In a preseason duel between the team that won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes and one of the top contenders that didn’t, the 49ers took the game but Broncos fans were left with plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
It took just three drives–with one field goal and two touchdowns–for Denver to see all they needed. Manning went 10-for-12 in that time and it was hard to find anything to complain about in his performance.
Outside of Manning’s arrival, there were a few offseason changes each team made and it was those changes that I decided to keep an eye on while the starters were still on the field.
San Francisco 49ers – Three Things of Note
1) Revamped Receiving Core
In 2011, the 49ers substituted wide receivers out left and right with not a lot of consistency. To try fixing that, San Francisco used their first round pick on A.J. Jenkins and added Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in free agency.
Earlier this offseason, coach Harbaugh made it sound like the 49ers have five receivers tied at the top of the depth chart, but based on how the players were used in this game it seems like Harbaugh has a better idea now even though Manningham missed the game.
Crabtree and Moss started the game and saw the most snaps with the first team, although Ginn also had a significant number as well. There didn’t seem to be much of a pattern for when certain players were used or where they lined up, other than they were consistently being rotated in and out. Kyle Williams barely saw any time with the first team offense, and Jenkins didn’t see any. With Manningham likely to see a significant share, chances are we won’t see much of Williams or Jenkins unless there is an injury.
While the first team was on the field, Alex Smith had just five completed passes, and only three were to wide receivers. All three were caught by Crabtree for a total of 21 yards. Even though San Francisco made a lot of moves to try upgrading at the position, it didn’t make any difference in this game.
2) Larry Grant’s Opportunity
The inside linebacker got a few chances to start late in the 2011 season and showed he could be a solid run defender in that short time. Navorro Bowman missed this game which gave Grant the chance to play with the first team and continue to show he could one day be a starter in the NFL.
When it came to the run game, if an offensive linemen didn’t get to him early then he was typically in position to make a play. He could be found in the gaps where the running back wanted to go to either make the tackle, or make the back choose another direction. The problem came in when an offensive linemen made it to the second level and got his hands on Grant–in most cases early in the game, he was unable to shed those blocks. It wasn’t until the fourth drive that he started finding ways to get loose and make tackles.
He wasn’t as sharp in pass game as one would like. He allowed the biggest catch by a Bronco in the game, as Lance Ball went deep and Grant had trouble keeping up, and was juked in the open field on a play that left him with a missed tackle. On the bright side, he did make a stop after a catch, and on a blitz he had a good initial push even though the play ended up being a quick pass. Although he has some things to work on, his play in the run game gives plenty of reason to like his potential.
3) Goodwin’s Gaffe
Outside of wide receiver, San Francisco hadn’t added anyone to the roster who saw significant time with the first team. The offense’s second drive ended with a failed exchange between center Jonathan Goodwin and the quarterback which caused a fumble, while Goodwin got pushed back right after the snap.
I was curious to see if that was one bad play as part of an off game for Goodwin, or if it was just one mistake in an otherwise fine outing. Turns out it was the latter of the two, as he did not give up a pressure while he was on the field. In the run game, he moved a defender to open a hole on one run and didn’t look like a liability at any other point. While you will find Goodwin’s name in the papers tomorrow for contributing to the turnover, it was just one moment in an otherwise solid effort.
Denver Broncos – Three Things of Note
1) Manning’s Pair of Tight Ends
Throughout Manning’s time in Indianapolis, his tight end was one of his best friends. While in recent years he became more accustomed to 3-WR sets, it looks like in Denver there will be a high percentage of plays with two tight ends.
This offseason Denver brought in Manning’s former teammate Jacob Tamme, as well as one of the more well-rounded tight ends Joel Dreessen. Both players were found throughout the first half in various situations which, for the most part, played to their strengths. Most often when both players were in the game, both played on the line, though there were a handful of instances where Tamme could be found in the slot.
In 1-TE formations, Dreessen was in more often for runs or pass plays that needed an additional blocker, while Tamme was in for more pass plays to run a route, although there were exceptions and, occasionally, Tamme could also be found in the backfield for a pass play.
Outside of the first offensive play where Manning connected with Dreessen on an out for 11 yards, Manning didn’t rely on his tight ends as pass targets. Both players had one more catch in the game, but it came after Manning was on the bench. Each, unfortunately, had a blunder in the game as well: Dreessen had a bad drop, while Tamme had a missed block which resulted in a tackle for a loss on a run. It is clear that the Broncos plan on giving both players significant playing time. Now it’s a matter of finding out how much they might be used in the passing game.
2) The Third Receiver
While Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will remain at the top of the depth chart for the Broncos in 2012, with Eddie Royal leaving, the third receiver spot seemed to be up for grabs. In addition to Matt Willis returning to the team, Denver added Andre Caldwell from the Bengals and reunited Brandon Stokley with his former quarterback.
While Manning was in the game, Thomas and Decker were the top two receivers as expected, and whenever a third receiver came on the field it was Stokley. A significant portion of the second drive was with three receivers, so Stokley saw some a decent amount of playing time, which almost exclusively meant playing in the slot.
He played well in those three drives, bringing in a circus catch for 8 yards on the second drive and another 7-yard catch on an in route. He was, technically, the target of another throw although he had no real chance of catching the ball.
Once Manning exited, Matt Willis replaced Demaryius Thomas with the starters while Stokley still came in for the three receiver sets, and then it wasn’t until the fifth offensive drive that Caldwell saw the field. While Stokley’s one job is to make catches from the slot, even at this age he does it well and it looks like he will do that job in Denver throughout the season.
3) Enter the Wolfe
The Broncos’ first pick in the 2012 draft was defensive end Derek Wolfe with the 36th overall pick. In training camp he worked his way up the depth chart and took over the starting defensive end spot opposite Elvis Dumervil.
While it wasn’t surprising to see Wolfe in on the first snap, it was surprising to see just how extensively Wolfe was used. In the five drives with the first team on the field, there wasn’t a play I noted that Wolfe was off. He played both defensive ends spot, and moved to an inside pass rusher in some extra defensive back formations.
His play in this game was not as impressive. In terms of pass rushing, he never got pressure, and the one time it looked like he had a good bull rush, the offensive linemen got help on his block. He was successfully blocked on the one run play that went to his gap, although a teammate helped make the stop. Due to the amount of playing time he should get and the players around him, he has the opportunity to be an impressive rookie. He will just need to play better than he did in this one.