The value of the joint practices with the 49ers is in seeing something new and learning how to adjust to it.
San Francisco’s wide-nine defensive alignment and versatile linebacking corps caused problems for the Broncos offense during Friday’s practice. Running lanes were scarce. Downfield connections were rare. The 49ers’ intensity was also palpable, and three Denver giveaways resulted.
The 49ers’ 4-3 defense was a different look to begin with, but as quarterback Drew Lock noted, that was far from the only new wrinkle; the 49ers used more two-safety looks than the Broncos, with a scheme that emphasized more single-high-safety alignments.
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“It’s really just kind of the exact opposite of what we normally see in practice, where that might have been a little of what was going on yesterday,” Lock said. “You don’t know what the Niners are going to play.”
They learned — and adjusted.
“We can kind of go back up there [between practices], hash things out and come out with a good plan,” Lock said.
Saturday, the offense emerged with more energy — and more consistency. Joe Flacco pushed the ball downfield, leading to some deep completions, including one on a go route to Courtland Sutton past Richard Sherman and another on a post route to Emmanuel Sanders. Brendan Langley had a long over-the-shoulder reception on a go route. Lock was able to extend plays with his feet. The offense matched the 49ers’ intensity and found a rhythm it struggled to locate a day earlier.
“We came out firing today. We had a lot of positive plays. We got the juices flowing early, so whenever that happens, you know it’s going to be a good day,” Lock said.
A one-handed catch by Kelvin McKnight of a pass from Lock seven plays into the first team period of practice invigorated the offense. Two plays later, Flacco hit Sutton, and the offense was in full gallop.
“I wouldn’t say we were flat. I just had to get the energy going,” wide receiver Tim Patrick said. “After [McKnight] started us off with a one-handed catch, Courtland came back with the one-handed catch over Sherman, and then ‘E’ came back with a deep ball. After that, the ball just kept rolling.”
And twice in one team red-zone period, it rolled to Patrick, who grabbed two touchdown passes in short succession — one of which saw him make a leaping, one-handed grab in the back of the end zone. Patrick was fired up for this practice, in part because it gave him a chance to go up against the team that let him go two years ago.
“[49ers general manager] John Lynch was right there on my second one. I had to point at him, let him know real quick,” Patrick said. “But I’ve got nothing but respect for that man, definitely.”
And nothing but respect for the 49ers as well, because the two days of work taught Denver’s offense a lesson: Bring intensity or pay a price.
“We just have to make sure that we come out like that every day,” Patrick said. “Against a different opponent, we can’t come out flat, because in a road game, if you come out flat, a team can jump on you real quick and it’s going to be hard to overcome.
“Today we just proved exactly what we could do on this field.”
On their final day of joint practices, the Broncos and 49ers got in some final on-field work together just two days before their preseason game on Monday night.
OFFENSE MOVES, BUT NOT ENOUGH, IN MOVE-THE-BALL PERIOD
With 1:20 on the clock, one timeout and a 1-point deficit, Denver’s first-team offense moved the ball — but not far enough — in its move-the-ball series against San Francisco’s first-team defense.
Joe Flacco went 6-of-7 by completing passes to six different receiving targets, but the connections mustered just 31 yards. None of the passes gained more than 7 yards. The drive ended when Juwann Winfree could not get out of bounds on a crossing pattern that took him into San Francisco territory, leaving no time on the clock for what would have been a 62-yard field-goal attempt.
The Broncos’ defense had a sterner challenge: to stop the 49ers from moving into field-goal range despite beginning its possession at the 50-yard line with 32 seconds remaining. Denver forced two incompletions before Jimmy Garoppolo hit Jordan Matthews despite coverage from De’Vante Bausby for a 13-yard gain on third-and-10. After a spike and a throwaway, Robbie Gould drilled the 55-yard field goal attempt.
Each team wanted a different situation for its offense.
“The value of these practices are it’s controlled practice, meaning that we can control what situations we get,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said. “In games, you don’t get certain situations.”
… Rookie tight end Noah Fant had three receptions, with his longest gain coming on a 20-yard reception between the numbers and the left sideline from Flacco during a seven-on-seven period.
“It was just a play for me to get open on a linebacker,” Fant said. “He paused his feet and I was able to run by him and get the catch. Joe put up a good ball. It was a good connection.”
Fant also had a touchdown in a red-zone period, gaining separation from 49ers linebacker Fred Warner at the goal line on the right side of the field and grabbing the pass from Flacco.
… A skirmish erupted between the 49ers defense and the Broncos offense midway through one of the team periods. It came two plays after a heated verbal exchange that followed a Dave Williams run that turned overly physical as multiple San Francisco defenders tackled him, with contact lingering beyond the whistle.
“There was some chirping, some trash-talking going on at the end of yesterday’s practice, and I think it carried over a little bit to today,” Fangio said.
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After the skirmish, Broncos coaches sent wide receiver Brendan Langley and tight end Bug Howard back to the locker room. Fangio, who was watching his defense against San Francisco’s offense, gave his assistant coaches the authority to send off players for fighting if they saw fit.
“I instructed the coaches that if something extracurricular that they deemed [worthy of] needing to be removed from the field, do it,” Fangio said.
The intensity of the practice lent itself to tempers flaring, but the overarching lesson remained: Don’t let it mushroom into a fight.
“I feel like we had great energy today, and if we have to get in a little scrum to do so, I think that’s fine, but like Fangio said, if you throw hands, you’re going to get kicked out of practice,” left guard Dalton Risner said. “So I was just hopping around and kind of talking, acting cool.”
… Outside linebacker Dekoda Watson saw more first-team repetitions than at any prior point during training camp, as Fangio gave Von Miller a rest day.
… Right guard Ron Leary continues to have his repetitions monitored, and he went back to the locker room after an hour and 20 minutes of work. Austin Schlottmann filled in for him after that.