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49ers-Broncos preview: Game-planning an upset against Peyton Manning & Co.

When the San Francisco 49ers head to Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos, they'll be an underdog for the first time this season. What must the 49ers do to come away with the victory? We outline their potential game plan.

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Ezra Shaw

The San Francisco 49ers head to Denver this Sunday to take on the best team in football, Jim and it will mark the first time Jim Harbaugh’s teams will be an underdog this season. Although Harbaugh maintains an us against the world mentality at all times, it will be just the 12th regular season contest in his tenure that Vegas doesn’t have San Francisco as the favorite. In fact, the 6.5 points the 49ers are currently getting against Peyton Manning & Co. are the most they’ve given to a team since Week 4 of the 2011 season, when a Justin Smith forced fumble capped off a 20-point comeback against the Eagles and, in many ways, set San Francisco on the path toward three straight NFC Championship appearances.

With an improved defense that has been the second-best in football by DVOA and Manning continuing to do his thing on offense, the Broncos have looked like a more complete team than the one that reached the Super Bowl a season ago.

On the other side, the Niners head on the road to face their toughest opponent to date a bit shorthanded after adding several names to the injury report in a win against the Rams. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has done a masterful job with the defense despite playing all (or most) of the season without starters NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, and Tramaine Brock. It appears likely Patrick Willis and first-round pick Jimmie Ward will be missing from the 49ers defense on Sunday, as both players have yet to practice this week after sustaining injuries in St. Louis.

San Francisco’s offensive line, which has looked little like the dominate unit we’ve come to expect over the past three seasons, could also be without two of its three best players. Anthony Davis continues to work his way back from a knee injury and Mike Iupati will need to go through the NFL’s concussion protocol before making his way back into the lineup.

So do the 49ers have any chance of overcoming those losses and taking down Manning and the Broncos? And what would that game need to look like for it to happen? Let’s see if we can plot San Francisco’s potential path to an upset in Mile High.

The Game Plan

Force Denver to run the ball

If there’s one area the Broncos have struggled so far this season, it’s with the ground game. Montee Ball averaged 3.1 yards per carry before leaving the game against the Cardinals with a groin injury that’s expected to keep him off the field for a couple more weeks. The combination of Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson looked a bit better in the box score last week against the Jets, but it was mostly an inefficient effort propped up by a handful of carries. Of the 32 total carries between the Broncos running back duo, 21 of them went for three yards or less.

The offensive line has been as much to blame for the Denver’s No. 23 ranked run offense as the backs. The Broncos have been fortunate enough to start the same five guys up front for every single snap this season, but none of them have played especially well in the run game, with tackles Ryan Clady and Chris Clark having an especially rough time. Few teams have had as many runs stopped for no gain or a loss as the Broncos, as evidenced by their 28th-ranked stuffed percentage.

Fangio must find a way to entice Manning to hand the ball off. The most logical way to do that is by loading up to stop the pass by bringing extra defensive backs onto the field. While the Niners have primarily operated out of a nickel sub-package over the last several seasons, they have shown a willingness to go to their dime package when warranted and it’s become even more prevalent this season.

The reason San Francisco has been so comfortable staying in the nickel is because of the unique benefits provided by having Willis and Bowman on the field at the same time. Without Bowman, the 49ers have gone with six defensive backs on the field more often this season. If Willis is unable to go this week, it makes even more sense to get an extra DB on the field rather than risk Michael Wilhoite or Chris Borland getting caught defending the likes of Julius Thomas or Wes Welker in the middle of the field.

By playing with a lighter box and daring the Broncos to run the ball, the onus will be on Justin Smith & Co. to do the bulk of the work in the run game. Safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea will provide help in run support, but the 49ers will require standout performances along the defensive line to ensure the Broncos running game doesn’t find a way to get going.

San Francisco’s success on defense will still hinge on their ability to keep Manning in check, a tall order regardless of the number of defensive backs you put on the field. However, dropping seven into coverage out of their dime package would seem to provide their best chance of doing so.

Lean heavily on the run game

Of course, the best defense for Manning is to keep him off the field altogether. If there were ever a game for Harbaugh and Roman to pull out an offensive game plan from 2011, this is it.

Few teams have invested as much in their running game as the Niners have. The offensive line features three former first-round picks along with another player, Alex Boone, that many felt was one of the 10 best guards in football entering the season and every one of the starting offensive lineman are better road graders than pass protectors.

