NFL at Wembley: San Francisco 49ers vs Denver Broncos preview

The NFL returns to the UK this Sunday for the fourth year in succession, as the San Francisco 49ers take on the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium in a rematch of Super Bowl XXIV, a memorable but one-sided game in which the 49ers demolished the Broncos, 55-10.

The match brings together two of the league’s most successful franchises, both of whom have fallen on hard times in recent years and enter this weekend with a combined record of 3-11. Nonetheless, it promises to be a closely-fought encounter, with both teams desperate to get their seasons back on track.

Let’s take a look at both teams, and the key players to watch out for on Sunday.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers are one of only three teams to have won five Super Bowls, and can boast a storied history which includes Pro Football Hall of Famers such as quarterbacks Joe Montana, Steve Young and Y A Tittle, wide receiver Jerry Rice, cornerback/safety Ronnie Lott and defensive end Fred Dean.

All that seems a long time ago, however. The last of those five Super Bowl victories came 16 years ago, and the 49ers have failed to register a winning record in each of the past seven seasons. Last year’s 8-8 represented their best finish since 2002.

The ‘home’ team on Sunday, San Francisco bring a dismal 1-6 record into this game, having opened with five straight losses – their worst start to a season in over 30 years. Last weekend they succumbed to the previously winless Carolina Panthers, leaving them bottom of the NFC West. Worst of all, the 49ers have developed a habit of contriving to lose close games, with four of their six defeats being by three points or fewer.

The 49ers’ offense limps into Wembley, with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye sacked last month and now missing injured starting quarterback Alex Smith. Third-string quarterback Troy Smith (no relation), released pre-season by the Baltimore Ravens, will line up under center on Sunday, having started just two games and attempted 89 passes in three years in Baltimore.

Frank Gore (#21) will spearhead the 49ers' offense (image courtesy of

As a result, we can expect the offense – ranked a lowly 21st in yardage and 31st (out of 32 teams) in scoring – to focus even more than usual on the broad shoulders of Frank Gore. The sixth-year running back leads the team with 573 yards (seventh in the NFL) and has carried the ball on 135 of the 49ers’ 158 running plays so far this season. He is also the leading receiver, with 37 catches.

The 49ers have struggled with run blocking all season, as they bed in a young offensive line featuring rookie first-round draft picks Anthony Davis (right tackle) and Mike Iupati (left guard). Overall, they rank a poor 27th in rushing, averaging just 92.3 yards per game. However, there have been definite signs of improvement recently, as Gore has rushed for 251 yards over the past two weeks, compared with an average of 64.4 per game in the first five.

Defensive captain, linebacker Patrick Willis (#52) (image courtesy of

To protect the inexperienced Smith, and against a Broncos defence which is weak on the ground and gave up 328 rushing yards to the Oakland Raiders last week, Gore’s number will be called frequently on Sunday. When the quarterback does drop back to pass, however, he will look for Gore coming out of the backfield, Michael Crabtree (28 catches) out wide and tight end Vernon Davis (32) over the middle. Davis leads the team with four receiving touchdowns – look for him to test the Broncos by running deep between the gaps in their zone coverages – while Crabtree is arguably the team’s best ‘hands’ receiver since the departure of the record-breaking Rice.

Defense has been San Francisco’s strong suit in recent years, with an aggressive unit moulded in the image of head coach Mike Singletary, one of the finest middle linebackers in NFL history. The leaders of the defense are inside linebacker Patrick Willis and cornerback Nate Clements. Willis is a rangy and versatile player who leads the team with 58 tackles and is capable of making big plays all over the field. The hard-hitting Clements has two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Another rookie, second-round selection Taylor Mays, will start at strong safety.

Players to watch: Frank Gore (running back), Vernon Davis (tight end), Michael Crabtree (wide receiver), Patrick Willis (linebacker).

Denver Broncos

The team for which Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway played the whole of his 16-year career, the Broncos have appeared in six Super Bowls, winning the Vince Lombardi trophy twice, in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. The latter was the last game of Elway’s career.

However, the club has enjoyed limited success since, winning just one post-season game since that Super Bowl XXXIII triumph and missing out on the playoffs in each of the last four years. During that time, they have become a benchmark for mediocrity, with a record of 32-32.

The Broncos come to London with a 2-5 record, bottom of the AFC West and two games behind division leaders Kansas City. They will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak which includes a 59-14 demolition at the hands of the Raiders last weekend. Three of their five defeats have been by 14 points or more.

Denver quarterback Kyle Orton (#8) (image courtesy of

In contrast to the 49ers, the Broncos’ key strength on offense is their passing game led by former Chicago Bears‘ quarterback Kyle Orton, which is ranked third in the league in passing (290.1 yards per game). Orton has 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions for the year. He trails only San Diego‘s Philip Rivers and IndianapolisPeyton Manning in terms of passing yards per game, and ranks eighth in passer rating.

When Orton drops back to pass, he will look primarily for the wide receiver trio of Jabar Gaffney (41 receptions), Brandon Lloyd (35) and Eddie Royal (34), with Lloyd his preferred option when looking long. The Broncos’ offensive scheme does not heavily involve either the tight ends or the running backs with Demaryius Thomas (15) and Correll Buckhalter (12) the leading pass-catchers at those positions.

Linebacker D J Williams (#55) (image courtesy of

By comparison, Denver’s running game is anaemic, ranking 32nd and last in the NFL, averaging just 68.4 yards per game. Feature back Knowshon Moreno has just 212 yards and two touchdowns to date, at a feeble 3.3 yards per carry. No Bronco has recorded a run longer than 17 yards all season. Consequently, expect the Broncos to attack the 49ers’ defense almost exclusively through the air.

Denver’s 25th-ranked defense will be headed up by inside linebacker D J Williams, who leads the team in both tackles (63) and sacks (3.5). Combined, the team has just five interceptions, shared among five different players.

They are likely to struggle against San Francisco’s run-based offense, ranking a lowly 30th against the rush and a respectable 10th in pass defense. Overall, they are 30th in points conceded, giving up 28.4 per game – a figure exacerbated by the 59 Oakland scored last week.

Players to watch: Kyle Orton (quarterback), Brandon Lloyd (wide receiver), D J Williams (linebacker).

Predictions for Sunday

I expect Sunday’s game to be a close but nervy affair, especially at first as these two struggling teams try to build confidence and momentum. San Francisco have ‘home’ advantage and can expect the support of the majority of the Wembley crowd. They also have the benefit of having been in the UK all week to acclimatise, whereas Denver are only flying in today (Friday). However, the loss of Alex Smith is a big blow which will significantly restrict their offensive potential, and the 49ers will probably try to control the ball with Gore on the ground – where the Broncos are weakest – rather than put too much on the shoulders of the inexperienced Troy Smith.

Denver will test the San Francisco secondary early, hoping to build a lead and force the 49ers into abandoning the run, and look to apply plenty of pressure on Smith with blitzes and multiple coverage schemes.

Who will win? My head says Denver hold all the aces, but my heart says San Francisco will come out on top if they can establish their ground game and rely on Willis and Clements to force some turnovers. A weather forecast which predicts light rain all weekend may also help neuter the Broncos’ potent pass offense. 49ers to win a low-scoring encounter, 20-17.

Sky Sports are running a game preview at various times on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Live coverage of the match is on Sky Sports 2/Sky Sports 2 HD from 16:30 on Sunday afternoon. Highlights will appear on BBC1 on Sunday at 23:35, and on Monday on Sky Sports 3 at 12:00 and Sky Sports 2 at 22:00.

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