July 26, 2012; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman (34) during training camp drills at the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE
It's right about this time of year that I normally head to Las Vegas. It's that perfect time of year when you cannot possibly walk outside without endangering yourself with heat stroke and the thought of walking even 400 yards from the Venetian to the nearest Chipotle makes you remember that buffet food and prices really aren't so bad. You can always just win it all back on Wheel of Fortune slots. My fantasy football league normally drafts in Vegas because, well, where else would you draft as it may be the only place in the world that can actually get a little rowdy about pre-season football games.
Now that the Broncos are a top 10 contender to win the Superbowl according to Vegas, we've naturally decided to draft in Chicago this year instead. I say all this because I feel out here, in the real world, the enjoyability of preseason games gets dramatically downplayed thanks to the fact that these games aren't actually real. Every time you want to point something out someone is quick to remind you "yeah, this is all fake."
However, in Vegas, when you are sitting in a room cheering your team on with a bunch of strangers in Broncos gear against another half of the room full of strangers in the other team's gear, well, that is special. I'll miss that special this year but just remember as you sit down to watch the Niner's play in Denver, when everyone is telling you it doesn't matter, there are a faction of Bronco fans in some casino somewhere in Vegas who are ready to really enjoy this game and then go make some really bad decisions. So if any of you out there are heading to Vegas this weekend to watch the game be sure and let me hear all about it when you get back. I'll need to live vicariously through someone.
In this article I am going to give you five more names of Bronco players to watch as we match up against one of the most talented defenses in the NFL. This game will be particularly helpful for us, if you choose to watch it that way, because the Niner's are pretty good where we have some pretty big unknowns.
With that in mind, let's move on to the Top 5.
We need a roster and depth chart. I think as you see how the Broncos squad is slowly morphing into its final 53 you'll understand a little better why I chose the names I did. I've built a slightly updated chart from my last one (I even added the Special Teams unit to really have 53).
2. Blake Philip
3. Adam Weber
The suspension of Virgil Greene and DJ Williams allow us to carry two extra players until they return. The practice squad is the one area that is hard to predict so I didn't fill it up too much.
The 49ers come into Denver sporting last year's #1 defense and the #8 rushing offense. As far as total offense goes the 49ers were actually ranked lower than the Broncos, even though they won five more games. Put two and two together and you can see that the 49ers believe in their defense and their run game, a formula the Broncos had a little success with last season.
The 49ers have added a few more weapons on offense, namely a deep threat target in Randy Moss and one of my favorite talents out of college, run option specialist LaMichael James. On defense it's tough to find a weakness. The D-Line creates heavy pressure up front and the combination of linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, an off the bench player who gave our Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller a run for his money, have been the reasons they claimed the top defensive spot.
The Broncos have struggled this offseason against the run. The Seahawks, who also have a deep runningback lineup, gave Joe Mays and Justin Bannan just about all they could handle. I'm sure we'll see a lot of those two today but since we are looking at non-starters our #5 man to watch is:
5. Mitch Unrein - DT
Unrein did have a solid game against the Seahawks as most of the team around him began to fall apart. We will probably see Unrein rotated in with the 1's to give Bannan a break so watch closely for #96. If the Broncos hope to contain the 49ers starters like Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter it's going to start at the tackle position. In my opinion, if we can hold the 49ers to less than 110 yards rushing over the first 3 quarters we'll have seen some good progress.
End of 3rd Quarter 49ers total rushing yards: +/- 110.5
Over or under?
The Denver Broncos offense has sputtered out of the gate. They've definitely shown their potential, especially on that 2-minute drive to end the 2nd half last week but Peyton Manning has not looked particularly sharp yet, considering his standards and our receivers have already dropped some passes that you can only chalk up to preseason rust. I don't feel like we need to be making excuses for Peyton Manning and his offense just quite yet and, knowing how hard they are working to start clicking, I expect to see some of that today. Manning has yet to really show off his deep pass and considering the skill of pass rushers the 49ers possess I don't expect him to go for the long ball more than a couple times all game. This will hopefully give one backup, who is hardly a backup, a chance to really shine. Which brings us to #4.
