NFL Preview - Denver (2-5) vs. San Francisco (1-6)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Mr. Smith goes to London.
But which San Francisco 49ers quarterback bearing the surname Smith will be under center in England's cherished Wembley Stadium this Sunday against the Denver Broncos?
That would be 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, a former Ohio State star who was supposed to be Baltimore's next great thing until an illness opened the door for current Ravens triggerman Joe Flacco. He will take the reigns from injured signal-caller Alex Smith, who is expected to miss the next few weeks with a sprained shoulder. The latter will have a chance to further rest his limb, since San Francisco has a bye following its UK visit.
49ers head coach Mike Singletary opted for Troy Smith over David Carr for this week's game overseas. Carr, a former No. 1 overall pick like Alex Smith, threw a costly interception in last Sunday's 23-20 loss at Carolina and according to Singletary, understands the decision.
"I just think right now, as I look at where we are as a football team, as I look at our offense, I just feel that Troy Smith was a good choice for us right now overall," Singletary said.
Troy Smith is a mobile quarterback and Singletary is hoping his athleticism will open more doors for a struggling offense. The former Raven is in his first season by the Bay and hasn't played more than six games in a campaign during his tenure in the league. A fifth-round pick of Baltimore back in 2007, Smith has passed for 558 yards and three touchdowns with an interception over 14 career games. He'll be trying to resurrect a 49ers team that has been hard- pressed to score points and is coming off a close loss to the previously- winless Panthers.
49ers running back Frank Gore has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his last two games and will most likely see plenty of action as usual with a new face under center. Gore, who owns a team-record 23 games over the century mark, only has one touchdown this season and matches up well against Denver�s poor run defense.
Tight end Vernon Davis is another safety valve for Troy Smith and one of the rising pass-catchers in the league. Unfortunately it hasn't helped 1-6 San Francisco get out of last place in the NFC West Division.
The Broncos are familiar with last-place tags, as they currently sit tied with San Diego for basement bragging rights in the AFC's West Division with a 2-5 mark. The beginning of the 2010 season has been a polar opposite to the 6-0 start under then-rookie head coach Josh McDaniels a year ago.
A weak defense and a just-as-putrid ground attack should be at the top of the Broncos' to-do list, as evidenced by last week's embarrassing 59-14 home loss to rival Oakland.
In Denver's third straight loss overall and also third in a row at Invesco Field at Mile High, it was staring down a 24-0 deficit after the first quarter and never recovered to have a 10-game winning streak in division openers halted. Oakland racked up 508 yards of offense to Denver's 240, with the Broncos mustering just 75 rushing yards. Quarterback Kyle Orton had an interception returned for a score as well.
McDaniels was apologetic to the front office following the loss.
"It's not good enough -- it's not even close to good enough," McDaniels said. "I apologize to (owner) Pat (Bowlen) and the organization, all the fans and everyone else. It was awful."
The Broncos' high-powered passing attack was grounded last Sunday and McDaniels alluded to how slow starts could be the reason. Falling behind 21-0 within the first 10 minutes of the game and not being able to counter the blow usually results in defeat.
This week's preparation will obviously be a bit different, since it will be held across the Atlantic Ocean, but the Denver defense has no excuse this time after what happened last Sunday.
Expect the 49ers to feed the Broncos plenty of Gore, as Denver is 30th against the run this season, permitting 156.3 yards per game. Denver added defensive lineman LeKevin Smith this week to bolster a weak front wall after linebacker Diyral Briggs was waived. The move may actually pay off, given Troy Smith's raw talent and lack of experience.
The Broncos own a 6-5 edge in their all-time regular-season series with the 49ers, but San Francisco was a 26-23 overtime winner when these teams last squared off, back in Denver in the 2006 finale. The Broncos had defeated the Niners two straight times prior to that defeat, a 24-14 triumph in San Francisco in 2002 and a 38-9 rout in the Mile High City during 2000.
The only neutral-site meeting between the teams was the most memorable one as well, having occurred in Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans on Jan. 28, 1990. The 49ers delivered a 55-10 victory that remains the most lopsided verdict in Super Bowl history.
