ENGLEWOOD — General manager George Paton smiled when introducing Nathaniel Hackett seven months ago. The new coach brought energy, innovation and intelligence, characteristics embraced as the franchise looked for a reboot after missing the playoffs for six consecutive seasons.
Broncos Country welcomed Hackett, the antithesis of charisma-free Vic Fangio. The moment of joy has been short. Two games in, doubts about Hackett and a struggling offense have cast a shadow over the season. Hackett vows to improve communication and fix the process of how he receives information. Quarterback Russell Wilson believes the red zone offense, ranked last in the NFL, remains close to gaining traction.
The problems through two weeks will not magically disappear, but there exists a path to an upset for the Broncos. The team that runs well and slows the ground attack will likely win on Sunday night at Empower Field.
"They looking to come in here and drag us through the mud, and we are looking to do the same," running back Melvin Gordon told Denver7. "We know it's going to be a dogfight. In the NFL, that's what it is. It's going to come down to three points or who converts on the last couple of last series. They are a good caliber team."
The Broncos rank 10th in rushing (126.0 yards per game) and fifth in stopping the run (78.0). The 49ers counter with the fourth-best ground attack (182.5), while yielding 67.5 yards per game (second overall).
"I understand that this is where big boy football comes to play. They like to run the ball. As the front seven, we have to make sure we're stopping the run so that we can get to those pass opportunities and stuff like that," Broncos outside linebacker Bradley Chubb said. "But for the most part, we just have to do our thing. We know what they present, what they bring. We just have to be able to match that intensity.”
The 49ers boast a run game that 104.3 The Fan and Fox Sports football guru Mark Schlereth said as many as 12 teams attempted to copy this offseason. The Broncos employ a version of the outside zone, with Javonte Williams (22 carries, 118 yards) and Melvin Gordon (22-105) enjoying success.
The Niners lost starter Elijah Mitchell to a sprained right knee MCL injury in the opener, but kept chugging. The hallmark of the Mike Shanahan offense, which son Kyle runs a hybrid version of, is finding interchangeable backs. Jeff Wilson Jr. , a 27-year-old with 10 career starts, rumbled for 84 yards on 18 carries in a 27-7 win over the Seahawks last Sunday.
"Yeah, man I think it's the commitment to it. You get what you emphasize, and we emphasize it a lot," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said when I asked about his team's run game.
"Regardless of your personnel, regardless of anything, it's something I have believed in for a long time. I think I got that growing up, just watching as a fan, and in the league I have tried it a bunch of different ways. And I feel like the only time you are successful and truly winning games is when you can depend on that run game and make people scared of the run game. And if you do that everything else becomes easier."
Mike Shanahan will be at Sunday's game. He stills helps his son when needed. The father orchestrated the greatest running attack in Broncos' history with Terrell Davis, which produced an individual 2,000-yard rushing season and fueled back-to-back Super Bowl victories.
The Broncos are yearning to become relevant again, last achieved during their 2015 Super Bowl title run, Peyton Manning's last season. The arrival of future Hall of Famer Wilson brings hope, but the results have yet to translate. Leaning on the run game could help, freeing up Wilson for play-action strikes, while also controlling the clock in what could be a low-scoring, bare-knuckle affair.
The Broncos lead the NFL with 17 red zone passes and just four rushing attempts.
"Of course, you want (balance) all across the field. Whether it's in the red zone, whether it's in the field, whether it's anything. Really, third-down to two minutes is kind of the only ones that you typically pass a little bit more, but those two situations you definitely want to be very even. But you still want to be sure you're taking advantage of certain matchups that you think that you have. Like you said, each week is a little bit different," Hackett said. "But yeah, we need to be more balanced across the board.”
For the Broncos to slow the 49ers upfront, nose tackle D.J. Jones must play well. An elite run stuffer in San Francisco, he signed with the Broncos as a free agent and has clogged the middle as advertised.
"DJ is a problem in the middle. He always has been," Shanahan said. "We have our work cut out for us."
Jones is keeping a low profile this week. He still talks to his former teammates, but was not about to sprinkle kerosene on the flames.
"It's just another game, man. It's just another game, Week 3. It is not eliminating us or putting us in the playoffs," Jones told Denver7. "I may or may not be (providing intel). Film tells it all. If you watch film, it tells it all."