5 Keys to a 49ers Victory Against the Broncos in Week 7
In Week 7, the San Francisco 49ers will face their toughest test of the NFL season so far when they travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos.
The Niners are in the midst of a three-game winning streak, having overcome the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and the NFC West rival St. Louis Rams.
Jim Harbaugh's men have vastly improved on both sides of the ball following their 1-2 start to the campaign but will arguably need to take their game to another level in order to defeat a Broncos team led by quarterback Peyton Manning—who is just three passing touchdowns short of breaking Brett Favre's all-time record of 508—on home turf.
The task of leaving Colorado with the victory has been made even harder by the absence of inside linebacker Patrick Willis.
Willis will be unavailable due to a toe injury suffered in St Louis. An already depleted defense has to take on the challenge of maintaining a level of play that sees it ranked as the No. 2 unit in the NFL against one of the league's best offenses.
With the 49ers minus Willis in addition to the already sidelined NaVorro Bowman and the suspended Aldon Smith, the pressure may instead be on a passing attack that impressed versus the Rams to keep San Francisco in the mix in a potential shootout.
What must the Niners do to stop Manning and cut apart a defense that stands at No. 4 in the league? Here I reveal the five keys to a road win on Sunday Night Football.
Shut Down Julius Thomas
It's an obvious statement to make, but if the Niners are to emerge from Denver triumphant, then keeping Thomas at bay will be pivotal.
Thomas is enjoying a stellar campaign. He has 24 receptions for 227 yards and nine touchdowns, becoming only the second player, per ESPN Stats and Info, to post that total through five games of the regular season.
The 49ers could be considered to be Thomas' toughest opponent to date given that San Francisco is ranked at No. 1 in the league against opposing tight ends by Football Outsiders. The Rams' Jared Cook was the only one to have posted more than 50 yards versus San Francisco in 2014, totaling 74 on Monday night, although Martellus Bennett and Travis Kelce have each found the end zone in games against the Niners.
Despite the Niners' record in clamping down on opposing tight ends, Thomas could be relishing the matchup due to the absence of Willis, who ranks at No. 7 in coverage among all inside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
With Willis on the sidelines, rookie Chris Borland could be assigned to cover Thomas.
That is a battle that would skew in Thomas' favor due to the sheer size differential between the two. Thomas stands at 6'5" and 250 pounds, while Borland—whose apparent lack of athleticism was viewed as a concern during the predraft process—is a mere 5'11" and 248 pounds by comparison.
San Francisco could potentially put one of its bigger cornerbacks in Dontae Johnson or Chris Cook on Thomas if the team is unprepared to have Borland cover one of the best tight ends in the game in his first starting assignment.
Thomas scored a touchdown against the Niners in Week 2 of preseason. In order to overcome Denver, Vic Fangio's defense needs to maintain its form against tight ends and prevent Thomas from enjoying another big day.
Find Creative Ways to Get Frank Gore the Ball
The Niners beat the Eagles and the Chiefs behind two straight 100-yard games from Frank Gore; however, against the Rams, the passing attack got it done, as St. Louis stifled San Francisco's all-time leading rusher.
Gore ran for just 38 yards on 16 carries in St. Louis and faces a big challenge if he is to improve on those disappointing numbers versus a Broncos run defense that ranks one spot above that of the 49ers at No. 4 in the NFL.
But that does not mean the 49ers should move away from the run in Denver; on the contrary, what was evident against the Rams was that San Francisco needed to get the ball to Gore in a more creative manner.
The vast majority of Gore's runs on Monday were in between the tackles. Looking back at the film, I counted just two rushes to the outside.
Of course, Gore excels as an inside runner, but the Niners' ground game very quickly became predictable, with rookie backup Carlos Hyde enduring a similarly tough outing, totaling just 14 yards on 11 carries.
Colin Kaepernick and the receivers were able to ensure victory despite the failures in the rushing attack, yet there is no guarantee that they will be able to inflict the same amount of damage on a Broncos secondary manned by Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. The latter is the No. 2 corner in the league, according to PFF.
Despite his advancing years, Gore can still do it all and showed his ability to contribute in the passing game by snagging a 27-yard reception early in the third quarter that was ruled incomplete following a challenge by Rams head coach Jeff Fisher.
The Niners must control the time of possession and keep the ball away from Manning if they want to be 5-2 by the end of Sunday night. Gore will be key to their hopes of doing that, but versus this defense, San Francisco cannot afford to be too predictable in the ground game.
Mike Iupati—one of the best pulling guards in the league—is out with a concussion, but that should not prevent the Niners from mixing things up with runs to the outside and getting Gore involved in the aerial attack.
Keep Peyton Manning on His Toes
Getting pressure on a quarterback is always key in the NFL, but in the case of Manning, disrupting his rhythm is especially important.
The numbers tell a clear story of how Manning performs when under duress, and so far this season, it is a not a pretty one for the Broncos signal-caller.
