By: Sean Mahon
Hello to all you fellow Niners fans! My name is Sean and I am very excited to begin working with the great team that makes up NothingButNiners. Some of you already know me and my passion for the franchise & its storied history, however most don’t and that’s great because I look forward to discussing all things San Francisco 49ers with anyone out there. That being said, let’s get right into it!
Last Friday night in the 49ers’ victory over the Chiefs, we were introduced to the razor-sharp preparation, diverse, decisive & assertive play-calling, developmental ability, and aggressive nature of the talented new coaching staff. We also quickly noticed the hunger, hustle, and physical & aggressive style of play of the new & young talent that the new regime has brought in. As to be expected for the 1st preseason game of a roster with massive turnover, new coaching staff and new schemes, there were certainly some mental mistakes, breakdowns in scheme, assignments, and fundamentals, but overall, a lot to like and remain excited about for the future of the team. Development in fundamentals, scheme, and team chemistry are all critical, and the Niners are in the very early stages of a long-overdue rebuild being done right, so keep in mind: this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Watch for steady improvement day-to-day, week-to-week, and season-to-season.
Tomorrow night, the 49ers host the Denver Broncos. Coming off a post-Lombardi letdown, missing the playoffs in one of the most competitive divisions at 9-7 while still featuring one of the league’s best overall defenses (#4 Total YPG, #4 Scoring, #1 Pass YPG). GM John Elway replaced Gary Kubiak (who retired due to medical issues) with a young, talented, defensive mind in Vance Joseph as the Broncos new Head Coach. Mike McCoy, formerly the HC of the San Diego Chargers, is now the Offensive Coordinator for Denver, and he will seek to open the playbook for a talented receiving corps and newly-acquired running backs – Jamaal Charles and Stevan Ridley. The team’s success will hinge, as it did in 2016, on their QB play. Incumbent starter Trevor Siemian is currently in a wide-open competition with Paxton Lynch, the team’s 1st round pick in last year’s draft. More on the horses later…back now to why we’re all here, the Niners!
Niners Storylines to Follow:
With the culmination of Thursday’s joint practice with Denver, Training Camp is officially over as the team transitions into preseason. One major change the league made this year was the roster cuts; coaching staffs and GMs are used to trimming from 90 players down to 75, then again from 75 down to the hallowed 53-man roster, now have their work cut out for them. Obviously teams can release players whenever they see fit, but there is no longer a 75-man roster transition, which makes cuts that much more difficult, yet also allows more roster flexibility and time to evaluate players through the 4th and final preseason game. It’s a double-edged sword of sorts, but I have plenty of faith in GM John Lynch, HC Kyle Shanahan, and the rest of the staff at 4949 Centennial Boulevard.
Coach Shanahan mentioned in his press conference this week that the starters will play more snaps this week (at least 20), and we should expect that trend to continue with next week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings as well. These two upcoming games are the most we will see of the starters until the regular season kicks off, as the last game is typically dominated by last-minute evaluations of backups competing for roster spots. Personally, there are caveats to take on both sides of the ball from the increased playing time for the starters this week. Offensively, can the line begin to jell, reduce penalties, and provide time for the explosive and deceiving play-calling? Can QB Brian Hoyer feed off of his consistent play in camp with extended drives (hopefully of the scoring type) and big plays? Can the unit – as a whole, sustain drives, execute on third down & in the Red Zone?
Defensively, with 3 injuries to middle linebackers this week (Reuben Foster, NaVorro Bowman, and Brock Coyle), will those injuries prove to be minor, or concerning enough to limit snap counts, and can freshly re-signed Shayne Skov step in for the 2nd & 3rd units and be assignment-sound in the new scheme? Can the pass-rush continue to impress? Will the unit continue to make big plays and force turnovers, all the while reducing blown assignments? CB Dontae Johnson returns from a concussion, how will he fare in his first full-speed competition of the summer? This is a big step for each unit, and I, for one, am amped to see what they can do over several series out there.
Rookie QB CJ Beathard continues to impress, and will be given a shot to secure the second QB spot on the roster with a strong performance against the Broncos. He played well with a patchwork line & limited playmakers on the 3rd unit last week, so considering the expected improved protection and weapons to utilize, I’m hoping he takes full advantage of the opportunity. To be honest, even if he beats out Matt Barkley as Hoyer’s backup, considering Hoyer has never lasted a full season, his health is a legitimate liability, so I would lean towards keeping all 3 regardless of how the competition plays out, but of course that’s just me. Every spot on the 53 matters; it will be interesting to see the direction the staff goes with QB depth. I would love to hear your take on that Faithful!
Key 49ers Injuries:
Several injuries could negatively impact the Niners D tomorrow night, with not only the 3 MLBs nicked, but OLB Aaron Lynch, DE DeForest Buckner, DB Will Redmond all nursing ankle injuries, and FS Jimmie Ward being held out for another week to allow his hamstring to fully heal. Of all of these, I believe getting Ward back in center field as the single-high free safety in DC Robert Saleh’s aggressive scheme is the most critical. Ward has the athleticism, speed, and range required to make the scheme effective, and can potentially impact nearly every passing play if he performs well. We saw last week on big plays from the Chief’s offense how much liability the safety is under the premise of this scheme. On the offensive side of the ball, rookie TE George Kittle is still being limited with a hamstring injury, and is not expected to play against Denver.
