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Scouting the enemy: San Francisco 49ers

The Denver Broncos are looking for their fourth win in a row against the San Francisco 49ers. Here is a deeper look at what stands in the way of their late-season playoff push.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

A few years ago fans were wondering if the Denver Broncos had made the right choice choosing Vance Joseph to be their next head coach over Kyle Shanahan. It’s fair to state that both coaches have struggled in their two seasons leading their respective teams. Under Joseph the Broncos are 11-17 and the San Francisco 49ers are 8-20 at with Shanahan at the helm. Yet to keep perspective, it’s important to point out the status of the teams they both inherited were starkly different.

That being said, this year’s Broncos have shown a lot of grit and the ability to overcome adversity. After a 3-6 start, Denver has won three-straight games and are in the middle of a wild race for a playoff berth in the AFC. The 49ers are going the exact opposite direction having lost their last three contests. Both teams have been decimated by injuries this year.

A glance at the 49ers’ offense

Last year’s late-season surge of six-straight wins thanks to the performance of Jimmy Garoppolo had their fans excited about the 2018 season. The 49ers had their franchise quarterback and acquired a handful of offensive weapons to help him out in the offseason and draft. That optimism changed to absolute despair when Garoppolo went down with a season-ending ACL injury earlier in the season against the Kansas City Chiefs. In place of Garoppolo, the 49ers turned to second-year quarterback C.J. Beathard who is now on the sidelines with a wrist injury.

The man leading the 49ers into battle on Sunday is Nick Mullens, the all-time record holder in every passing category at Southern Miss who went undrafted in 2017. In his first game this season against the Oakland Raiders, Mullens threw for 262 yards, 3 touchdowns and completed 72 percent of his passes. In their three-game losing streak since defeating the Raiders, Mullens has come back down to earth and has thrown just 4 touchdowns to 5 interceptions in that span.

The injury bug isn’t just limited to the quarterback position for San Francisco. They will be without their best offensive weapon in running back Matt Breida who is ruled out for Sunday’s affair with an ankle injury. That’s extremely bad news for them considering their rushing attack was one of the best in the league and the focal point of their offense.

Additionally, long-time veteran wide receiver Pierre Garcon didn’t practice on Thursday and could be out as well. If so, that means Marquise Goodwin and rookie Dante Pettis will be the two main attractions at wide receiver this weekend. However, their most effective receiving option has been former Iowa product George Kittle, who has been a revelation for them at tight end. He has 62 receptions for 893 yards and 3 touchdowns so far this season and is playing at a Pro-Bowl level. That is the player Broncos’ fans should worry the most about offensively on Sunday.

The bane of their offense has been their penchant for turnovers. They have only have 5 takeways on the season, but have given up the ball 25 times (15 interceptions and 10 fumbles). That has severely hurt their chances to win games and often resulted in points scored for opposing teams who have had the benefit of playing on short fields. With the Broncos’ key to success being takeaways over the past few weeks, their game against the 49ers presents a great opportunity to continue that trend.

A glance at the 49ers’ defense

The story of the 2018 49ers defensively is an odd dichotomy. While the 49ers defense ranks in the middle league-wide with respect to yardage allowed through the air and on the ground, they are near the bottom of the league with respect to points. I’ve outlined a major reason why that is above due to their offense turning the ball over. All and all, giving up 28 points a game isn’t a recipe for success.

Another key issue defensively is their inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They also rank in the bottom portion of the league when it comes to sacks with just 29 on the season. DeForest Buckner, arguably their best player on defense has 9 sacks, but no other player on the roster has more than 4.5. There’s little doubt that edge rusher is a huge need for the franchise moving forward considering they have had no quality production or consistency this year at the position.

Their secondary isn’t filled with household names and could use an infusion of talent, but Case Keenum should be cognizant of Richard Sherman at cornerback. One of the bright spots for their defense has been the play of rookie inside linebacker Fred Warner who has 92 tackles on the season. Isolating Warner and keeping him in check will be important for the Broncos’ offense if they want to run the ball effectively.

Keys to the game

With the recent news regarding Emmanuel Sanders, I want to see how the Broncos’ young receivers perform with more snaps and opportunities. Courtland Sutton going up against Richard Sherman is a battle I’m eager to watch. Additionally, I’m hoping to see some big things from DaeSean Hamilton. Those two need to win their one-on-one battles to help propel the Broncos’ offense.

I fully expect the Broncos to give the 49ers’ defense a healthy dose of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman as well. The Broncos’ offensive line has been dominant in run blocking as of late so it will be interesting to see how they perform against the aforementioned Buckner, as well as Solomon Thomas and the rest of their defensive line. This should be the focal point of the Broncos’ offensive game-plan considering Sanders’ injury.

Another key aspect to watch is how Bradley Chubb does against Joe Staley, as well as Von Miller going up against rookie offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, who has been very impressive as a starter. If they can dial up the heat and put pressure on Mullens, I foresee a handful of takeaways being generated by the Broncos’ defense tomorrow afternoon.

Hart’s Prediction

I’ll keep this short and sweet. The 49ers are arguably the worst team in the league and are in the midst of a battle for the number one pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Broncos are a team on the rise hoping to overcome recent injuries and make the postseason. Denver is hot, the 49ers are not. I’m confident that Denver will be able to do enough to win their fourth-straight game and inch closer to securing a wildcard berth.

Broncos 27, 49ers 17.