Manning is ranked at No. 27 in the NFL among all quarterbacks when throwing under pressure, according to PFF. That rating is in stark contrast to that of Colin Kaepernick, who stands at No. 4 in the same category.
In total, Manning has been put under pressure on 46 dropbacks in 2014, per PFF, throwing three touchdowns and two interceptions while taking five sacks. By comparison, his play on the 150 occasions when he has thrown from a clean pocket has seen the former Indianapolis Colt rack up 12 scores and just one pick.
Only Brian Hoyer and EJ Manuel have performed worse this campaign when pressured, and with the Niners pass rush having put up five sacks in the victory over St. Louis—which was as many as the defense had recorded through the first five weeks of the season—a difficult evening could be in the offing for Manning.
Outside linebackers Dan Skuta and Ahmad Brooks recorded a pair apiece, while rookie Aaron Lynch—despite still not having a sack to his name—impressed again with four quarterback hurries, per PFF.
However, there is a clear gap in quality between the Rams offensive line and that of the Broncos, who—per ESPN—have allowed just six sacks compared to the 13 conceded by St Louis. Further to those numbers, the Rams O-line is ranked at No. 28 in the league in pass protection by Football Outsiders, a full 24 spots below the Broncos' unit.
That is not to say that Denver does not have deficiencies in the trenches. Tackles Ryan Clady and Chris Clark are tied for a lowly PFF ranking of 47, which indicates that the Broncos O-line can be exploited on the outside.
It is impossible to keep the ball away from Manning for the entire game, but when he does have it, the Niners need to keep him on his toes in order to slow down the Broncos' incredible offense.
Strong Performances from Both Starting Tackles
One of the reasons why the Broncos have been so good on defense this season is their pass rush, which has two premier talents on either side in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.
Ware—a free-agent acquisition from the Dallas Cowboys—appears rejuvenated and is already showing Denver fans why he has a reputation as one of the most feared defensive ends in the league, posting four sacks and a forced fumble.
Meanwhile, outside linebacker Miller is looking like a man who has a point to prove after his 2013 campaign was disrupted by a six-game suspension and ended prematurely by an ACL injury.
The Broncos strong-side backer has six sacks to his name and will be relishing the chance to shine in prime time against a potential Super Bowl opponent.
With an offensive line that is ranked at No. 21 in pass protection in the NFL by Football Outsiders, this matchup on paper spells trouble for San Francisco, unless it can get some impressive play from its starting tackles.
The Niners held the anemic Rams pass rush without a sack on Monday; however, this figures to be a much sterner test of the O-line.
Left tackle Joe Staley was one of the standout performers in St Louis, shutting down a player in Robert Quinn who put up a staggering 19 sacks last season.
Three-time All-Pro Staley is having a decent season, but on the other side of the line Jonathan Martin is struggling to fill the void left by right tackle Anthony Davis.
Martin was solid versus the Rams; however, his performances pale in comparison to those of Davis, who has played just one game this term due to various injury issues.
The former Miami Dolphin Martin is ranked at No. 56 among all tackles by PFF, and Niners fans will be pleased to hear that Davis has returned to practice as a limited participant following knee and ankle problems and is questionable to play on Sunday.
It remains to be seen whether Davis will be able to go, yet whoever is lining up at the opposite end to Staley will need to produce his best display of the season to keep a dangerous pass rush in check and give Kaepernick the best opportunity to lead San Francisco to triumph.
Don't Give Up the Deep Ball
One area where the 49ers defense has excelled is in not giving up the big play.
San Francisco, featuring a predominantly no-name secondary that has exceeded preseason expectations, has allowed a league-best average of just 5.9 yards per pass play.
The Niners have given up only 12 successful pass plays of 20 yards or more and two of 40 or more yards. For Harbaugh's men to emerge victorious in Denver, it is crucial that they do not allow Manning—one of the best passers of the deep ball in pro football—to change those numbers too drastically.
Through five games, Manning has completed 20 successful passes of 20 yards or more and five of over 40 yards. Those figures are not surprising given the speed the Broncos have at their disposal at the receiver position with the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders.
The back end of the 49ers secondary is somewhat banged up due to injuries to Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward, all of whom are questionable to line up opposite Manning as he seeks to take ownership of Favre's illustrious record.
With history on the horizon and the Niners secondary potentially missing some important pieces, Manning will need no invitation to air it out deep.
Despite the injury issues, it can be argued that, given their performances so far in 2014, no other team has a better chance at stopping Manning from having success down the field than the 49ers.
Taking away the long ball and restricting opposing passing attacks to underneath routes has been a theme of the season and recent years for the 49ers, who have already shut down the likes of Tony Romo and Nick Foles during the campaign.
Manning represents a different caliber of signal-caller, but the equation remains the same: Remove the option of the deep pass, and the Niners' prospects of walking away from Mile High with the win will increase significantly.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.