The San Francisco 49ers travel to Denver for a Sunday night tilt against the Broncos. While the 49ers come into this game holding an 8-7 series record, San Francisco has won only twice in six trips to the Mile High City.
Sunday’s matchup at Empower Field and Mile High features a pair of 1-1 teams that run the ball well on offense and can make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
New head coach Nathaniel Hackett leads Denver. Shanahan has never coached with Hackett but is very familiar with his work. He nearly hired Hackett to the 49ers staff in 2019 when it looked like the team might lose Mike LaFleur to Green Bay. Ultimately, Hackett got the Packers offensive coordinator job, and LaFleur stayed in San Francisco for one more season.
With that as a backdrop, let’s look at the five burning questions that will likely determine the outcome on Sunday:
1.) How will Jimmy Garoppolo perform in his first start of 2022?
When Trey Lance went down with a broken ankle against Seattle, Jimmy Garoppolo stepped in to lead the 49ers offense to 21 points over the final three quarters.
Garoppolo’s performance was impressive, considering he had not practiced with the team until agreeing to a restructured contract at the end of August.
Now Garoppolo is tasked with leading a 49ers team many consider among the best in the NFL.
It’s a situation Garoppolo has been in before, quarterbacking the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2019 and an NFC Championship Game appearance last year.
On Friday, Kyle Shanahan was asked about how Garoppolo has looked.
“I think Jimmy’s one of the better throwers on this planet, so that’s been one of his number one attributes,” responded Shanahan. “
I thought Jimmy had his best year last year. Got surgery at the end of the year and once his arm started healing up, which throwing on the side and stuff, it always looked good. Once we got him in with our team, which is right after the first preseason game, throwing him in with the scout team and stuff, he looked like he always has.”
Garoppolo will have his work cut out for him on Sunday night.
Denver brings in a defense that has allowed only 331 passing yards through the first two weeks. Led by Dre’Mont Jones, Bradley Chubb, and Randy Gregory, the Broncos defense has recorded five quarterback sacks and hit opposing quarterbacks ten times.
Garoppolo will have his work cut out for him on Sunday.
2.) Can the 49ers defense contain Russell Wilson?
Russell Wilson has owned the 49ers throughout his career. Wilson has made 21 starts against San Francisco, winning 17 of them.
A big part of Wilson’s success has been his ability to make plays with his legs, which has already caused problems for the 49ers this season. During San Francisco’s 19-10 loss to Chicago in week one, the defense allowed Bears quarterback Justin Fields to run around and make plays. In the second half alone, Fields led Chicago to touchdowns on three consecutive possessions.
If Wilson can get loose like that on Sunday, it will be a long day for the 49ers.
The running ability is only one part of what makes Wilson a challenge to defend. Wilson throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL.
After playing the first ten years of his career in Seattle, Wilson’s first in Denver has started rocky.
Wilson has completed less than 60 percent of his pass attempts through his first two games. His performance in the home opener led to boos from Broncos fans.
Despite the poor start, Wilson remains dangerous.
“They’ve had two games, but he still looks like Russ. He can make a lot of plays at any time,” said Kyle Shanahan on Wednesday. “The times they did score were always with big plays that Russ made. He made a go-route that got him to the two-yard line, a PI that got him to the two, they made a big go on third down. He made the fade throw to the tight end from like the 22-yard line. Russ makes plays and you can’t fall asleep on him, no matter how much you hold him down or you hold their offense down, whether it’s Seattle or whether it’s Denver, Russ can change that game at any time.”
3.) Can the 49ers defense stop Denver’s running game?
Only four teams in the NFL have a pair of rushers who have each gained over 100 yards this season. Two of those will face off on Sunday night.
The San Francisco defense has been stout against the run during the first two games, allowing an NFL low 2.6 yards per attempt. They will be facing their stiffest test of the early season.
Denver comes into this game averaging 4.9 yards per attempt on the ground. Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon lead the Broncos rushing attack. Each as 22 carries on the season, Williams gaining 118 yards and Gordon 105.
The Broncos ability to run the ball has played a large part in their ability to control the game’s tempo. Denver’s average of 3:39 per possession is second-best in the NFL.
4.) Can the 49ers offense keep the run game going?
Led by Jeff Wilson Jr. and Deebo Samuel, San Francisco has rushed for 365 yards through the season’s first two weeks.
For the second year in a row, the 49ers running back room has been hit with injuries. Elijah Mitchell was lost in the opener against Chicago, and Ty Davis-Price will be out for a few weeks due to a high ankle sprain.
With Davis-Price out, the expectation is that Jordan Mason will see his first carry of the regular season. The undrafted free agent impressed during the preseason, and many are looking forward to seeing what he can do in a regular season game.
San Francisco also has elevated veteran running back Marlon Mack to the active roster. Mack has been working his way back from an Achilles injury in week one of the 2020 season. The injury has limited him to only 32 carries for 127 yards over the last two seasons.
5.) What impact will the return of George Kittle have on the 49ers offense?
After missing the first two weeks of the season with a groin injury, George Kittle will make his 2022 regular season debut.
His return to the lineup could not come at a better time. With San Francisco facing a Broncos defense that has allowed only 156 yards on the ground over the first two weeks, Kittles blocking ability will be a welcome addition.
Kittle’s ability to make plays in the passing game will be welcomed as well. He should be able to take advantage of Denver linebackers Alex Singleton and Jonas Griffith to help Jimmy Garoppolo work the middle of the field.
Prediction: 49ers 23 Broncos 20
The 49ers are able to pull out a tough win on the road in primetime with a late field goal by Robbie Gould.