The third preseason game closely resembles the speed and intensity of the regular season for many players, but the same can also be said for head coaches, especially the newest leaders for the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos. Following a week of joint practices, the 49ers and first-year head coach Jim Tomsula square off against Gary Kubiak and the Denver Broncos Saturday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Kubiak received high praise from his boss, John Elway, for helping the Broncos transition after John Fox’s dismissal and the playoff loss to Indianapolis last season.
Tomsula, a long-time coordinator turned NFL head coach for the first-time, has had to deal with matters both on and off the field. San Francisco cut former defensive lineman Ray McDonald after he faced several assault charges again, and earlier this week he was indicted along with current linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The 49ers sent Brooks back home when the charges were filed, and this comes on the heels of linebacker Aldon Smith’s release just weeks ago for another DUI charge.
Now Tomsula must figure out what to do up and down his offensive line, while working some new players into the offense in what will be the most competitive matchup of the preseason.
San Francisco hasn’t really been plagued with injuries during training camp, but linebacker Nick Moody and cornerback Tramaine Brock each suffered leg injuries during practice Thursday. The 49ers held a closed practice on Friday, so both players' status against Denver likely won’t be known till around kickoff.
Also tight end Vance McDonald (ankle), safety Craig Dahl (back), and linebacker Philip Wheeler (leg) did not practice Thursday.
The Broncos are still awaiting the return of No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders. He suffered a hamstring injury on Aug. 6 and hasn’t participated in the preseason yet, but Sanders is reportedly on pace to play on opening day.
Cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. (hamstring) and Tony Carter (hamstring), and linebacker Lerentee McCray (groin) also missed practice Thursday. But safety Ross Madison (shoulder) did return to the field, while linebacker Danny Trevethan is expected to play some against San Francisco.
Players to Watch
Denver is expected to play its starters for about a half or more, which should allow quarterback Peyton Manning enough time to work with the plethora of tight ends currently on the roster. Seeking a replacement for Julius Thomas and some depth behind Owen Daniels, the Broncos currently have eight tight ends on the roster with Virgil Green right behind Daniels on the depth chart. They also just signed rookie Dan Light, listed at 6-foot-5 and 265-pounds out of Fordham.
Light joins Jake Murphy, who was signed just last week, along with Joe Duncan, Dominique Jones, Marcel Jensen, James Casey, and rookie Jeff Heuerman in the battle.
Denver also signed Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis earlier this week, but Kubiak would only say that Mathis would suit up and not play against the 49ers. That should give rookie guard Max Garcia more reps as he becomes more familiar with the pro game.
For San Francisco, the defensive and offensive line is clearly a concern with the legal woes of players and the retirement of others. But Tomsula also praised the improvement of rookie and third-round draft pick Eli Harold, a linebacker out of Virginia.
Harold joins Aaron Lynch and Corey Lemonier at outside linebacker, a group that has three seasons of combined experience as pointed out by the San Francisco Chronicle. How that group attacks the Broncos frontline and drops back in pass protection against Manning could make the difference in the matchup.
Tomsula also told reporters that he expects running backs Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter to make their preseason debuts, but also reserved the right to pull back any expectations. Bush hasn’t really dealt with an injury but has instead avoided one by staying on the sidelines.
Kickoff Time: Saturday, 9 p.m. ET
TV Channels: KPIX (San Francisco) and KTVD (Denver)
Live Online: NFL Game Pass