4. Joel Dreessen - TE
If any of you play fantasy football you may have followed Dreessen just a bit last year when Texans tight end star Owen Daniel's went down with an injury. Dreessen filled into that role perfectly and continued his excellent play even after Daniel's returned. Dreessen hauled in six touchdowns on only 28 receptions for the Texans in 2011.
Tamme was brought to be Manning's starting tight end but I think he'll find Dreessen to be considerable competition down the stretch. In fact, if Dreessen has a significant game against the 49ers I wouldn't be surprised to see him claim that starting spot. He could be a favorite target for Manning if he needs to get rid of the ball quick.
I'm putting Joel Dreessen total receptions at: +/- 2.5
A Return of the Run-Option?
I hear a lot of people talk about last season and the option offense as some kind of fluke the Broncos were forced in to using and that the success of it was some kind of lucky byproduct of other teams not having seen it before. The 49ers don't seem to think the option offense is such a fluke and have started to build a team that can run an option type scheme. A scheme that just might bring some of you back to those days last year that were written off as an infamous non-NFL offense.
The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick out of Nevada, a prospect that ran the option in college, with the 36th overall pick in the 2011 draft. For comparison, the Broncos drafted Brock Osweiler with the #57 pick. As you can imagine, Kapernick and his Tebow-esque skillsets are being groomed by the 49ers to run an offense that specializes in just that... running the football. The drafting of LaMichael James adds an extremely credible threat to that mix. If that weren't enough, 49ers went out and grabbed Josh Johnson, ex-Tampa Bay wildcat man.
So while the Broncos have turned a complete 180 degrees on the option offensive scheme, they are welcoming in a team that is no doubt experimenting with it. What does that mean for us? Assuming the 49ers don't decide to simply shelve it for the regular season, we could see our defense attempting to stop the exact kinds of plays we used with such effectiveness last year. This brings me to my #3 Bronco to pay attention to:
3. Robert Ayers
The option offense works when defenses start to lose their discipline. Ayers, who will be holding that edge, will need to be solid if the 49ers start attempting to stretch the field with option plays. LaMichael James is the kind of runner you cannot allow to turn the corner. If Ayers gets beat to the outside in the first three or four steps his shot at stopping him is over.
Even if the 49ers choose to run a traditional offense Ayers will have to be sharp in order to make up for the speed that both Hunter and James possess. Ayers could do with a very big game today.
2. Manny Ramirez/Ryan Harris
I'm breaking the rules a little here and adding two names. Ramirez should get the start today (unless they decide to move Orlando Franklin to the inside) so technically I'm breaking another rule by including a starter in this list. For those of you that may have missed the Seahawks game last Saturday, the pass protection from our offensive line was simply phenomenal. Manning consistently had three and four seconds to make his reads and throw the ball without having to take a hit. The 49ers will prove to be a new challenge, however, and the effectiveness of Ramirez and Harris to slow that pass rush will be critical.
The 49ers defensive line is potent and the loss of Chris Kuper hurts especially. If Ramirez and Harris can hold their own against the 49ers 1's that will be a significant accomplishments and go a long way to easing my fears about Manning's future health.
1. Ronnie Hillman
I can't wait to see this guy run. His hamstring injury has been a frustrating way to start his career but the story on this kid is that he is exactly the kind of explosive back that Manning needs to check the ball down to or get it out to in the open field. I still know very little about the playing style of Ronnie Hillman other than his running ability, so I'm not sure how he is in blocking and pass protection. It could be that if Hillman is in the game the plan is to run him.
McGahee will no doubt start the game but I'm sure we will all be watching closely for #34 to run onto the field and get his first officially fake preseason carries as a Denver Broncos runningback. I don't expect him to get more than a few carries today, but I do anticipate at least some action. Let's just hope he stays healthy.
The third preseason game is the closest thing to the real deal and we should see most of the 1st and 2nd team players on the field for the first three quarters. With the start of the regular season mere weeks away this contest should give us the best indicator as to just how ready we are as an entire football team. I'm glad the game is at home.
Broncos Country, go be really really loud.