ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a practice, so it was a learning experience for the Broncos offense -- even though it was clearly not the type of day they hoped to have.
Running back Phillip Lindsay had a pair of drops, including one that saw the Joe Flacco pass bounce out of his grasp and into the hands of 49ers linebacker Malcolm Smith. He also lost a fumble that was forced by San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner. Warner was also a part of another 49ers takeaway when he burst unblocked through the A-gap, forcing a hurried Flacco throw that San Francisco's Tarvarius Moore intercepted.
Running lanes were scarce and often quickly filled by linebackers. When running back Royce Freeman did find a crease for a 10-yard run to the right flank, it was narrow and through heavy traffic.
Passing windows were small as the Broncos' receivers struggled to separate from tight coverage. On one second-team repetition, quarterback Drew Lock perfectly executed a play-action bootleg, rolling to the right. In previous practices, he was usually able to find an open target in front of him. In this instance, every potential receiver was blanketed by a defender in man-to-man coverage, leading him to tuck the ball under his arm and run.
All that was part of a practice that Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello described as "very choppy."
Having worked on the 49ers' coaching staff in 2017 and 2018, Scangarello knew the 49ers' defense would be a challenge for his unit, tossing some different looks and concepts at his players. The 49ers run a base 4-3 formation with a "wide-nine" alignment, in which one of the defensive ends aligns himself in a nine-technique position -- beyond the outside shoulder of the tight end. He keeps his hand in the dirt, but is in a position more typical of a 3-4 strong-side pass rusher.
San Francisco's three linebackers in the formation are also interchangeable, and the 49ers used this to their advantage, with Warner and Smith in particular making multiple plays Friday. With defensive end DeForest Buckner getting to Flacco for multiple rushes that would have been sacks in game conditions, the 49ers defense gave the Broncos a trial by fire.
"He's probably one of the three or four best interior players in this league so yeah, he's always going to be tough to block," Scangarello said, "and if you're not planning around him, he's going to cause problems."
This was a necessary day for Denver's offense, and Scangarello believes that when it returns Saturday, his players can adjust to the speed and looks the 49ers gave them. That would give him an indication that his offense possesses the adaptability it must have.
"It’s entirely different than they see every day in practice," Scangarello said. "And that’s how it is week-to-week in the NFL, and when you’re playing with three groups of offensive lines, a couple of those guys haven’t gotten as many reps lately as well, too.
"It’s different. You have to adapt and adjust and that’s the league and that’s how it is week-to-week, so for us to adapt and feel comfortable and match that speed and intensity, we’ll be just fine.”
... While Denver's offense struggled to match the intensity of San Francisco's defense, the Broncos defense found its form as practice went on, and its last two team periods were the strongest of the day.
The strongest evidence of its improvement over the course of practice was against the run, as 49ers running back Tevin Coleman was unable to find the lanes that existed earlier in the day, as Denver's line consistently pushed through San Francisco's interior blockers. That forced Coleman to take his sweeps wider, where defensive backs awaited.
Safety Justin Simmons punctuated the defense's surge near the end of practice with one of his strongest periods of camp, blowing up one run play and then intercepting 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo moments later. Pressure from outside linebacker Von Miller led to Garoppolo’s errant pass.
... Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had a solid day, breaking up a pair of 49ers passes during the team and seven-on-seven periods of practice.
While Harris' focus is on his play during joint practices, he also keeps an eye on his teammates, as this on-field work usually reveals more than the other training-camp practices do -- especially when a team like the 49ers cranks up the pace and intensity of the work.
"I want to see who wants to compete, who shies away, who doesn't like the competition," he said.
And of those who don't like competition?
"I don't want to play with you," he said. "I want to play with guys who want to compete, who love this, who embrace coming on the field and challenging somebody."
In terms of intensity, Harris saw what he wanted to see from his teammates.
"Everybody on our defense is [bringing intensity]. I'm going to say something to them if they're not," he said. "I feel like we set the tone, and that's what we are [doing]. I'm going to make sure we bring that intensity every day."
... Outside linebacker Bradley Chubb managed to generate pressure on Garoppolo in spite of dealing with the challenge that came from facing the 49ers' stalwart left tackle, 13-year veteran Joe Staley.
"He likes to jump-set people. He likes to get out on guys and get his hands on them early," Chubb said. "So that was one thing that they did more than our offense throughout training camp."
For Chubb and the Broncos' other edge rushers, the biggest advantage that comes with facing Staley and San Francisco right tackle Mike McGlinchey is the chance to work on their moves against offensive linemen with different skill sets.
"I can't really work on our tackles, because they know how to stop it," Chubb said. "I'm just seeing if I can get them on different guys, and seeing if I've got to work on them a little bit more myself."