On Sunday night, the 49ers are headed to the Mile High City to take on the Denver Broncos in primetime. DraftKings Sportsbook currently has the 49ers as 1.5 point favorites as they prepare to face a familiar foe with longtime Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson now leading the charge in Broncos Country.
In this preview, I will give an in-depth look at both squads and finish with a final score prediction. I will lead off with what I believe the X-Factor is in this matchup, which is the disparity in experience of the coaching staff in their current roles between these two teams.
Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett was hired this past offseason after serving as the offensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers from 2019-2021. Hackett had never been a head coach before taking the job in Denver and hadn't handled play-calling duties since the 2018 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Hackett's offense having considerable success moving the ball in his first two games in Denver, has been overshadowed by a couple of head-scratching decisions about game management, a fundamental part of being the head ball coach.
Most notably was the fiasco at the end of the Broncos' week one meeting with the Seahawks, when Hackett burned 40 seconds of the game clock before opting to take a timeout and attempt what would have been the longest field goal in NFL history had it been converted.
Hackett did this on 4th & 5 with the context of:
A. Denver has a quarterback who just got $145 million in guaranteed money mainly because of his ability to make plays in the clutch and deliver in situations just like these.
B. Attempting a 64-yard field goal when there has never been a field goal converted beyond 56 yards at Lumen Field.
The decision itself was questionable, but burning all that time off the clock before taking the timeout was even more puzzling. The offense on the field looked puzzled, and even if there was no intention of running a play, it didn't appear that there was any plan to attempt to draw the defense offside either.
In Week 2, Hackett ended up burning all of his second-half timeouts with 7:38 remaining in the fourth quarter despite it being only a four-point game then. Whether or not these clock management issues are just part of some early growing pains or if this is an issue that will persist for Hackett as he finds his footing as a first-time head coach.
Even the most seasoned NFL head coaches are prone to making mistakes. However, Kyle Shanahan is in his sixth season as a head coach and has 89 games worth of experience to rely on compared to just two for Hackett. The disparity in first-hand experience in that role could end up playing a huge role in how this game unfolds come Sunday.
But it's not just Hackett who is dealing with all the challenges that come with occupying a prominent role on an NFL coaching staff for the first time. Both the offensive and defensive coordinators for Denver are in these roles for the first time in their careers this season, meaning that they only have the two games played so far this season under their belts in terms of experience in their current positions.
That means that Shanahan, widely revered as one of the brightest offensive minds in the league, will be facing off with a defensive coordinator in Ejiro Evero, who will be calling just his third game ever as a defensive coordinator at this level. That kind of edge is invaluable as Shanahan finds his groove with Jimmy Garoppolo under center once again.
While Evero is new to this role, his defense has gotten off to a solid to begin his tenure in Denver. Here is how the Broncos rank on the defensive side of the ball this season.
Passing defense - 5th
Rushing defense - 5th
Total defense - 3rd
Points allowed - 3rd (tied with SF)
The Broncos' defense has a couple of familiar faces on it, with former 49ers DJ Jones and K'Waun Williams both in starting roles. Jones and Williams are particularly effective in run defense, and their familiarity with this 49ers offense and Shanahan's scheme should make for a very interesting matchup.
San Francisco has run the ball more times than any other team in the NFL thus far, and this game could very well come down to who is able to win the war of attrition between the 49ers' top five rushing attack and the Broncos' top five rushing defense.
On the flip side, the 49ers' defense will have their hands full with a quarterback who has a 16-4 record against San Francisco in his career. While Hackett has had some issues with decision-making at critical junctures, his offense has still managed to be extremely effective, moving the football in between the '20s averaging 6.1 yards per play. Here is where the Bronco's offense currently ranks:
Passing offense - 8
Rushing offense - 9
Total offense - 7
The problem is that when they get into the red zone, the entire operation falls apart without explanation. The Broncos have been in the red zone six times this season and haven't scored a touchdown on any of those six drives. Their 0-6 mark in the red zone is tied with Seattle for dead last in the entire NFL.
Wilson is a quarterback who has made his mark in the NFL by making something out of nothing, but this season that magic, when the pocket breaks down simply, has not been there.
In the first two games of the season, Wilson is 6/20 for 30 yards on snaps where he is being pressured. For those counting at home, that is a 30% completion percentage and an average of 1.5 yards per attempt.
Now consider the fact that the 49ers defense is currently off to a torrid start getting after opposing quarterbacks, registering a 47% pressure rate through two games. It is a recipe for disaster for a Broncos offense that is surrendering pressure at a more modest 32% rate.
Yesterday I wrote about the 49ers number one ranked defense, and as good as they have been, they do not have to be perfect to pull out a win against Denver. As long as they are able to make life difficult for Wilson and shrink the field inside their own 20-yard line, they have a great shot of returning west of the Rockies with a win.
Final Score Prediction
49ers 27 - Broncos 23