49ers 24, Broncos 15: Observations

DENVER -- Emmanuel Sanders looked like himself Monday.

Those six words offer the reassurance the Broncos needed after they plugged their prolific receiver back into the offense for the first time since he tore his Achilles tendon in practice last December.

After the 24-15 preseason loss to the 49ers, Sanders said he no longer thought about the Achilles tendon. And on the first possession -- which saw Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello get him the football twice -- he looked like his old self on a 5-yard reception and a 19-yard end-around.

"Rich said he was going to get me going early," Sanders said.

It was almost a perfect night for Sanders. With 2:26 left in the first quarter and the Broncos facing third-and-14 at their 48-yard line, Sanders executed a double move, broke open and grabbed a deep pass from Joe Flacco near the left sideline. But there was no celebration because of the holding penalty against Garett Bolles back near midfield.

Still, the Broncos got a glimpse of how explosive the Flacco-to-Sanders collaboration could be.

"I feel like the chemistry is there," Sanders said. "We've still got three weeks to keep getting better and keep growing, and [have] him get used to my speed."

Ah, yes. The speed. Sanders had it Monday. To watch him explode off the line of scrimmage and make the cuts necessary on his routes, one could never have guessed that fewer than nine months ago, he ruptured his Achilles tendon.

He sat at the intersection of relentless work and advances in medical science, all of which turned an injury that used to be a career-ender into an opportunity to grow stronger.

"Physically and mentally," he said. "I feel like I've grown a lot in the past eight months. I always tell myself, 'Through failure is growth.' Sometimes you've got to fail in order to grow, and I feel that's what I did."

Dealing with injury isn't failing, of course. But in the early stages of his recovery, he had moments where he had to crawl -- literally -- to ascend stairs. It was those moments he pondered when he was in the tunnel, awaiting his introduction before the game.

"I almost started crying in the tunnel," he said.

The emotions and adrenaline of the moment were not quite like, say, a Super Bowl. But they weren't far off.

"It's up there," he said. "You've gotta think -- everybody keeps saying [that] I'm 32, torn Achilles and to be able to come back and feel how I feel -- and feel better -- and still be able to hang out with these 24-year-old kids and still be able to run with them, it's amazing.

"I don't take any of it for granted."

DEFENSE DOMINATES EARLY

"Overall, our first[-team] defense played well, I thought," Head Coach Vic Fangio said.

No one on that unit played better than Bradley Chubb. Sixty-eight seconds into the game, Chubb worked inside of 49ers left tackle Joe Staley for pressure on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo that led to an errant throw that Isaac Yiadom intercepted. Early in the second quarter, Chubb bull-rushed backup left tackle Justin Skule, getting him off-balance. That allowed Chubb to whip around Skule's left shoulder and clobber quarterback C.J. Beathard, forcing a fumble that the 49ers recovered.

Nose tackle Shelby Harris deflected two passes at the line of scrimmage. Cornerback De'Vante Bausby, who worked with the first team while Bryce Callahan rested, nearly had a pick-six, but couldn't corral an interception with open field in front of him.

When the first-team defense left the field, the 49ers had just 30 yards on 14 plays -- a 2.1-yard average -- with an interception, a fumble and a first-down rate of one every 7.0 snaps. Against the backups, the story was different. The 49ers averaged 6.5 yards per play and moved the chains once every 3.2 snaps.

Most of the damage came on the ground; against Denver's reserves, the 49ers averaged 6.9 yards on their 22 rushing attempts prior to a game-ending kneeldown.

"I don't think we played what we had correctly, and they're a good running team, and if you're not on point defensively, they'll expose you," Fangio said.

But the Broncos' first-team defense appears to be one of the league's best.

RED-ZONE INEFFICIENCY

Denver outgained the 49ers in the first half by nearly a 2-to-1 advantage, posting 166 total yards and 11 first downs to the 49ers' 78 yards and four first downs. But both of the Broncos' forays inside the San Francisco 20-yard line ended in field goals, with third-down incompletions on fade routes forcing the Broncos to settle for 31- and 33-yard field goals from Brandon McManus.

After scoring touchdowns on both of their red-zone trips against Atlanta, the Broncos have scored just one touchdown in five red-zone possessions during their last two games.

"Well, I think it's fixable," Fangio said. "Like any part of the game, it comes down to guys executing the play the way it's been designed, and we have to have good plays down there, so it's a little bit of everything, and we can improve that, I believe. We need to in the next two weeks."

Sanders concurred.

"I feel like that will come. It's still preseason," he said.

WIDEOUTS, QUARTERBACKS SALVAGE GROUND GAME

On the surface, the Broncos' total of 113 rushing yards on 27 carries was solid. But it doesn't take much digging to find issues.

Denver's five running backs mustered just 47 yards on 21 attempts, averaging 2.23 yards per carry. Only two of their attempts moved the chains. Their wide receivers and quarterbacks, meanwhile, moved the chains four times on their six rushing attempts, averaging 11.0 yards per carry.

Fangio said that part of the ground woes stemmed from the problems caused by the 49ers' scheme, which saw their front seven attack the interior while leaving open lanes in coverage. The Broncos were able to exploit the gaps for some downfield strikes, most notably the 21-yard first-quarter pass to Courtland Sutton. But the 49ers' work inside left the running backs staring down multiple front-seven defenders in the backfield, and three of the Broncos' first four carries by their running backs resulted in a loss of yardage.

Three of the Broncos' four longest runs belonged to a backup quarterback (Kevin Hogan's 24-yard touchdown run) and wide receivers (Sanders and Tim Patrick).

"We've got to block better and run better," Fangio said.

SPECIAL TEAMS A TROUBLE SPOT 

Fangio didn't mince words when asked about whether he had concerns about the performance of the special teams.

"Yeah, big-time concerns, because that's two weeks in a row our special teams has gotten whipped," Fangio said. "We're going to have to get it fixed."

A first-quarter kickoff sounded the alarm. San Francisco's Richie James Jr. shot past a diving Tim Patrick and into open space down the right side of the field. The Broncos didn't stop him until after he'd racked up 48 yards, setting San Francisco up at their 49-yard line. James added a 32-yard return in the second quarter.

Punter Colby Wadman had an up-and-down game. While he improved his hang time, averaging 4.31 seconds on his seven punts, he sent two of them into the end zone for touchbacks, dropping his net average to 41.4 yards.

Three Broncos -- wide receivers River Cracraft, Nick Williams and Kelvin McKnight -- took their shots on punt returns. Cracraft had two returns for 12 yards, while Williams recovered his own fumble after the football skipped off his face mask and McKnight was stopped for no gain on his return opportunity. None of them had much room to navigate.

"Obviously we don't have 53 guys ready to be picked on this team yet, and those last 10-15 spots have to be special-teams contributors and right now, it doesn't seem like they're playing well enough," Fangio said. 

"If it continues, we're going to have to put some starters out there to be on those units, because the last two weeks is unacceptable."

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