Frank Gore has continued to defy the running back aging curve by producing at a level well above what we should reasonably expect him to at this point, but that hasn’t prevented the team from trying to find his eventual replacement. The 49ers have added a running back in the draft every season that Harbaugh has been in charge. When you invest that much in your running game, you are counting on it being able to produce against quality opposition.

By putting the ball in the hands of Gore and Carlos Hyde, the 49ers can attempt to limit the number of possessions in the game, eat up clock, and keep Manning watching from the sideline. For all of that to work, San Francisco cannot simply hand the ball off 40 times and call it a day. They must be able to pick up meaningful yardage towards converting for first downs and sustaining drives and that will not be an easy task against a Broncos run defense that ranks as the fourth-best by DVOA through six weeks.

Attack the middle of Denver’s defense in the passing game

When the 49ers do put the ball in the air, Colin Kaepernick would be best served by focusing his attention on the middle of Denver’s defense.

The Broncos possess one of the best corner tandems in football. Aqib Talib is a bit inconsistent, but remains capable of dominant performances on the outside. On the other side, Chris Harris Jr. has been one of the best corners in football and is a strong Comeback Player of the Year candidate after tearing his ACL in last season’s playoffs. Through five games, Harris has allowed just 10 receptions on 27 targets (37%) into his coverage for 3.44 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 31.9, the lowest mark among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus’s data.

Harris and Talib have anchored a pass defense that ranks no. 3 in DVOA. However, no defense is without its relative weak spots and in the case of the Broncos, it lies with the interior pass defenders.

First-round pick Bradley Roby has been the primary slot defender in Denver’s defense, and as rookie corners are inclined to do, Roby has struggled at times this season. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 70.4 percent of their passes with a passer rating of 94.8 when targeting Roby in coverage, per PFF.

The Broncos linebackers can also be taken advantage of in coverage. Von Miller is one of the league’s best defenders and pass rushers, but rarely drops into coverage; Nate Irving is a thumper in the run game but isn’t very athletic and has to be taken off the field in obvious passing situations; Brandon Marshall is typically the lone linebacker on the field when the Broncos go to their sub-packages (Miller becomes a defensive end in those situations), but even he is an average at best cover man.

San Francisco needs Vernon Davis to bounce back from a horrendous performance on Monday Night Football, as he presents a huge mismatch for Denver’s linebackers and safeties.

Above all else, don’t fall behind

Even if everything I told you becomes absolute nonsense five minutes after kickoff, the one thing we can be sure of is that the 49ers cannot fall behind early. If San Francisco finds themselves down by two touchdowns after one quarter as they did in St. Louis, it’s difficult to envision them making another comeback against a Broncos team built to play with a lead.

Denver’s offense ranks as the best in the league at a lot of things through six weeks. Such is life with Peyton Manning at the helm. One of those things happens to be performance in the first half, where they rank no. 1 in DVOA so far this season. The Broncos have held a halftime lead against all but the Seahawks in their first five games. Once Manning & Co. have built up that early lead, Denver’s defense gets to play from a position of strength against teams forced to pass to catch up for the rest of the game.

With Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware pinning their ears back on the edge, the Broncos have notched 15 sacks in five games, good for the 8th-best Adjusted Sack Rate in football. Denver’s pass defense is good enough as is; when they know the pass is coming it can seem flat out unfair as the Broncos D has been the league’s best in the second half this season by DVOA.

Can they pull it off?

While it’s not unreasonable to envision a game in which the 49ers are able to run the ball successfully, take shots at opportune times through the air, and keep Manning off the field for a large portion of the contest, it simply feels like too much has to go their way for that to happen.

San Francisco’s rushing attack was abysmal against a Rams run defense that isn’t as good as the one they’ll be facing on Sunday night. Gore and Hyde combined for 52 yards on 27 carries in that game. The 49ers had more runs stopped for no gain or a loss (33.3% of carries) than runs that qualified as a success (29.6%). For an offensive line that is supposed to be capable of imposing their will on a quality opponent and wearing them down over the course of a game, it was a disappointing performance to say the least.

And really, if the 49ers are unable to run the ball successfully, the rest of this game plan simply falls apart. It’s unreasonable to expect a defense that’s missing its three best players plus several other quality rotation players to slow down the best quarterback of all-time with any kind of consistency. If the 49ers are forced to keep pace in a shootout against Manning, well, it’s not likely to be a shootout for long.

Prediction: BRONCOS (–6.5) over 49ers