DENVER — The Broncos will be waiting all day for Sunday night.
And when it arrives, they'll have quite the opportunity.
In a prime-time matchup with the 49ers, the Broncos will have a chance to win their second consecutive game, keep pace in the AFC West and notch their best win of the early part of the season.
San Francisco has had plenty of success in recent years, as the 49ers advanced to a Super Bowl three years ago and made an NFC Championship Game appearance last season.
In this Week 3 matchup, the Broncos are embracing that challenge.
"Without a doubt," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "You want to play the best teams all the time to always continually push yourself. If you want to be successful in this league, you're going to have to beat the best in the league. So it definitely gives you kind of a gauge on where you are, how the guys compete, how they respond, especially in prime time. If you get to that next step, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think it's a great learning experience and a great opportunity for everybody.
While the 49ers will look different than expected following a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Trey Lance, this weekend's matchup will be a battle between two teams with strong run games and imposing defenses.
In his first prime-time game at Empower Field at Mile High, perhaps Russell Wilson can tilt the scale in Denver's favor. The Broncos quarterback is 17-4, including postseason, against the 49ers in his career, and he's thrown for more touchdowns against San Francisco than any other franchise.
As the Broncos look for a big victory, here are the questions that will help determine if they can get a win:
CAN THE BRONCOS' DEFENSE GAIN THE EDGE IN THE RUN GAME?
The 49ers will feature a new quarterback in Week 3, as Jimmy Garoppolo will take the reins for an injured Lance. The veteran has a history of success, and he entered last week's game to complete 13-of-21 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown against Seattle. In Garoppolo, the Broncos will face a decisive player with with impressive arm talent — but he may not be the most difficult challenge of the weekend.
San Francisco's offensive system, a deviation of the same scheme the Broncos run, is heavily predicated on running the football — and the 49ers are quite good at it.
Entering Week 3, the 49ers ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards and have averaged 182.5 yards per game on the ground. The 49ers have weathered an injury to starting running back Elijah Mitchell, in part because of the role do-it-all wide receiver Deebo Samuel can do in the run game. Samuel has rushed for more than 50 yards in each of San Francisco's first two games, and he broke free for a 51-yard run against the Seahawks. The fourth-year player, who earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2021, lines up all over the formation for San Francisco and is a threat both on the ground and through the air. For the Broncos, it will be a difficult challenge to stick with him — and to bring the shifty 215-pound player to a halt.
"He's the jack of all trades for that offense," outside linebacker Bradley Chubb said Wednesday. "You can line him up in the backfield, line him up at receiver. He could probably play some quarterback if they need him to, so we've got to make sure we know where '19' is at all times. His big thing is running after the catch and making big plays after the first contact, so we've got to rally to the ball, make sure we all [make] one big effort to get him down to the ground."
The Broncos, though, should be poised to meet the challenge. Former 49er D.J. Jones leads all defensive tackles in ESPN's run-stop win rate, and Denver could be poised to get Josey Jewell back after he missed the first two games of the season with a calf injury. Through two weeks, Denver's defense ranks fifth against the run, allowing just 78 rushing yards per game.
If the Broncos can gain the edge along the line of scrimmage and bottle up San Francisco's rushing attack, it could give Denver the edge it needs to limit the 49ers and read a win.
With the Broncos poised to wear their blue uniforms on "Sunday Night Football" against the 49ers, get a sneak peek at the look with a photoshoot of Javonte Williams and more.
WILL DENVER'S OFFENSE CAPITALIZE AGAINST A TOUGH DEFENSE — AND AVOID MISTAKES IN THE PROCESS?
Denver won't face an easy task this weekend against the 49ers, as San Francisco's defense ranks first in total defense and is tied for third — with the Broncos — in points allowed.
Particularly in the front seven, the 49ers are a tough, hard-nosed defense that tests an offense's ability to run the ball and protect the quarterback. Through two weeks, the 49ers' defense has forced seven three-and-outs.
Along the defensive line, Nick Bosa leads that effort, as he was tied for third in the NFL in sacks through the first two weeks. In the linebacking corps, 2020 first-team All-Pro Fred Warner leads a unit that has allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game through Week 2.
"I'm hoping a shoelace breaks a couple of times in that game or he has to come out a few times, but he's a game-wrecker," Offensive Coordinator Justin Outten said Thursday. "You have to account for him and you have to know where he is. They do a great job of flipping him around, especially in situational football. You have to be mindful of where he is. It's not just him. You have a great linebacking crew led by '54' [Warner]; he's athletic and he does a really good job in space. This is going to be a great challenge for us."
Against a formidable defense, the Broncos' offense must remain patient and capitalize on its chances. Denver ranked first in the league in yards per drive through Week 2, but the Broncos have yet to score on its first six red-zone attempts. On "Sunday Night Football," against a top-end opponent, the Broncos may not find themselves in the red zone on every drive. Thus, Wilson and Co. must make their opportunities count.
"It's a game of inches, a game of discipline," Wilson said Wednesday. "It's a game of doing things right, and it changes the whole perspective of everything. Then we're really kicking butt. The great thing is we are doing a lot of great things well. It's just fine-tuning the details, and we have to get more touchdowns down there."
If the Broncos can get their 10th-ranked run game going against San Francisco, it could provide an edge in the red zone and also open up the play-action game in the middle of the field. Javonte Williams has averaged 5.4 yards per carry through two weeks, and Denver would benefit if he can replicate that performance.
Denver would also be well-served to win the turnover battle for the first time this season. If the Broncos' offense can avoid turning the ball over against a defense that ranks in the top 10 in takeaways and turnover margin, Denver should gain an edge. Facing this defense, an extra possession — and extra opportunity — could be the difference.
CAN THE BRONCOS CLEAN UP THEIR OPERATION?
The Broncos have played a pair of one-possession games in the first two weeks of the season — and in a matchup against a 2021 NFC finalist, it's reasonable to expect Denver could find itself in another close battle in Week 3.
Denver was able to survive some mistakes in a Week 2 win over Houston, but it will be critical for the Broncos to avoid self-inflicted wounds. After being whistled for 25 penalties in the first two weeks, the Broncos must make sure they avoid setting themselves back — particularly in key moments of the game. In Week 1, a false start knocked a touchdown off the board, and the Broncos lost out on three points in Week 2 due to another penalty. Against San Francisco, the Broncos likely cannot afford to make those mistakes.
"I think the biggest thing that we want to eliminate is penalties," Wilson said. "That's on us as players more than anything else — making sure that we take that out of the game, because that just puts you [at] second-and-25, second-and-21, second-and-22. Those aren't good against good football teams. When you're playing in the National Football League, you want to keep your down and distances short and manageable, especially against the team we're about to go against in the 49ers and how they play, how great they are in the pass rush, how well and how sound they are on defense. They do a really good job."
From a game management standpoint, Denver will look to improve communication to quicken the decision-making process on key fourth downs or in the two-minute drill. If the Broncos can do that, they have the talent to play with — and beat — the 49ers. The Broncos, though, must avoid burning timeouts that could be critical late in a close game.
"When it comes to the operations, that's something that we're talking about quite a bit," Hackett said Monday. "… We have to make sure the communication is clear and concise. I need to do better at making decisions faster and quicker and getting that information to the quarterback and being on the same page with him. That's stuff that we talked about [Monday] morning, and all the way to this evening. It has to improve."
In a matchup with a strong, physical football team, the little things will matter. The Broncos will look to gain an edge in that area and move past the miscues from Week 2.
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