Both McDaniels and Singletary will be facing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Orton (2,140 passing yards, 11 TD, 4 INT) is off to a wonderful start regardless of how ugly his performance was a week ago. He passed for a season- low 198 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and an interception that was returned by Raiders defensive Chris Johnson for six points. With Brady Quinn and rookie Tim Tebow looking over Orton's shoulder, it's no wonder the former Purdue standout is playing out of this world. Orton, who was sacked four times by Oakland after going down just once in each of his previous two games, has compiled the most yards through the air through seven games in franchise history and ranks second in the NFL in that category. In a head-scratching twist, knowing that the great John Elway etched his name in league history with the Orange and Blue, Orton needs just 58 passing yards to become the fastest quarterback in team annals to reach 6,000. That will probably happen in the first quarter, since the Niners are 14th overall against the pass. Another concern for the Broncos is their running game, which is last in the NFL with an average of 68.4 yards per contest. Knowshon Moreno (212 rushing yards, 2 TD) was bottled up by Oakland, but did catch a pair of touchdown passes.
The 49ers should expect the Broncos to test their 14th-rated pass defense right off the bat at Wembley Stadium. As the NFL tries to market its product overseas, Orton and the Broncos are trying to save face from a horrific offensive output versus Oakland. Luckily for Singletary's stop unit, Denver is terrible running the football, and it won't get any easier with linebacker Patrick Willis (58 tackles, 1 sack) standing in the way. Willis is having a quiet start to the season, but still leads the team in tackles. Defensive end Ray McDonald (7 tackles, 1 INT) tried sparking his team early on in Carolina with a 31-yard interception return for a score, but the defense imploded after that. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements (38 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) will have a busy day trying to shut down a Denver passing attack averaging nearly 300 yards per game (290.1). Carolina racked up 303 yards passing last week against a 49ers defense that was out of place too often.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Troy Smith will see action for the first time this season and has earned the trust of the coaching staff. The young signal-caller noted during the week how you never know when you're number is going to be called and that he's ready for the challenge. He shouldn't feel intimidated by the big crowd either, because he's played in this type of environment before as a Buckeye. But this is the bigger, faster NFL, meaning Smith will have to adjust right away even though it's been a while since he�s played. Singletary praised his new quarterback's leadership skills and can only wait and see if what he heard from past coaches and players about Smith is true. Smith will be making his third career start and first since leading the Ravens to a road win at Pittsburgh back in December of the 2007 season. His scrambling skills should open a few avenues for the rest of the offense. Gore (573 rushing yards, 1 TD) will most likely carry the load early on and leads the NFL with 914 yards from scrimmage. He is second among running backs with 37 receptions as well. Gore, Davis (32 receptions, 4 TD) and wide receiver Michael Crabtree (28 receptions, 2 TD) are San Francisco's top receiving threats.
There's no doubt Denver's defense did a lot of film study after the Raiders had their way in the Rockies last week. Poor tackling and misreads led to Darren McFadden's 165 rushing yards and three scores, and the Oakland back also added a receiving touchdown as well. The Broncos are in big trouble if one player can make a difference in the outcome of the game, because the 49ers are hoping Gore can do the same thing McFadden accomplished. Veteran safety Renaldo Hill (30 tackles) said the Denver defense has "a lot of soul searching" to do this week. Hill stressed how trust and hard work are the main ingredients to righting the ship. A run defense rated 30th in the league will be tested right off the bat Sunday, leaving the Broncos' 3-4 scheme responsible for making plays early. Inside linebacker D.J. Williams (63 tackles, 4 sacks) leads the team in sacks and tackles, while outside linebacker Jason Hunter (30 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) aims for a fourth straight game with at least a sack or interception. Opponents must also always account for Broncos All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey (15 tackles, 1 INT) as well.
It's tough to gauge how well Troy Smith will play in his first start in nearly three years, so it's not wise to gamble with him this week. It's tough to do that, however, knowing how well he can run the football. Gore is a no-brainer and Davis could see a lot of balls his way as Smith's check-down man. Crabtree is another questionable call this week, but taking a chance on Smith's college teammate Ted Ginn Jr. isn't a stretch at wide receiver. Orton, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (35 receptions, 709 yards, 3 TD) and Moreno have been Denver's big three in fantasy football. The Broncos didn't show they've got many weapons versus the Raiders, but that game's in the past and they're looking to regroup in a big way. Give Denver wideout Jabar Gaffney (41 receptions, 462 yards, 2 TD) a shot if it's a deeper league.
It may have taken a week, but all the pieces of Denver's lopsided loss to Oakland last Sunday have been accounted for. McDaniels and his coaching staff have invested too much to let this season slip away with how well certain parts of both sides of the football have performed. Orton is on pace for a record-breaking season and gives Denver a legitimate chance at making a run in the wide-open AFC West. At 1-6 after seven games, the 49ers may have missed their chance. At least they can enjoy some fish and chips, and possibly a trip to Piccadilly Circus while in the UK. The buses there are big enough.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 26, 49ers 20
10/28 14:37:02 ET