The San Francisco 49ers travel to face the Denver Broncos this week on Sunday Night Football. The 49ers are trying to figure their way through a plethora of injuries on both sides of the ball. They have won three straight games, but they head into the game as a touchdown underdog to the Broncos. This marks the largest spread against the 49ers since the 2011 game against the Eagles.
To get ready for the game, we took some time to chat with Kyle Montgomery of Mile High Report. Yesterday, we took a look at under the radar players on both teams. Tomorrow we'll have a rundown of five questions. Today, we've got a look at reasons why each team might lose. I like this format because it forces us to consider our own team's weaknesses, rather than just homer up and think of why our team is awesome.
Why the Broncos will lose
The Denver Broncos' offensive line is the (surprising) weak point of the 2014 season, perhaps the weakest point across the team as a whole. On paper, this shouldn't be the case: the Broncos got All Pro left tackle Ryan Clady back healthy after he missed most of the 2013 season with a Lisfranc foot sprain, and they moved right tackle Orlando Franklin inside to left guard after he struggled mightily in the Super Bowl. Then they shifted backup left tackle Chris Clark over to Franklin's right tackle spot. Again, in theory, this all works, but the returns have not been kind. The Broncos' offensive line has been dreadful in the run game and oft-penalized otherwise. Is it a matter of too many moving pieces needing to gel? Perhaps. But individually, players aren't playing up to their respective 2012-2013 levels either (Clady and center Manny Ramirez in particular).
The Broncos have been able to offset this largely thanks to Peyton Manning's quick release and, frankly, not needing to run the football all that much. They're a pass-first team, and Manning is able to make the most of his reassembled o-line thanks to a lot of talent at the receiver and tight end positions, as well as his freakishly gifted football mind. But it feels like this o-line unit is on the verge of collapsing. the 49ers defense could be just the unit to send them over the edge.
The Broncos defense is fairly stacked across the board. The defensive line boasts playmakers in DeMarcus Ware and Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton. The linebacker corps has arguably (and I know 49ers fans will argue) the game's best in Von Miller. The secondary has a terrific cornerback duo in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., while nickel cornerback and 2014 first round draft pick Bradley Roby is quickly coming into his own. Again, a lot of names, and a lot of "on paper" potential.
And that potential has been productive. The good news for Broncos fans is that Denver's defense has largely lived up to this billing, but its one Achilles heel plays perfectly into San Francisco's lap: mobile quarterbacks. The Broncos have played several of them already this season, and athletic QBs have given them some trouble. The most brutal example came in Week 3, when the Seahawks' Russell Wilson was fairly contained for four quarters by the Broncos defense, only to convert three third downs with his feet in overtime to win the game. Will Kaepernick find similar holes against this Broncos D? We certainly hope not, but recognize it has been possible to date.
Why the 49ers will lose
Given the injury concerns on defense, the 49ers offense might find itself in a position of having to keep pace with the Broncos dynamic offense. Even without the injury issue, that would probably be a concern. The 49ers offense has the weapons to put up the points, but they also have the type of team that can control the time of possession with their run game.
The problem though comes in the consistency of the offensive line. The team could end up playing without left guard Mike Iupati (concussion) and right tackle Anthony Davis (knee), which does not help matters. And yet, even if Iupati was healthy, the line has been inconsistent enough that it can be problematic. And facing a strong defensive front like that of the Broncos, inconsistency will cost them. The Broncos defense has been strong against both the run and the pass. The 49ers need significant production from one or both of those units, and it will all start with the offensive line.
The defense enters this game likely missing numerous key components. Among the normal starting lineup, OLB Aldon Smith (suspension), ILB NaVorro Bowman (knee), and DT Glenn Dorsey (bicep) definitely will not play. Additionally, ILB Patrick Willis (toe), and nickel back Jimmie Ward (quadricep) are long shots to play, and CB Tramaine Brock (toe) is a big question mark.
This is not making excuses about injuries, but simply stating facts. When you remove that many good to great players from a defense, it is going to impact things. The 49ers defense will lose this game if the reserves are unable to compensate for them. I think the 49ers end up playing a decent amount of dime to compensate for the ILB absences, which puts more onus on the secondary, and the defensive line. The 49ers will be sending out a decent amount of rookies, and Peyton Manning could very well eat them for lunch. The injuries have my expectations fairly low for this game, but that might actually make me more excited for it because of seeing so much young defensive talent on display.