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3 Keys to Victory: The 49ers have to play sound defense

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NFL: NFC Championship-San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers travel to Empower Field at Mile High Sunday night to face off against a hungry Denver Broncos. Head coach Kyle Shanahan gears up for his first primetime matchup of the season, where he faces a rookie head coach in Nathaniel Hackett. Denver is equipped with a win-now roster and will put up a strong fight against the 49ers. We take a look at three keys to a 49er victory below.

The 49er defense slows down Denver’s rushing attack

Javonte Williams had a strong rookie season last year and has not lost a step in 2022. The former North Carolina Tar heel showcased his receiving ability with ELEVEN catches in Week 1. Williams also helped control the time of possession vs. the Houston Texans with 15 rushes for 75 yards last week.

Melvin Gordon played well last year and is keeping the same tune this season with 4.8 yards per carry. Gordon has a similar rushing style to Williams and will be a thorn in the 49ers’ side if San Francisco does not wrap up to tackle.

San Francisco’s defensive identity is stopping the run, getting to the quarterback, and now forcing interceptions. Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw are a Great Wall of China in run defense, so let’s hope Armstead can suit up to slow this rushing attack down. We could see DeMeco Ryans bring out the Bear front to slow down this dynamic duo. Additionally, it will be essential for linebackers and defensive backs to be gap sound because both running backs have home run-hitting potential. Both running backs were top-15 in percent of tackles broken tackles last season, with Gordon 15th and Williams leading the NFL with 17.2.

Rely on sound defense, not Russell Wilson’s slump

While Russell Wilson leads an underperforming Broncos offense that is bottom five in yards per game, Wilson has been able to turn it up against San Francisco as the 10-year veteran is 17-4 against the 49ers. Sound defense is the only answer for a quarterback who can extend the play, throw deep with accuracy, and take off for a significant gain.

(Wilson’s Week 1 passing chart)

Ryans will likely use more split safety coverages versus one-high looks. Wilson tends to stay away from the middle of the field as he would rather target the deep sidelines for explosive plays. Running split safety coverages will give the corners more support as opposed to providing the Broncos receivers one-on-one matchups with a post safety. The cornerbacks put up a strong showing against Seattle despite Tyler Lockett gaining over 100 yards through the air. Denver has two banged-up receivers, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, but I would not underestimate their ability to create explosive plays on Sunday night. The focus will be on the Broncos’ leading receiver Courtland Sutton. Sutton can win on all three levels of the field and is an expert at winning on routes that travel 15+ yards down the field.

Garoppolo and the 49er pass-catchers NEED to make plays

I wanted to make this headline ‘Jimmy Garoppolo attacks Denver’s secondary,’ but aggressiveness is not in his nature. Broncos defensive coordinator and first-year defensive play-caller Ejiro Evero is without All-Pro safety Justin Simmons and has limited talent at the linebacker position. Patrick Surtain II could miss the matchup with a shoulder injury, but all signs point to him playing as he practiced in full capacity on Thursday. Ronald Darby, former 49er K’Waun Williams, and Kareem Jackson are other notable names in the Broncos secondary. Darby is coming off a red-hot game against the Texans where he limited receivers to two catches for 24 yards on six targets. Williams is stout against the run but struggles in man coverage. Shanahan should think about giving slot fade opportunities to Danny Gray against Williams.

Garoppolo must take shots against Denver’s linebackers in coverage. George Kittle is making his season debut, and it would be a shame if he gets anything under seven targets. Kittle is a significant factor in the run game, but I want to see his receiving skills on display. He is too talented not to have a more substantial impact on the 49ers’ passing game week in and week out.

Sunday is a big game for the 49ers’ wide receivers. Denver’s secondary is one the best they will see all season, so they must avoid dropping targets, bleeding up field on routes, and getting penalized. It may sound simple, but talented DBs can easily knock a receiver off his game.