On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will face off against the Denver Broncos in Empower Field at Mile High for their first prime time game of the season. DraftKings Sportsbook currently has the Niners as 1.5-point favorites.
To help give us an inside look, we reached out to Mile High Report to provide some new takes on our old friend Russell Wilson. Big thanks to Ian St. Clair for taking the time to answer my questions!
1. The Broncos had an incredibly busy offseason, which resulted in a different starting quarterback and head coach. After two weeks of seeing the rebuilt Denver team in action, what’s the initial grade for their big acquisition and new hire? More specifically, how do you feel about 65-yard field goals?
It was a busy but exciting offseason. After a six-year run that this franchise hadn’t seen since the doldrums of the 1960s and early ‘70s, Broncos fans needed this offseason. Now they want to see it come together. After two weeks, let’s give it an incomplete. There is still so much football left to be played for Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett. The clock and game management is a resounding F, but then you look at how unlucky Denver has been in the red zone and goal-to-go, 0-for-6 and 0-for-5 in each crucial situation. If the Broncos go 50% in the red zone in both games, they get blowout wins, and the clock and game management issues that have been the talk of the NFL world aren’t as big of a deal. This goes without saying, but Hackett needs to take any thought of ever kicking a 60-plus yard field goal, write it down on a piece of paper, and burn it. Then he needs to go to a therapist or hypnotist and have the thought erased from his mind.
2. From both a fantasy football perspective, but also a better-for-the-offense perspective, why is Javonte Williams not getting the ball 20 times a game when he’s averaging 5.5 yards per carry to start the season?
That’s the million-dollar question at this point. Williams is a special player, and he has the ability/potential to be one of the best running backs in the NFL. I don’t know if it’s Hackett and his offensive staff overthinking it or having this thought that “We need to split carries,” but “Pookie” is the driver of this offense. Make him the bell cow back. If he needs a breather, let Melvin Gordon come and hopefully not fumble. But Hackett needs to ride Williams. Since he’s with Wilson, the second-year running back looks and runs like Marshawn Lynch. Give him the rock. Let the offense run through him and set Wilson up for play-action. And speaking of the red zone and goal-to-go situations, give the rock to Williams and let him earn his way onto “Angry Runs.”
3. The Broncos' former head coach Vic Fangio, who Niners fans know well from his time with the team in the early 2010s (and who has recently been spending time at San Francisco practices), makes the phrase “defensive-minded” seem quaint. He’s a guru on that side of the ball, and his teams always looked extremely proficient in that area. How have things looked under new DC Ejiro Evero? Based on the last six quarters, he may have picked up right where Vic left off.
There was concern over how the Broncos' defense would look and play without Fangio. The issues with his tenure in Denver had nothing to do with the defensive side of the ball. In fact, that was the only good thing about his three years here. Despite the putrid quarterbacks and offense, Fangio’s defenses consistently were in the top 10, if not higher. So you see why there was a little concern over a first-year defensive coordinator in Evero.
The first half in Seattle was ugly, but, as you mentioned, the last six quarters have been phenomenal. And this is just the start. The Broncos haven’t had starting middle linebacker, Josey Jewell, the first two weeks, and Pat Surtain II didn’t play most of Sunday’s game against the Texans. Of course, Justin Simmons is out the next few games as well. If Wilson and Denver can start finishing drives, this team is set up to be incredibly competitive and difficult to beat. There is definite excitement over Evero and his defense.
4. Who on the Broncos should Niner fans keep an eye out for in this game? Is there any under-the-radar player who’s already been a pleasant surprise or big contributor? (We are aware of D.J. Jones’ greatness.)
Let’s start on the offensive side of the ball. KJ Hamler is the speed and vertical threat in this offense. As of writing this, it’s still unclear if the receiver will play on Sunday night. Hamler did not play against the Texans. But I’ve been beating the drum that Hamler can be the Tyler Lockett in this Denver offense, and I will continue to bang that drum until it gets life. We could see it this Sunday. In fact, I’d like to see Hackett call up a deep pass to Hamler on the first play from scrimmage.
On the defensive side of the ball, now that Simmons is out, Caden Sterns is the next man up. The second-year safety had a strong rookie season, and he’s built on that throughout training camp and the preseason. And Sterns did so again on Sunday against Houston. He will play a big role in limiting the big play potential of this Kyle Shanahan offense. The other player for 49ers fans to keep an eye out for is rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis. When Surtain left Sunday’s game, Mathis stepped up and played a really good game. Obviously the San Francisco offense is a different beast, but Mathis didn’t give anything to Brandin Cooks. If it’s up to Surtain, it sounds like he’ll play on Sunday night. Either way, Mathis is a player to look out for on Sunday.
5. DraftKings Sportsbook has the Niners at 1.5-point favorites with an O/U of 43.5 ... What’s your prediction for Sunday night’s game?
This is going to come across as a Broncos homer, and I totally get that. But at some point, the misfortune in the red zone and goal-to-go situations have to flip. With so much focus on that issue here in Denver, and the fact that this is Sunday Night Football, Denver gets those issues corrected. And 49ers fans know all too well the success Wilson has against this franchise. The Broncos finish drives, DJ Jones helps make SanFran one-dimensional and the Broncos get the 31-17 win.