SAN FRANCISCO --The Broncos' 10–6 win over the 49ers here Thursday was a textbook example of a preseason opener.
The action was choppy, the game was halting and didn't have much flow, and the story was told as much by the plays that were not made as the ones that were.
But as is usual for the preseason, the game wasn't defined by the result or elegant play.
Those are destinations. This game was part of the process, which is why defensive tackles were shuffled, the starting safety combination stayed in the game well past most other first-teamers, and why Von Miller was used as much in coverage and in attacking the run as he was in a pure pass-rushing role.
Going into Thursday, five questions stood above the rest. The answers became obvious as the game progressed.
1. Who starts at safety next to Rahim Moore?
Duke Ihenacho started and maintained his progress from the practice field. On the third play of the game, he prevented a potentially big run by filling the hole and stopping LaMichael James cold, holding him to a 5–yard gain when he had a gaping hole that could have led to something more. In the second quarter, he delivered a hit on A.J. Jenkins that jarred loose the football, allowing Moore to recover.
It came as no surprise that Ihenacho ended the night as the Broncos' leading tackler; he had seven solo stops, more than twice as many as anyone else in the secondary.
Many wondered how Ihenacho would look when the lights went on. The answer? Exactly like he did in practice.
2. How much progress has Brock Osweiler made?
Substantial, even though his performance was about ensuring that disaster — a.k.a., turnovers under pressure — were avoided.
It would have been nice to see Osweiler display the touch on deep passes that he has frequently demonstrated in practice. But once the starting offensive line ceded work to the second team, Osweiler was under attack. Even with reserves, the 49ers did not temper their potent pass rush, attacking with speed from the edges that quickly forced the second-year quarterback to step up, step out or accept the sack and focus on protecting the football.
Osweiler was not spectacular, but he was steady. He evaded the pass rush at times, but didn't try to force his way out of the pocket. He was accurate when he did throw — 13 of 18 for 105 yards.
3. How will the Broncos keep Manning upright?
Denver's first-team offensive line wasn't as compromised by injury as originally feared, since Orlando Franklin overcame the hip injury he suffered Monday morning and played the first quarter. He was hurried once, when Aldon Smith beat Chris Clark around the left edge and helped coax a third-down incompletion, but that was his only brush with contact. The Broncos didn't have to do anything exotic in their blocking schemes to protect Manning, and he escaped unscathed.
4. Which unheralded players will emerge?
C.J. Anderson, come on down. While Ihenacho, Osweiler and Julius Thomas have been training-camp stars, Anderson, an undrafted rookie, was in the shadows. But Anderson played extensively in the second half, and led the Broncos in yards from scrimmage with 69 yards on 15 carries. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry; the Broncos averaged 2.96 yards per play when Anderson did not touch the football. His rise also coincided with the No. 2 offensive line finding its footing in run blocking; on his longest run, a 17–yard-gain, Paul Cornick sealed the inside and Julius Thomas took care of the edge. Then Anderson did what a good running back does: he decisively hit the hole and took off. He appears to have earned a longer look in future weeks.
5. Among young cornerbacks, who's in the lead?
Omar Bolden was slightly ahead of Kayvon Webster on the practice pecking order this week, but both worked together frequently in the second and third quarters. Webster had the biggest play on defense, intercepting a Scott Tolzien pass. Bolden made his mark on special teams, batting a Britton Colquitt punt back into play after the Broncos' first possession; that forced the 49ers to start their second series at their 3–yard-line. Bolden was also used on blitzes from the corner, which helped rattle San Francisco's backup quarterbacks, who never settled into a groove until the fourth quarter.
Whether the Broncos keep six cornerbacks is still a valid question, but given that the nickel package is likely to be the most-often used alignment — as has been discussed since the spring — it wouldn't be a stretch to keep six cornerbacks, especially given Bolden and Webster's draft pedigrees and potential roles on special teams.