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What to look for in 49ers’ matchup with Broncos



© Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Head spinning after the first two weeks? Understandable.

The 49ers imploded like a neutron star in Chicago. Then they lost Trey Lance for the season, but clobbered the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2.

Jimmy Garoppolo is back and suddenly there is a whole lot less uncertainty.

It’s not nearly as exciting as the Trey Lance experiment, but it’s familiar. And there’s a heck of a lot to be excited about for the 49ers heading into Denver. Here’s what to look for.

Quarterback confidence and Russ’s suspect cooking

Garoppolo not at all subtly said Thursday that he prefers an offense like the one they ran in 2017, before he actually, er, knew the offense. He said he loves pushing the ball down the field and would welcome something of a return to that backyard football style.

“I’d love that,” Garoppolo said. “There’s a lot of things that go with that obviously, but yeah, I love doing that stuff. In ‘17, there was a freedom where me, the receivers, tight ends, we had a good chemistry going. And when you get that with offensive skills and a quarterback, it makes for a tough offense.” 

That was in relation to the way he played in relief, without as much of an organized game plan in years past.

Asked if he had that freedom solely because he was coming in as the backup or if that will remain the case, Garoppolo was uncertain.

“I don’t know, that’s a fair question,” Garoppolo said. “I think we’ll see that as we go forward, but I don’t know, the more freedom you have as a quarterback, obviously you play better, you’re more confident and good things will happen.” 

At times over the last half decade, it’s seemed like Shanahan’s been a driving instructor, keeping his hand on the backup wheel at all times, not fully trusting Garoppolo.

It’s felt like this perpetual cycle of Garoppolo not making key throws because he lacks confidence and Shanahan not calling plays that would give Garoppolo confidence because he misses those throws.

There’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question, and Shanahan is obviously a better play caller than Garoppolo is deep thrower of the football, so the head coach gets the benefit of the doubt.

But the question has always loomed as to whether there could be a more encouraging balance struck in the play calling.

Shanahan was asked about the quote and plead ignorance, saying he hadn’t seen the quote and that reporters should — they did — ask Garoppolo what he meant by it. Garoppolo’s quote seemed fairly clearly like he’s felt constricted at times by the rigors and intricacies Shanahan’s offense.

Will Shanahan let Garoppolo loose, so to speak? It doesn’t seem like it. Even with those perceived constrictions, though, this team knows where it’s at and generally speaking, what it’s getting from Garoppolo. And even in a so-called limited offense, it’s going to be pretty effective.

And on the other sideline, you’ve got a Denver Broncos team which looks like it’s letting Russell Wilson do a little too much cooking.

The Broncos thought Russ would come in cooking like this. Instead they’ve gotten this:

Nathaniel Hackett looks a bit overwhelmed out there. He’s already had an outrageous time management blunder in Week 1 that was obvious to the layperson. It took him another day to own up to the mistake, saying the error was evident in hindsight.

It’s not a major surprise they’re in this head-scratching, vague identity situation.

Wilson wanted to #LetRussCook and got his wish in a “partner,” not a head coach, in Hackett. Per a Peter King report from August quoting a “person who knows Wilson well”:

“Coach and Russell are not coach-player. They’re partners.”

Yet, when the clock was ticking down in that first game as Denver headed towards a 64-yard field goal attempt, Wilson didn’t intervene. So the blame has to be shared with Wilson, too.

There have been plenty of weird moments for Denver so far.

In Week 2, at the goal line, the Broncos called back-to-back fades to Courtland Sutton. Neither worked (though the first was close), then Wilson was discernibly too height-challenged to see over the line and find a wide open Javonte Williams. When he did see him, he spiked it off his lineman’s head.

Wilson also ignored an easy checkdown to Melvin Gordon in this game, instead sailing the ball into the ozone layer.

