The Denver Broncos (6-6) are scrambling on two fronts heading into Sunday’s game at San Francisco (2-10) after losing star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to injuries within days of each other. Harris is expected to miss at least a month after breaking his right fibula in last Sunday’s win at Cincinnati. Sanders suffered a torn Achilles tendon while running a route in practice Wednesday. He was placed on season-ending injured reserve later that day. The Broncos, who will be seeking to extend their winning streak to four straight to stay in the thick of the Wild Card hunt, are leaning on youthful replacements on both fronts. Isaac Yiadom is expected to fill in for Harris, joining Bradley Roby on the corners. Yiadom, a third-round pick out of Boston College, has already seen increased playing time in the last five weeks but now will be at the forefront as he moves into an every down presence. While he has made some mistakes related to inexperience he has also shown a willingness to go toe to toe with top flight receivers lining up opposite of him and he has held his ground. He has earned his chance to fill in for Harris. Cornerback Brendan Langley, who was promoted from the practice squad three weeks ago after the Broncos waived veteran defensive back Adam Jones, figures to see time as the nickel back, along with the possibility that safety Justin Simmons could move into the slot. Meanwhile, the loss Sanders leaves a corps of youthful wide receivers on the Broncos. That was certainly not how Denver began the year. They initially had Demaryius Thomas and Sanders at wideout to start the season only to trade Thomas away on Oct. 30 and lose Sanders to injury this week. Part of the reason the Broncos were willing to trade Thomas was the ascension of Sutton, who moves into the role of the go-to receiver now that Sanders is out. Sutton, a rookie, has shown a knack for stretching the field and making big plays downfield. He also has good speed and can go after a jump ball tenaciously. But he has to become more consistent as a pass catcher. Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton figure to take the bulk of the snaps in the place of Sanders.
“Anytime you get an injury in this league, it’s tough,” Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said. “But its next man up, and I’ve said it before, and I know it’s cliché. I’m a product of somebody getting a chance when somebody gets injured. It could be a great start for somebody’s career, one of these young receivers who we trust. They’ve been working a long time, Court (WR Courtland Sutton), [WR] DaeSean [Hamilton], [WR] Tim Patrick, all of those guys. What a great opportunity for those guys, depending on what’s at stake here.”
The Broncos lead the regular season series with the 49ers 7-6 and won the last meeting between the teams 42-17 in October 2014 in Denver. Sunday’s meeting marks Denver’s first regular season encounter at San Francisco’s stadium in Santa Clara, though the Broncos have played there in the preseason.
STRATEGY & PERSONNEL
Notes & Quotes
--The Broncos tried to bolster their depth and experience level at wide receiver by claiming eighth year pro Andre Holmes off waivers from Buffalo after the mid-week loss of Emmanuel Sanders to a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury suffered during a practice. With the loss of Sanders and the trading away of Demaryius Thomas to Houston in late October, the Broncos receiving room is full of young players. Rookie Courtland Sutton and second-year pro Tim Patrick form the starting receiving tandem and DaeSean Hamilton figures to see increased playing time when Denver goes into a three wide receiver formation. Holmes has appeared in 91 games, including 25 starts, during stints with Buffalo, Oakland and Dallas.
--The secondary was another area that the Broncos addressed due to an injury. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is out at least one month after suffering a fractured fibula in the win last Sunday at Cincinnati. The Broncos signed veteran cornerback Jamar Taylor earlier this week but are expected to go with rookie cornerback Isaac Yiadom in the place of Harris. Yiadom stepped in for the injured Harris last week and played in his absence. Meanwhile, backup cornerback Tramaine Brock missed practice time with a rib injury and his playing status for Sunday remained questionable.
--Rookie linebacker Josey Jewell was practicing without restrictions after missing part of last Sunday’s game at Cincinnati with an ankle injury. Jewell has been filling in at the inside linebacker position held by Brandon Marshall who has missed the last month with a knee injury. Marshall resumed practicing in a limited fashion this week but his playing status for the San Francisco game remains uncertain.
“You adjust every week based on gameplan and what type of guys you want on different routes. That’s what we’re doing right there after practice and during practice today. Getting used to those guys running different routes and that’s the name of this game. It’s that time of year and heck, this is the 2018 Denver Broncos. Nothing’s been handed to us, so we’re going to earn everything we get.”—Broncos quarterback Case Keenum, who has lost his top two wide receivers, the first to a trade and the second due to injury.
--Though Week 13, rookie Phillip Lindsay is ranked fifth in rushing (937 yards), first in average (6.1 yards), and tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns (8). He’s the only player in the league to rank in the top five in all three of those categories.
--Safety Justin Simmmons has taken part in every defensive snap for the Broncos this season. He is one of four players league-wide to do so.
--With 96 career sacks, Von Miller is 1.5 sacks away from tying Simon Fletcher, the Broncos’ franchise leader in the category.
BY THE NUMBERS
It is an obscure statistic but also a meaningful one and something that can swing a game one way or another just like that _ the blocked kick. The Broncos have four of them this season and that’s the most in the NFL. So far this season, the Broncos have blocked two field goals, a punt and an extra point attempt. Safety Justin Simmons has been at the center of those efforts. He blocked a field goal attempt in a narrow victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 25 and also blocked a field goal attempt against Baltimore in Week 3, though Denver wound up losing to the Ravens, their first loss of the season. During his rookie season in 2016, Simmons blocked an extra point attempt and fellow safety Will Parks scooped it up and returned it 84 yards for a defensive two-point conversion that carried the Broncos to a win over the New Orleans Sains.
Rookie Courtland Sutton’s ascension in the Broncos offensive scheme began slowly but has moved into overdrive this week. The second-round pick out of Southern Methodist got on the field sparingly at the start of the season but won more time as the third receiver and began showing a knack for getting open downfield and making the catch for big gains. After Demaryius Thomas was traded in late October, Sutton broke into the starting lineup and he’ll now move into the No. 1 role after the loss of go-to receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
LBs Von Miller and Bradley Chubb vs Ts Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey: Miller and Chubb both have double digit sacks this season and their ability to apply pressure vigorously has helped lift the Broncos back in to Wild Card contention. But despite the 49ers’ lackluster win-loss record, they have in Staley and McGlinchey two top tier pass protectors and if Miller and Chubb struggle to break through, it could be a long day for the Broncos’ injury depleted secondary.
CB Richard Sherman vs WR Courtland Sutton: Sherman is a seasoned pro and polished pass defender and he’ll bring a wealth of experience to his coverage of Denver’s rookie wideout, who has been thrust into the go-to role by a season-ending injury to Emmanuel Sanders and the trading away earlier this season of Demaryius Thomas.
John Elway, the Broncos general manager, said this week he’s gladly take 53 players like Phillip Lindsay. The Broncos undrafted rookie has been a revelation at running back for the Broncos. He’s had back to back 100 yard performances and enters Sunday’s game at San Francisco 63 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. Lindsay chews up an average of 6.1 yards per carry, tops in the NFL, and if the Broncos can establish an effective run game with Lindsay taking the lead, Denver would be able to control the tempo of the game and take some of the pressure off their exceedingly young corps of receivers.
The Denver defense has struggled much of the season to get off the field on third down. It’s a trend that needs to be reversed because with injuries in the secondary and linebackers corps, the margin for error is a narrow one if the Broncos are to stay on course in their late-season bid for a playoff berth. With the secondary depleted due to injuries, it will fall to the front seven to contain the 49ers attack.