In what amounts to the last dress rehearsal for starters prior to the season opener in September (starters usually don’t play or play sparingly in the preseason finale), the Denver Broncos will be looking for crisp execution of the offensive and defensive playbooks. The starters on both sides of the ball will likely be playing at least into the third quarter, so here’s what to look for against the visiting San Francisco 49ers:
Red Zone Offense – Strange game, isn’t it? The Broncos were abysmal in the red zone prior to Tim Tebow taking the reigns, Tebow is sensational in the red zone even when the rest of his game remained raw, Peyton Manning is brought in through free agency and seen as a huge upgrade, the Broncos go back to struggling in the red zone. Odd, if not concerning. So far, the team is 4 for 8 in the red zone and Manning’s first team offense is 1 for 4 with two interceptions. Clearly it’s early, but don’t think for a second that Manning and the Broncos aren’t focused on scoring touchdowns every single time they cross the San Francisco 20-yard line.
Special Teams Standouts -David Bruton has been an absolute force for the Broncos on special teams this preseason. It is critical to have performances like this since aside from Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt, the Broncos have lacked playmaking ability on special teams in years’ past. Bruton is incredibly fast and plays hard. Look for him to continue to force his way onto the crowded depth chart at safety simply because of what he’s been doing on special teams (one blocked punt and one tipped punt last week).
The same holds true for Syd’Quan Thompson and whoever else returns kicks on Sunday. The Broncos are in desperate need of some flash and pizzazz with Eddie Royal‘s departure. Punt returning has been decent, kick returning has not been. I would not be surprised to see someone like Thompson, who likely wouldn’t make the roster at cornerback, make the team if he’s up to showing some explosiveness in the return game.
Front Seven – Sure the Champ Bailey versus Randy Moss match up has the appeal of a heavyweight title bout, but Broncos fans need to be focused on the defensive line and the linebackers. Both have been rocked this preseason by injuries and were question marks coming into the season anyway. Keith Brooking, Nate Irving, Danny Trevathan, D.J. Williams (suspension), Mike Mohamed, Jason Hunter, Ty Warren, Kevin Vickerson, and Justin Bannan have all missed time at some point this preseason. The Broncos’ front seven will need to be focused on executing the small things – making tackles, covering receivers in the middle of the field, and putting pressure on 49ers’ quarterbacks. If the core of the defense can be solid at a minimum, the secondary has the skills to be shutdown which would make this a tough defense to face. Fail to execute and the formula becomes unraveled.