Russell Wilson may have left the NFC West, but one thing is for sure: he can't avoid Jimmy Garoppolo.
The two quarterbacks will face off for the sixth time in their careers when the 49ers host the Broncos on "Sunday Night Football" in the next chapter of this QB rivalry.
Wilson has won five of the six matchups with Garoppolo, but each of the last five has been a one-score game. Of course, much has changed since they last met. Wilson is no longer on the Seahawks and Garoppolo is only starting because of Trey Lance's season-ending ankle injury. But their familiarity and history are impossible to ignore.
The start of Wilson's time in Denver has been shaky, to say the least, with 16 points in each of the first two games. Head coach Nathaniel Hackett was brought in as a QB guru, but this offense has yet to click. An embarrassing loss at Seattle was followed by a narrow win over the hapless Texans.
Garoppolo, meanwhile, was nothing short of competent in his one appearance taking over for Lance. His patience (and the team's willingness to keep him despite the potential for drama) paid off in the form of a 27-7 win over Seattle last week.
Will Wilson be able to continue his dominance over Jimmy G-led 49ers teams? Vegas has the road team as favorites in this contest between playoff hopefuls in prime time.
Sunday Night Football: San Francisco (1-1) at Denver (1-1)
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Wilson handle the 49ers' pressure?
Wilson has always been a mobile quarterback, thriving off play action and designed bootlegs, but he's lost a step or two at nearly 34 years old. He's not the threat to run he once was and isn't as good at escaping pressure. And that's going to be a problem against the 49ers.
The 49ers rank fifth in pressure rate (35.7 percent), fourth in hurry rate (16.1 percent), and third in QB knockdown rate (14.6 percent), all while blitzing just 10.7 percent of the time (29th). Only needing to rush four allows them the luxury of dropping seven into coverage, which has helped them to four turnovers, tied for sixth in the NFL.
Trying to depend on the run instead may not be any better for Denver, despite having the talented duo of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III. The 49ers rank second on a per-game basis (67.5 ypg) and first on a per-carry basis (2.6 ypc) against the run this season after ranking seventh in both categories last year.
Getting the ball out quickly will be crucial for Wilson, who tends to be one of the more laborious quarterbacks. His average time to throw of 2.92 seconds is the fifth-longest mark this season and quite a bit longer than his 2.80 from last year. Watch out for slot receiver KJ Hamler, who could be in for a breakout game now that he's back to health.
2. Can Denver force San Francisco to pass?
It's an annual rite of passage for the 49ers to suffer a number of injuries to running back, and San Francisco at least got it out of the way early this year with Elijah Mitchell (knee) and rookie Tyrion Davis-Price (ankle) out. But as is also tradition, pretty much any running back in Kyle Shanahan's outside zone offense can be successful.
Jeff Wilson Jr. is the latest running back to find success — although he's more steady than a big-play threat — as the Niners rank fourth in the NFL at 182.5 yards per game. Much of that has to do with a league-high 41 rushing attempts per game, but the fact that opponents know San Francisco will run and they still do it effectively speaks volumes.
Denver would benefit from getting the 49ers away from their bread and butter, especially considering the other injuries to the offense. Tight end George Kittle (groin) has yet to play this season and may not be effective even if he is active.
There's also the question of how up-to-speed Garoppolo will be without seeing much action. Last week, his on-target rate (71.4 percent) was much lower than his 2021 rate (81.5), although his slightly higher 14.3 percent bad-pass rate didn't yet lead to an interception.
3. Can Nathaniel Hack(ett) this job?
Every season, there's (at least) one lemon among the new coaching hires, and Hackett certainly has the early lead. His clock management has left much to be desired, and he's had inexplicable mistakes like forgetting to send a returner out on the field.
Denver's 25 penalties are so far ahead of second-worst Cleveland (19) that the gap between them is as big as the gap between second and 14th place. The league-high four delay-of-game penalties — so bad, many coming at crucial times, that Denver's crowd had to count down the play clock — partially stem from indecisiveness and poor play-calling. Yes, this is a new marriage with Wilson, but that's going to keep costing the Broncos wins.
Hackett seems to have a good relationship with his new team, which has its own merits. However, his rookie coaching mistakes (with no veterans on the staff to help) stand out as perhaps the biggest thing holding back this team.
If these teams met later in the season, the Broncos would likely be home favorites. But Wilson and Hackett still have a ways to go before they look like a true playoff team. Garoppolo raises the 49ers' floor, even if they aren't as dynamic as they could be with Lance. And that will be just enough to get them a big prime-time win.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Broncos 23
*Price as of publication.