The very shorthanded San Francisco 49ers enter Sunday night’s matchup with the Denver Broncos on a three game winning streak. Being that they are very shorthanded, a four game winning streak is going to be difficult to pull off. Even at full strength winning a game in Denver versus the defending AFC Champions is a mighty task, but the 49ers go into Sunday evening missing several anchors of their defense. This is no way to enter a game versus Peyton Manning. Not to mention Wes Welker, Julius/Demariyus Thomas and the rest of Denver’s offense which is third in the NFL in points per game at 29.4. Couple this with the fact that Denver’s defense is second in the NFL in DVOA and it’s easy to see why this is going to be possibly the toughest game the 49ers play in the 2014 regular season.
The 49ers defense will have the unenviable task of attempting to keep Peyton Manning from setting the all time record for career touchdown passes Sunday night. Manning is only three short of Brett Favre’s all time record. Holding a player who threw 55 touchdown passes last year to two or less in a game is a difficult challenge. The degree of difficulty increases exponentially when you consider the three all pro linebackers that won’t be on the field for the 49ers. The defense has gotten along very well even without Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman so far this season, but adding the quarterback and the heart and soul of the defense, Patrick Willis, to the array of missing superstars ratchet’s up the arduous task of defending Denver’s offense by several notches. On top of the all the injured LB’s, the 49ers will also be facing one of the greatest QB’s in NFL history possibly down a few players in the secondary as well. All three of the starting week one cornerbacks are listed as questionable for Sunday. Tramaine Brock hasn’t set foot on the field since week one, so even if he does happen to play, it might not be at his usual high level. Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward will also be less than 100% if they happen to be in uniform at all. A decimated secondary is a huge disadvantage when matching up with receivers the likes of Welker, Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Tight End Julius Thomas also poses a problem to a team missing both of it’s starting inside linebackers.
Despite having several key players missing, the 49ers defense has weathered the storm and is playing at a very high level. Led by quite possibly the best defensive coordinator in the league, Vic Fangio, the defense is sitting near the top of most major defensive statistical categories. They’re ranked 2nd in the entire NFL in total defense, 3rd vs the run and 7th vs the pass. They have the third best DVOA in the NFL. They allow 20.6 points per game, good for 6th in the league. Fangio is putting up these kinds of numbers while playing without a couple of all pro’s and a revamped secondary. Fangio’s defense does not feature a flashy pass rush that will lead the league in sacks or a high profile secondary that will end up on the cover of Madden 16. What his defense’s do feature are three tough, intelligent units that work in unison to make life very hard on opposing offenses.
Coming into Monday night’s matchup with St. Louis, the Rams pass defense was the top ranked unit in the NFL. Colin Kaepernick was still able to torch the Rams secondary for 343 yards passing and three (should have been 4) touchdown passes. After struggling early in the game the offense managed to put up 24 straight points, controlling the game mostly through the air. The Rams were determined not to be beaten by Frank Gore or Carlos Hyde. The Rams stacked the box throughout the night and held the 49ers running back tandem to a paltry 52 yards on 27 carries. This forced Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s hand and he responded by letting Kaepernick air it out in the second half. It helped that the Rams defense has had a historically bad pass rush. Kaepernick looked very comfortable in the pocket and showed once again that if teams load up against the run that he and a deep and talented receiving corps will make opposing defenses pay. Under Harbaugh the 49ers had been 0-4 in games where Vernon Davis didn’t play or was limited. They have now won two in a row in which Vernon either didn’t play (vs Kansas City) or was ineffective due to injury (vs St. Louis). The wide receivers have come along way since the days of Marlon Moore and Jonathan Baldwin and are clearly capable of carrying the offense when needed.
Getting back to the ground and pound style that has typified the Jim Harbaugh era would be an ideal way for the 49ers offense to throw an assist to their defense and keep Peyton Manning on the sideline. Frank Gore still remains the number one option out of the backfield. While Carlos Hyde has shown some flashes of the tremendous talent that will soon make him the 49ers feature back, Gore is definitely the more effective running back. Hyde is all raw power and athletic ability, but right now Gore possesses the subtle skills that Hyde has yet to master. While most running back are in a steep decline by the time they hit their early 30’s, Gore continues to burn opponents with a savvy, patient running style and superior vision. Also, Gore is one of the best backs in the league at staying in the backfield to block on passing downs. Hyde came out of a zone blocking scheme at Ohio State and is still getting used to carrying the ball in the 49ers offense. Once the mental side of the game catches up to the athletic side, Hyde is going to be an absolute monster. As for now the 49ers are going to continue to dial Gore back a bit as it’s still semi-early in the season. Last week the two backs effectively split snaps, with Gore in on 36 plays and Hyde in on 33. This should go a long way in keeping the 31 year old Gore fresh for December and January.
One area of concern seems to be in returning punts. Currently the 49ers are without anyone on the roster who had even any remote experience as a punt returner. When LaMichael James was released, he took his 23 career punt returns with him. After that, Perrish Cox has three career punt returns. Being that Cox has turned out to be the 49ers best cornerback, having him return punts seems like a dangerous proposition, despite whatever Seattle was thinking when they let the best safety in football return punts briefly to start the season. So that leaves rookie Bruce Ellington as the returner and he really couldn’t be any sketchier back there. Ellington returned a grand total of three punts during his time at South Carolina and his inexperience is painfully obvious. Ellington returns balls he should fair catch and fair catches balls that he should attempt to return. He is tremendously athletic and should get better with time and experience, but right now he seems like a muffed punt waiting to happen.
After starting the season 1-2 the 49ers have a chance to enter the bye week with at worst a 4-3 record. This is not totally ideal, but the 49ers are in a very good position in the NFC. They have handed two 5-1 teams (Dallas and Philadelphia) and a 4-1 team (Arizona) their only losses of the season. Their opponents record currently stands at 20-13. The fact that the team has had so much top quality talent missing, had such a difficult schedule and still managed to be two games over .500 is a minor miracle. This is a testament to a superior coaching staff that has kept the team focused through a myriad of distractions and a core of veteran leaders who are willing the team to another outstanding season. Last week on the road in St. Louis the 49ers fell behind 14-0 right off the bat, but absorbed the Rams haymaker and countered with a 31-3 comeback. This was somewhat of a microcosm of the season, starting slowly before gaining momentum and righting the ship. The trip to Denver to face another one loss team will provide the toughest test yet. I’m sure 49ers fans hope that the Broncos team that completely crapped the bed in the Super Bowl makes another appearance on Sunday, but that seems very doubtful. Regardless, the 49ers have so far turned around what could have been a lost season and entering the bye at 4-3, all things considered, would be a success. An upset win over the Broncos would be gravy and completely put the 49ers dismal start behind them.