It can be easy to nitpick at times when quarterbacks miss open receivers, but this is a persistent issue for Wilson throughout his career. He either takes too much time trying to hit the big play or forces the ball, missing easy completions that would ease the burden of needing consistent supernatural efforts on his behalf.

The Denver crowd booed their team at home last week as Wilson was in the midst of a 6-for-20 stretch not at all helped by his receivers, who dropped at least four passes, one of which, by Sutton, became an INT.

Wilson made made some bad mistakes, too; he’s got that propensity to ignore the easy, obvious checkdowns and try for big plays too frequently.

But he’s still dangerous. The 49ers know this. Regardless of how poor he and his offense have performed thus far, there’s still that ever-present worry he’ll make a back-breaking play out of thin air.

If Denver can’t run effectively, though — and this 49ers defense is a mauling, run-stopping force — that magic is their offense’s only real shot.

San Francisco — albeit in a Week 1 monsoon and with rain in Week 2 against non-elite opponents — has allowed the fewest yards in the NFL (210 yards per game) through two weeks. Their 67.5 rush yards allowed per game are the second-fewest in the league.

That brings us to…

Outside corner play

The corner play from Charvarius Ward and Emmanuel Moseley has been excellent. That’s even acknowledging that Tyler Lockett gave Ward some trouble last weekend.

That’s more a credit to Lockett’s — the most complete receiver on the Seahawks — ingenuity. He still creates space at an elite level and will beat just about any corner in zone coverage. He’s also somehow the best blocking receiver on that team.

But Ward and Moseley have taken this secondary to another level. Moseley was all over D.K. Metcalf except for that one time he got Moss’d on the one-handed catch that was whistled dead. Moseley, for his part, was robbed of a pass breakup-turned Fred Warner interception on what looked like a bang-bang play.

Sutton is very much in the Metcalf mold, but the Broncos don’t have anyone as creative and space-bending as Lockett. Jerry Jeudy is a great route runner, but he’s not at that level, at least yet. He’s also questionable, having practiced once this week, and Tim Patrick is on injured reserve.

The rest of that receiving corps is suspect. Tyrie Cleveland had a bad drop last week and K.J. Hamler — brought in for speed and creativity especially out of the slot — has been inconsistent and not always healthy. He’s been limited this week with knee and hip injuries.

The only other dynamic option available is fifth-round rookie Montrell Washington. He’s a real threat on returns and sweeps, but doesn’t seem to have a well-defined route tree at his disposal.

Sufficed to say, if Jeudy can’t go, there’s going to be even more attention on Sutton, which these corners have shown they can handle. That puts the onus on Denver’s run game, and their frequent use of jumbo packages.

It’s been effective, so far, with their 4.9-yard-per-carry average the seventh-best in the NFL, and it begs the question as to why they’ve gone away from it at times (they ran for 103 yards in Week 1 on just 20 carries, then upped it to 31 carries for 149 yards in Week 2).

Wilson will look to his tight end group for help in the passing game, and has already this season, but it’s not a confidence-inspiring unit for the Broncos, with Albert Okwuegbunam the most noteworthy. He’s a freak athlete but still looks uncertain in his mastery of the actual tight end position. He had a bad drop last week.

Denver’s best chance is to establish the run game and bait play action off of it. Play action can and has been shown to work without an effective run game, but getting defenses to overcommit to the run opens up play action further.

That’s important right now, because NFL defenses have been keyed in on play action this season — at least early — and those slow-developing boots are becoming more and more difficult to execute.

The real answer is that Russell Wilson will have to do what he does best, and has struggled to so far this season: make plays in off-schedule situations.

Talanoa Hufanga

Hufanga has been a revelation. He showed moments last season that indicated he had elite instincts, at least in the run game.

But that transition from run-stopping safety in the box to a well-rounded, coverage-capable safety is an exceedingly difficult one.

Now, it’s just two games. We should be a little careful of crowning Hufanga as an elite coverage safety.

