appears to have transitioned to the pros. Kaepernick ripped the Vikings defense for 78 yards and a 49ers touchdown on his first drive of the 2012 preseason. Nevertheless, the question has never been about his athleticism. 

    The question is: Can Colin Kaepernick be an efficient passer in this league?

    What to watch for with Kaepernick will be his consistency down-to-down, cutting down the unexplainable erratic passes that signify his inexperience. His poise in the pocket and overall control of the offense should be viewed from a broad perspective.

    Remember, the 49ers don't need him to start this year—it's about showing promise for the future.   

Demarcus Dobbs, TE/DT

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    Demarcus Dobbs has been a training camp favorite in Santa Clara—all of the coaches want a piece of him.

    It's been noted that Dobbs is working toward becoming a three-phase player for the San Francisco 49ers in 2012. After showing promise as a defensive lineman, the second-year UDFA has been excelling on offense at tight end and is already a regular special teams gunner.

    Dobbs does it all for the 49ers and should be on the field quite a bit this season considering he isn't a starter. He should receive some reps at tight end, where hopefully he could provide some flexibility in terms of the final roster.

    If Demarcus Dobbs can look reputable enough in his new role, the Niners may be able to carry one less tight end.