SANTA CLARA, Calif. --The first American football game to be held at Levi's Stadium here will not be remembered for its final score, and none of the myriad "firsts" in Sunday's Broncos-49ers clash will be noted in the history of the stadium. Such is the way of preseason football.
That does not mean the game lacks compelling storylines, and questions that will be answered. As kickoff nears, three stand out. I'll revisit them after the game to analyze how they were answered.
1. How will the linebackers fare without Danny Trevathan?
Much of the answer will rest in Brandon Marshall's play. As the "next man up" on the depth chart, Marshall ascended to the first unit following Trevathan's leg injury. Other linebackers like Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson could also help replace Trevathan, but for now, the burden falls on Marshall, who believes he is far more ready for the challenge now than he would have been a year ago.
"It's a huge difference, because last year, I was stepping into a (new) team. I didn't know the defense and they didn't know me," Marshall said. "So now I'm familiar with the defense, (and) I have a couple of years in the league, so I know what the NFL's about. I'm definitely ready if the time was to come."
In the last two years, perhaps no position on the defense has made a greater variety of plays than the weakside linebacker. Being able to do so means being free to make the play, which is why Marshall said his most important task is to "shed blocks."
"I know a lot of times I'm covered by a three-technique (defensive tackle), but those times that I'm not covered by a three-technique, and the guard might come up on me, I have to shed blocks, get off the block and make the tackle," Marshall said. "It's hard, because it's the NFL, but it's natural for me."
If he flourishes, he can be more to the nation beyond Denver than just the "other" Brandon Marshall. He said he receives "150 tweets a day" that are intended for the former Bronco and current Chicago Bears wide receiver.
"I used to respond just as jokes, but now I just don't even respond. One day, I'm going to make a name for myself," he said.
His first -- and perhaps, best -- chance begins Sunday.
- How much of a measuring stick will this be for the offense?**
Not much more than last week, but there are some key aspects the Broncos would like to see Sunday.
First, there's the offensive line -- and the blocking scheme in general, incorporating the running backs and the tight ends. Protecting Peyton Manning against the 49ers' deep collection of pass rushers will be essential. The No. 2 set of blockers must protect Brock Osweiler, and give him more time to throw than he had at various junctures this week, particularly at the end of Friday's practice.
It will be crucial for the Broncos to take advantage of the limited openings San Francisco's judiciously aggressive defense. Holes are few; space for receivers to operate can be scant. The offense was effective moving the football, particularly early via passes to Demaryius Thomas; being able to spread around the football and move the sticks via a variety of targets will help the offense get where it needs to go.
And the running backs must pick up the blitz and show the same explosion and quickness to the hole they have demonstrated in training camp and in last week's preseason opener.
3. How will the defense react to the 49ers' variety of quarterbacks?
The Broncos hope it's similar to last week, when their pass rushers seized control against Seattle's agile, multi-dimensional passers. Although the sacks of Russell Wilson were impressive, the Broncos also did well at containing the quarterbacks when they bounced outside; they were not caught out of position and were able to limit their gains -- or prevent them outright.
Much will also depend on the Broncos' secondary coverage. When Colin Kaepernick buys time, it increases their challenge as receivers move away from their designed routes and free-lance to try and shake defenders. The Broncos' back line must be patient; if it is, offensive mistakes could fall into their grasp.