But the leap he’s made is evident, and even if he declines at some point this season, the gains he’s made over the last year are legitimate.

The way he triggers downhill, reads quarterbacks eyes, and attacks the ball with timing — whether in the deep third of the field or at the line of scrimmage — has been impossible to ignore.

Even rewatching film, his speed, timing and angles don’t seem to make sense. He’s so much quicker to the ball than anyone on offense would rightfully expect. That timing, in concert with placing himself at the exact right juncture, allows him to slice through offensive designs with ease.

He’s causing major issues and making plays at an outrageous rate.

DeMeco Ryans credited his preparation, saying he’s proactive and curious in meetings.

“He is very great at preparation throughout the week. He’s always into it,” Ryans said. “He’s always asking questions, trying to figure out just how many nuggets can he get to get another step, to see what the offense is doing…

Things that he’s looking for, if it’s a certain alignment by a tight end, if it’s a certain motion, what are they doing off of that motion?… And then he goes to the field and he’s able to process things in a fast way that allows him to trigger and make plays.”

Ryans said his communication and confidence are the two biggest factors in his improvement. He descried him as “one of the best guys at prepping throughout the week that I’ve been around.

“I don’t know why he was hanging [in the fifth round], but I’m happy we grabbed him.” 

Hufanga’s impact, in concert with impressive performances from the veteran Tashaun Gipson Sr., have eliminated one of the few concerns for this defense entering the season. If Wilson tries to forces something over the middle, or take a shot in tight windows, Hufanga might be waiting.

Aaron Banks

I know one prediction I’d like to have back. I predicted Jason Poe would start at left guard by the end of the season. It was couched in an appreciation for Poe and was firmly defined the hot take category, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s replacing Banks right now.

His athleticism allows him to be sloppy with his hand placement at times, but to say his technique is poor would be a mischaracterization; he just has a bit of room for error. His ability to adjust, especially handing off difficult stunts with Trent Williams, was eye-opening.

In my book, he has been the clear second-best lineman behind Williams.

With the second-year Notre Dame product, it’s the speed off the ball that you notice first. Sometimes, like in Chicago, when he cost a touchdown opportunity by getting too far upfield and putting himself at a bad angle, it can cost him (Jauan Jennings also missed a TD-worthy block on the next play. There were quite a few missed in Chicago that day).

Banks told KNBR what happened on the play:

“Just took the wrong angle, too wide on the angle, he went back door, gotta go a little bit tighter on the angle, cut him off,” Banks said. “It is [frustrating] and when it happened, as soon as he went back door, I looked back, nobody else [there], would’ve been a touchdown. So, clean those things up and make sure that stuff doesn’t happen again. You know, it’s football, some shit comes with it but as long as you clean it up and don’t let the mistakes happen again, you’re good.”

But generally speaking, he’s playing with a speed and strength that’s extremely dynamic and allow him to connect on second- or even third-level blocks. There was one point in Chicago he was something like 30 yards down the field — and quick — on a run play.

His ability to make quick adjustments, especially in hand-off blocking situations, or take on a looping rusher, has been eye-catching.

Kyle Shanahan’s taken notice. And he intimated that the preseason concerns about Banks weren’t entirely out of place. But he’s made a major leap so far.

“I’ve been real happy with him in these first two weeks,” Shanahan said. “I think he took a step up in Week One from the preseason and I think he even took a greater step up in Week Two compared to Week One, so I thought he had one of our better games on offense and did a hell of a job.” 

Offensive line coach Chris Foerster said he’s seen some of the same things, but he’s a consistent preacher of the process. There’s good, bad, stuff in between. Offensive linemen are just about assured to encounter all of that over the course of a season.

So for young players, in rookies and quasi-rookies like Banks and Spencer Burford, it’s about maintaining a generally upward trajectory and recovering from those ugly moments.

