SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The juxtaposition remains jarring. A year ago as the losses mounted, the Broncos splintered. They began pointing fingers, casting blame in all corners of the locker room. A transfusion was needed, but did not materialize from a rookie class that should have been dubbed “The Lost Boys.”
This December everything is different.
As losses piled up – five in six games, including a kick to the shins by the Texans before the bye week – the bond among teammates grew stronger. Players insisted training camp chemistry was improved, and when adversity struck, they were proven correct. Yet, sticking together becomes hollow without results. With the season gasping, the Broncos received young blood. The 2019 rookie class ranks among the best in franchise history in its first-year performance.
Denver will start six rookies Sunday against San Francisco – three on offense (Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton) and three on defense (Josey Jewell, Isaac Yiadom, Bradley Chubb). That’s a good thing. Lindsay ranks fourth overall in rushing yards, Sutton leads AFC rookies in receiving yards, and Chubb sits tops in sacks among first-year players. These kids are more than all right.
My Denver7 keys to a fourth straight victory for the Broncos:
Defense never rests
In an NFL season of rainbows, unicorns and touchdowns for everyone, the Broncos are winning in antique fashion. They rely on a gnarly defense. Over the past three weeks, they have produced nine takeaways and nine sacks, while holding opponents to 16.3 points per game. It has shortened the field, and bought time for a sputtering offense to gain traction. The key is playing the ugly guy in the fight, brawling with nothing to lose.
Von Miller and Bradley Chubb rank as the league’s top sack duo with 22.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. Miller needs two sacks to become the all-time leader in franchise history, topping Simon Fletcher’s mark of 97.5. Niners tackle Joe Staley is terrific. However, he can only block one of the pair.
Shelby Harris has emerged as a standout the past three weeks. A bad practice away from getting cut in training camp, he brings a menacing inside rush. It has forced teams into awful choices when deciding how to neutralize Miller and Chubb. If Harris stays hot, mark Miller and Chubb down for at least a sack apiece.
Stop the run
The most startling defensive transformation remains against the run. The Broncos posted the worst back-to-back performances against the rush ever against the Jets and Rams. They have been stout since. Adam Gotsis told me they simplified the defense, virtually abandoning the use of sub packages on early downs. It has led to second and third-and-longs, setting up the pass rush. If the Broncos stop the run, quarterback Nick Mullens will be miserable.
As good as receiver Emmanuel Sanders is, it remains harder to cover for cornerback Chris Harris’ absence. He fractured his right fibula last week, leaving him hopeful of returning for the season finale. He told me he’s progressing ahead of schedule. The key is surviving three games without him. Look for the Broncos to be creative. Bradley Roby will likely match against Dante Pettis with help over the top. That leaves rookie Isaac Yiadom on the second target and safeties Justin Simmons, Su’a Cravens and Will Parks often on the field together. Simmons takes slot duty in this arrangement with Cravens and Parks needing a strong outing against star tight end George Kittle. Kittle wants a one-on-one battle with his former Iowa college teammate Josey Jewell, but those will be sparse. New corner Jamar Taylor will provide depth, including against slot receivers.
I See You @I_CU_boy
With Sanders lost for the year, the Broncos can’t ignore the obvious. It’s time to increase Phillip Lindsay’s touches. Anything less than 22 a game leaves them in danger of losing. Lindsay needs 63 yards to become the first undrafted free agent to eclipse 1,000 since LaGarrette Blount in 2010. I expect Lindsay to be used in the passing game more. I would throw him at least two screens, and keep him on the field with Devontae Booker on third down on occasion, either in the backfield or in the slot. Slot receiver DaeSean Hamilton is an X-factor. He’s a cerebral route runner, and could blossom with more opportunities. Case Keenum’s directive is simple. Play smart, play efficient. He has one interception and six touchdowns over his last five games. That formula works with this defense.
Eyes Wide Open
The Broncos arrive at Levi’s Stadium with no margin for error. They cannot afford a misstep against a 2-10 team. However, the Niners are better than their record. And you know coach Kyle Shanahan, who finished second to Joseph for the Broncos job two years ago, will add plenty of new wrinkles against Denver. The blueprint exists for the Broncos to follow. Take care of the ball. Take away the ball. Take care of business.
Renck Prediction: Broncos 23, 49ers 18.