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Five things the Broncos need to accomplish against the 49ers

(Photo by Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images)

When the Broncos take on the 49ers tonight, there will be plenty at stake for many involved in the game. The final score may not matter, but the route taken to get there certainly does.

Some players are trying to make the roster. Some coaches are trying to get used to new roles. And some groups need to get used to working together.

All of this will go a long way toward making or breaking the Broncos season. If everything comes together, Denver could have a good year. If not, it could be more of the same for the orange and blue.

So what should Broncos Country be watching tonight? Here are five things the team needs to accomplish against the 49ers, which will go a long way toward getting Denver ready for a successful 2019 campaign:

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1. Match the Niners intensity

When the two teams competed against each other in a pair of joint practices last week, it was a split decision. The 49ers clearly “won” the first day, as their defense embarrassed the Broncos offense from the jump. On the second day, however, Denver bounced back, showing some fight by giving it right back to San Francisco a day after getting pushed around. That leaves tonight as the rubber match, something Emmanuel Sanders pointed out on Saturday. “They won the first day, we won the second day and we got a game on Monday for the championship,” the wideout explained. Fair enough. Can Denver bring it again? Or did they leave it all on the field Saturday morning? If the Broncos are going to be competitive this year, they need to learn from the joint practices and show they can repeatedly elevate their intensity.

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2. Score an early touchdown

Against Seattle, the Broncos first-string offense got their first action of the preseason. And they looked pretty good, marching 78 yards on 12 plays to open the game. That was the good news. The bad news, however, was that Denver stalled inside the red zone and had to settle for a 25-yard field goal. Those are the kinds of missed opportunities that cause teams to lose games; 20-something-yard kicks should’ve been touchdowns, a four-point swing that adds up. So tonight, Joe Flacco and Company need to show that they can finish drives. They need to string together positive plays, move the ball down the field and then punch it in for a touchdown. That would be a sign that the 2019 offense is an improvement over the dreadful groups Denver has trotted out the past three seasons.

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3. Cover the tight end

The past few seasons, the Broncos defense has repeatedly struggled in one particular area – they can’t cover tight ends. Every time they play the Chiefs, Travis Kelce seems to go wild, but that’s to be expected; he’s one of the best in the business. What remains as the prime example of Denver’s biggest defensive shortcoming is what happened last year when they travelled to San Francisco. That day, George Kittle racked up 210 receiving yards, all in the first half. It was an embarrassing performance, as the Broncos appeared helpless to take away the 49ers tight ends. While Kittle probably won’t play tonight, the Kyle Shanahan offense can still be tricky to defend. So no matter who is on the field, Denver will have to cover the tight end. Can they do it? That’s a huge question heading into this season.

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4. Find a returner

The Broncos inability to find a reliable return, whether on kickoffs or punts, is one of the most-confounding developments in recent team history. Despite having a roster full of running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs willing to give the risky job a shot, Denver hasn’t seen anyone emerge as the favorite to fill either role. No one has shown any explosiveness returning kicks, as getting back to the 25-yard-line seems like a monumental task. And not a single player has been able to consistently field punts, let alone do anything of note once the ball is in their hands. As a result, the Broncos have no idea who is going to play these important positions three weeks from tonight when they open the regular season at Oakland. Someone needs to step up and take the job(s), or Denver needs to look outside the organization for an answer.

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5. Stay healthy

This is a goal in every preseason game. The last thing any team wants to do is lose an important player during a meaningless exhibition. But those without a lot of depth, which is a group that currently includes the Broncos, have to hold their breath a little more; the loss of a key cog could sink a season before it even starts. So Denver needs to escape without any significant injuries. Last week, they lost three players – Austin Fort for the season, and Andy Janovich and Theo Riddick for six to eight weeks. That’s a player who was pushing to make the roster, a starter and a newly added weapon that was supposed to play a key role in Denver’s offense. A similar result tonight would be terrible news.