Notable 49ers Players/Competitions to Watch:
With Carlos Hyde seemingly working his way to securing the lead back role as the starter, it’s currently a tight race between rookie running backs Joe Williams and Matt Breida for the #2 spot on the depth chart. Both played well last week overall, with Williams showing flashes of his elusiveness & explosive athleticism, and Breida running hard (although he didn’t get much help up front on numerous goalline carries) every time he touched the ball. Bobby Turner is arguably the best RB Coach, with a tip of the hat to the legendary Sir Tom Rathman, and it’s exciting to see all 3 backs improve under his tutelage. Don’t discount Raheem Mostert, but I foresee him getting an invite to the Practice Squad, especially considering the 49ers will carry the NFL’s best FB on the roster. RB Tim Hightower was banged up last week, but he is now healthy and will see action tomorrow night for the first time this year; his snaps could easily depend on game flow, packages/matchups, and defensive tendencies the staff will adjust to.
WRs Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson, and Kendrick Bourne have all been making plays throughout camp, and even in the game last week in Kansas City. They will certainly see more targets, as well as more plays being called for them, if their production continues. Robinson and Bourne are potential bubble victims unfortunately, but I do like them both & hope they make the team. I really like Trent Taylor’s game, but he seems like a near-lock considering his versatility in the kick/punt return phase. So as much as I enjoy watching him, with or without the ball, I’m not overly worried about his chances. DeAndre Smelter could be on the outside looking in unless he flips the proverbial switch sooner than later, as Aaron Burbridge is a solid Special Teams gunner, which nearly guarantees him a roster spot as well. We know Pierre Garçon and Jeremy Kerley are locks, but there are still several receivers certainly on the bubble.
Defensive playmakers have been creating turnovers and pressuring QBs throughout the summer, so I look forward to those trends continuing. Considering the starting point and last season’s abysmal unit, I’d happily settle for a defense that bends but doesn’t break (gives up yards, but gets stingy in the Red Zone), and compensates for the yardage & clock consumption by creating turnovers. Big plays allowed doomed the unit last season; hoping for improvement there this year. Getting off the field on 3rd down for a young defense is critical for stamina and confidence. It doesn’t matter how talented you are if you’re completely gassed out there in the 3rd or 4th quarter (see: 2016 Niners D).
“Know Your Enemy”:
Broncos Storylines to Follow:
As I mentioned earlier, the team is anxiously awaiting one of their young quarterbacks to step up to the competition challenge, outplay the other, and secure the job as the Broncos’ starter. Paxton Lynch will get the nod this week to start the game, and if I were a Niner defender, I’d be licking some serious chops. He’s 6’7″, with an elongated delivery motion, which not only telegraphs his targets, but allows for a lot of variables in fundamentals, which typically results in inconsistent accuracy and wildly inaccurate throws. I can see the Niners secondary securing a pick tomorrow night facing Lynch. Siemian will play 2nd, but he isn’t a prolific passer, cannon arm, or multi-threat athlete; he’s a mediocre talent with an average arm, average mobility, and sporadic play. Outside of elite receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos don’t have many dangerous skill position players. New running backs Jamaal Charles and Stevan Ridley hope to inspire a lackluster rushing attack, but Charles will not make his preseason debut until next week against Green Bay. The Niners should play with high confidence all night long on the defensive side of the ball.
New Broncos head coach Vance Joseph is familiar with the 49ers, as he coached the San Francisco secondary as an assistant from 2005-2010. Like our own Kyle Shanahan, this is his first go-around as a head coach. He is one of the up-and-coming young defensive minds around the league, as his Dolphins defense played inspired ball last season under his direction as Defensive Coordinator (first time in his career) and helped the team overachieve into the playoffs. Joseph mentioned this week, after several scuffles in the joint practices with the 49ers, that he wants his team to be “smart bullies” (?). Considering their overall youth, especially on both sides of the trenches, I would not be surprised to see some emotion-based penalties and mental mistakes, especially after seeing multiple Niners get under their thin skin this week. Another aspect of the Broncos that I’ll be watching is how their defense adapts to losing some key players, all of whom are instrumental pass rushers. A great pass-rush can make any secondary look good, let alone one that features 3 Pro Bowlers in CBs Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., and FS Darian Stewart. When they don’t have their elite pass rush going, the Broncos vaunted D is definitely vulnerable, and this is Joseph’s first season working with them. OLB DeMarcus Ware retired following the 2016 season, and his presence opposite Von Miller will surely be missed, as well as his veteran leadership. Next man up for their pass rush, so here’s hoping Trent Brown neutralizes Von Miller. This unit has been attempting to replace lost talent along the front 7, just as any elite Super Bowl-winning defense can attest; talent poaching is part of the game. They’ll give up their fair share of yards on the ground, and play-action passes can be very effective against their secondary, both of which are Shanahan hallmarks and clearly large parts of the Niners attack we witnessed last week.
Key Broncos Injuries:
Replacing DeMarcus Ware in tandem are young stud OLBs Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett, who are both currently hurt (Ray is out for 6-8 weeks with a torn ligament in his left wrist; Barrett is out until September with a hip injury), and neither will play tomorrow night. Same goes for defensive line anchor DE Derek Wolfe, who is likely out after suffering a bad ankle sprain in practice last Saturday.
Notable Matchups to Watch:
- 49ers RT Trent Brown vs Broncos OLB Von Miller
- 49ers WR Pierre Garcon vs Broncos CB Aqib Talib
- 49ers starting WR corps/TEs vs Broncos starting secondary
- 49ers CB Rashard Robinson vs Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders
- 49ers defensive front 7 vs Broncos running game
- 49ers pass rush & secondary vs Broncos QBs
In summation, I’m not a big prediction guy, but I see the Niners winning this game based on Denver’s QB play and injury-riddle pass rush. More important than victory is health. Hopefully each unit gets valuable situational snaps, shows discipline, and executes with minimal mistakes.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your feedback, comments, and questions! Find me on Twitter @EastCoast9rsFan! And as always, go Niners!