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GIF Horse - Surviving San Francisco

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The Broncos should beat the 49ers, but already without Harris, Paradis and Shaq, they need to do so without serious injuries.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers
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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first half of Sunday’s gave with the Bengals it definitely seemed like the Broncos had been sucked into the trap I worried about last week. Keenum and the passing game just couldn’t keep drives going until the very end of the 2nd quarter. As well as Phillip Lindsay played throughout the game, it was a pass to a role player that broke the game open.

As a receiving threat, Booker has been a solid contributor this season.

Devontae Booker has been a bit of a controversial player among Broncos fans this year. Early in the season, everyone, including myself remembered him for his 3.8 yards per carry career average. I thought that perhaps he was earning playing time on third downs because the coaching staff was reluctant to trust the rookie backs with protecting the quarterback. While there was undoubtedly some truth to this, it’s probably time to accept that Booker has also done a good job with the assignment.

Keenum really excels on plays like this.

On the play above, Musgrave calls a verticals concept with a crosser underneath. Keenum identifies that the defense is in zone coverage when Booker motions across the formation prior to the snap. The tight ends pull their defenders deep and give Booker space to operate underneath. The play sets up Lindsay’s 6 yard touchdown right after the 2 minute warning, but is the perfect illustration for why Musgrave so often motions a back out wide.

Booker’s on pace for a career low 472 yards from scrimmage this year, but has done the most with the opportunities that have presented themselves. In many ways he represents this 2018 Broncos team and how they’ve improved since last year. The rookies are flashy and Denver wouldn’t be competing for the playoffs without them, but there is depth on this squad that simply wasn’t present since Peyton Manning was playing.

That will be important down the home stretch. I mentioned it yesterday, but the secondary and Elway are about to be tested with Chris Harris’ absence. I looked at how the defense adjusted for the rest of the Bengals game. Rather than push Brendan Langley into a bigger role than he’s shown he can handle, Woods and Joseph made the most of the depth at the safety position with as many as four on the field in the Dime. Justin Simmons stepped into Harris’ vacated slot position while Willie Parks became the safety alongside Darian Stewart. Despite what I initially thought, Su’a Cravens didn’t move from his role as the dime sub for Josey Jewell.

Schematically, the Broncos didn’t look different Sunday without Harris which is encouraging.

As far as coverage, Simmons did an admirable job. It makes sense as he’s had enough range to play both corner and safety during his collegiate career and filled in during Aqib Talib’s absence last year. The Bengals did find Boyd a few times with Strap sidelined, but that’s to be expected when you lose a Hall of Fame talent in the secondary.

It was an unexpected challenge the Broncos passed with flying colors, but they also did an excellent job accomplishing the three I set out in last week’s GIF Horse.

Key 1: Let Lindsay carry the day on Offense

If you take away the 65-yard dagger Lindsay ripped out in the third quarter he’d still finish with 92 rushing yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. He accounted for 7 of the Broncos 16 first downs on the day. That 65-yarder can’t be ignored though, as splash plays are such a staple of Lindsay’s game. It was the longest of 5 runs that gained 10 yards or more.

Linday’s first touchdown was 90% him, where his lateral mobility saved a broken play. His second was a team effort and great blocking by Sutton and Bolles to free him into the third level.

Key 2: Minimize Mixon

I mentioned last week that Joe Mixon represented the Bengals best chance to beat the Broncos and he did his best to do just that early. In fact just under half of his total yardage came on the first drive of the game when he broke runs of 7, 8 and 23 yards against the Broncos defense.

Inexplicably, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bill Lazor started to call the game through Driskel after that which helped the Broncos accomplish this key. He finished with only 12 carries.

Key 3: Dump Driskel into the dirt.

Shelby Harris with the quickness.

Jeff Driskel did about as well as any Bengals fan could reasonably hope for in his first start with a decimated offense around him. Much like the Steelers before them, Cincinnati's game plan was to try and minimize the Broncos edge rush as much as possible. With a healthy Dalton that could have become a problem, but Driskel and the Bengals offensive line made more than enough mistakes to prevent this one from becoming too close for comfort. In fact it seemed as though the Cincinnati line was so concerned with the pass rush that they were willing to give up yards to counter it. The refs dinged the Bengal offense for 3 false starts and 3 holds.

It’s a lot to ask of a tight end to come back across the formation and block Miller. Lazor should probably burn this play.