Foerster said Banks has benefited substantially from in-game reps because he understands what he’s trying to work on in practice. He’s not trying to correct theoretical mistakes or expect where theoretical defenders are. There’s a tangibility to everything for him now.

But there will be failures. He cited his experience coaching a rookie Trent Williams to highlight that.

“I said it to Aaron in the offseason, particularly,” Foerster said. “I said, ‘Hey Banksy, at some point, you’re going to go through this process. You’re going to be playing well and all of a sudden, you’re going to hit the skids. All of a sudden, the wheels are going to feel like, ‘Oh my God, are the wheels coming off? Am I going to be able to survive it?’

“‘It’s your first year playing full-time. And then all of a sudden, you’ll either come back from that or you’ll be standing next to me on the sideline. And that’s what’s going to determine this season for you.’ And so far so good, but at some point — maybe it doesn’t ever wobble — but I coached [T] Trent Williams, his rookie year, it wobbles as a rookie, I promise you that.”

Banks, at the very least, is not wobbling as much as was expected.

This is a game that figures to be a very real battle in the trenches against the likes of D.J. Jones and a Denver defense that likes to stack five defenders at the line of scrimmage.

If the 49ers can run the ball effectively and play clean — which, yes, you could say about most games — it’s hard to see how they lose.

Javon Kinlaw

Kinlaw has looked good. Like, he’s gonna be a problem, good. You saw it on the first play of the game in Chicago and on plenty of other occasions since then.

With Arik Armstead listed as questionable with a foot injury, Kinlaw’s value increases.

The 49ers will likely slot Charles Omenihu in at 3-tech quite a bit (they already do), and there will be an emphasis on rotations in the Denver altitude.

Denver’s clearest path to success is running the ball with a 1-2 punch in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon that is probably only second to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (you could make an Aaron Jones/A.J. Dillon argument, too).

If the 49ers have to rely on Kinlaw a bit more, there’s reason to believe he’ll thrive. While he’s not quite back to the level of explosion that showed up when he fired off the ball at South Carolina, he’s looking healthy, powerful and quick.

Even when he’s not stuffing the run, he’s done very well to maintain his leverage and gap integrity in the run game.

Kinlaw’s confident, too.

He told KNBR after Week 1 that he has “a lot to work on, but at the same time, showed a lot of improvement.”

In his and DeMeco Ryans’ mind, pad level is the only concern for him.

“Pad level is always gonna be a thing for me because I’m such a long legged dude, pad level, when my pads is down, that takes care of everything else,” Kinlaw said. “I don’t really have to worry about too much else other than my pad level.”

He also told KNBR that most of his ability to fire off the ball in college was knowing team’s cadences. The scary part is that he thinks he’s got a lot more to offer athletically.

“Nah, I’ve got way more explosion than that. Way more,” Kinlaw said. “That just came out of me stacking the years and having the reps and understanding the snap counts in college. Most teams don’t really mix their cadence up in college. So I was able to really get off the rock, but that’s just me really studying film and really understanding what’s going on. I have way more explosion now than I ever had [then].”

Mentally, Kinlaw said he’s in a better place than he was in his first too seasons.

He said he got too hyped up as a rookie and has learned to put more time into the mental balance of preparation, leaning on Arik Armstead (who he called his “favorite player in the league”).

Ryans shared Thursday that he’s noticed Kinlaw’s steady improvement.

“Kinlaw’s been improving every week. What I see from Kinlaw is growth. It’s steady growth, each and every week,” Ryans said. “He’s doing a great job in the run game, playing with good pad level. He’s doing a great job of affecting the quarterback when he does get there. He’s doing a really good job of affecting throws by getting his hands up at the proper time to force an errant throw.

“So I’m happy where Kinlaw is going and it’s exciting because I see him continuing to get better. That’s the cool part about him. He’s getting better and better. So, who knows what it’ll be mid-season, end of the season, how good he’ll be playing, but I think it’s going to be really great for us.”