There were some shaky moments early, but the Broncos did what they were supposed to do against a team they clearly outclassed. It didn’t have the excitement the Steelers or Chargers games carried with them, but that was a good thing. Good teams beat the bad teams badly and the 24-10 score wasn’t nearly as close as even that. That’s good because San Francisco represents another test of the Joseph’s ability to keep his team focused.

On to San Francisco

In the 49ers, Denver is about to face another banged up team caught up in their own injury marred rebuilding effort. If the draft were today they would hold the first pick but with Kyle Shanahan pulling the shots and a talented defensive front there are pieces there to spring the upset.

Key 1: Move the ball through the air

Four of Russell Wilson’s 11 completions went for touchdowns last Sunday, which really just served as the epitome of the 49ers defense this year. Despite John Lynch’s best efforts they just don’t have the personnel on the back end to compete. Richard Sherman has looked better than most dared hope in his return from the Achilles injury that ended his career in Seattle but as a unit this team is among the worse teams in the league against the pass. Courtland Sutton and Emmanuel Sanders should feast. Robert Saleh’s defense has been gouged by play action passing, something Musgrave should exploit early and often to get Keenum into rhythm and away from the strength of the 49ers defense: their line and rookie linebacker Fred Warner.

Richard Sherman will probably have a lot of trouble with the Broncos receivers.

Key 2: Force Nick Mullens to win the game

Matt Breida won’t suit up against the Broncos, which leaves Alfred Morris and Jeff Wilson to carry the ball Sunday. Morris has been pedestrian all season and at 30 it’s fair to question if he’s reaching the end. Wilson came out of nowhere against Seattle, finishing with 134 yards, including 73 receiving.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Shanahan tries to feed the rookie early and often to keep the offense out of must pass situations, which is why it’s imperative the second and third levels of the defense have a better start to the game than they did against the Bengals. San Francisco runs play action more than all but five teams in the league this year and Denver still has spots where it gives them issues.

Shanahan’s offense uses play action better than most teams in the league, but features a passer that can be exploited.

Hidden among the 49ers record is the fact that they’re one of the better teams at scheming their runners yards. The Shanahan system is renowned for how beautifully it marries the ground and air games together, which relieves pressure on both in situations where the opposing defense has to respect every option at the offenses’ disposal. Denver needs to shut the rushing attack down and force San Francisco into situations where Von Miller and Bradley Chubb can force Mullens into mistakes.

X-Factor: Pressure makes diamonds

Bradley Chubb will have a chance to really make a statement against 12-year stalwart Joe Staley, who remains an elite blindside protector. To those in the know, a big game against Staley could do a lot to demand some attention as the DROY voting heats up.

This may be my favorite play Chubb has made this year. Uses a stutter to get free and his length to knock the ball out.

It will be fun to watch Von battle rookie Mike McGlinchey on the other side of the line. The former Domer has been one of the very best rookie linemen this year, but Miller has notched a sack in the last 4 games. He’s running as hot as he’s ever been.

On the other side of the ball, Keenum needs to keep his streak of clean games going. The clearest road to an upset for San Fran starts with turnovers. They have the worst turnover margin in the league this year, but have beasts up front that could turn the tide in their favor quickly. DeForest Buckner leads the way and will likely garner national attention the Niners ever become relevant. The former 7th overall pick is the kind of rare 300 pounder to also threaten double digit sacks, he possesses a truly rare blend of size and quickness.

With how badly the Broncos interior struggled against Geno Atkins and the Bengals tackles last week, Buckner poses a serious threat.

Around him Arik Armstead, Sheldon Day, Cassius Marsh and Solomon Thomas have all flashed in spurts. In fact all 5 of the 49er linemen have amassed 10+ pressures this season. What’s really scary about this line though is how long they are. Both Buckner and Armstead stand over 6’6 and could get their hands in Keenum’s passing lanes, especially with liabilities at both guard spots.

The length of the 49ers line could be an issue for Keenum.

Summary

Wherever this season ends, there’s been so many encouraging moments to build on that it’s hard to deny better days are ahead for the Broncos. Before the year I expected this season to be rough early, but even I had given up hope of the postseason before this recent stretch. The Broncos have what on paper looks like the easiest game of the season ahead of them, but the New York Jets are proof that any team could upend Denver and deserves respect. It’s on Vance and the team to execute.