DENVER — Emmanuel Sanders proved through his training camp performances he had recovered from surgeries on each ankle.
Now the rust is off, too.
On the first offensive play from scrimmage Monday night in the preseason game between Denver and the San Francisco 49ers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, Broncos' quarterback Joe Flacco completed a pass to Sanders, the home team’s top receiver, for a 5-yard gain.
Later in the same opening series Sanders took a reverse handoff, sped right and juked for 19 yards. Perhaps more importantly, Sanders hung tough as he got hit and tackled at the San Francisco 11-yard line.
"Everything I had to go through to get back to this moment, I almost started crying in the tunnel,'' Sanders said about getting introduced first during the pre-game festivities. "Sometimes you have to be proud of yourself.''
The drive fizzled from there into a Brandon McManus field goal but Sanders is full speed ahead. McManus kicked field goals of 31, 33 and, with no time remaining in the half, 52 yards to give Denver a 9-3 lead at the intermission.
The second half was a battle of backups and third stringers and apparently the 49ers had better depth as they scored three touchdowns to beat the Broncos, 24-15 before a gathering of more than 59,000 (more than 72,000 paid).
"The one thing I noticed, it was really weird, you can tell Peyton played here because when the offense has the ball, you can hear a pin drop,'' Flacco said, referring to former Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning's penchant for shushing the crowd so he could should out his "Omaha" audibles. "That was a little different, to be honest with you. It's always quiet for the home team when the they're on offense but that was a little extra. I felt like I heard my voice echoing in the stadium, so I was a little thrown off."
PHOTOS | 49ers at Broncos: 8/19/2019
Sanders later in the first quarter made a terrific adjustment on a deep pass from Flacco for a 45-yard gain to the San Francisco 7-yard line, although the play was brought back on a holding penalty called on left tackle Garett Bolles.
"It's good to be back on the football field, making plays and exciting the crowd,'' Sanders said. "That's my adrenaline rush.''
The return of Sanders, and stifling first-string Denver defense that completely frustrated 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, put the Broncos up at halftime.
However, the 49ers got two long runs in the third quarter of 30 yards for a touchdown by Raheem Mostert and 45 yards by Deebo Samuel that set up another touchdown against a Broncos defense made up of second- and third-stringers to rally for a 17-9 lead. San Francisco got another score in the fourth quarter after converting a Broncos' turnover deep in their own territory.
Broncos' veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan, who came in for the injured Drew Lock, scored with 2:15 remaining on a 24-yard touchdown scramble.
During the third quarter, Lock, the Broncos' promising rookie, suffered a sprained right thumb and left the game. Lock was sacked and seemed to fall hard on his left shoulder while his right hand bounced twice on the ground. However, a source told 9News that X-rays on Lock's hand were negative, and Lock confirmed that after the game.
"I got out of the pocket and just ended up landing on that thumb,'' he said. "It's just a little sprain. It should be alright."
Afterwards, Broncos head coach Vic Fangio deemed the injuries to Lock and rookie tight end Noah Fant, who left with a foot injury, as "mild in nature.'' Fangio cautioned more would be known in the next day or two. Lock left with a small brace around his right wrist and Fant hobbled out in a boot.
Back to the first quarter, Garoppolo didn’t get much blocking against the Bradley Chubb-led Broncos’ front. Chubb mostly had his way against 49ers' six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley.
"You want to go against the best,'' Chubb told 9NEWS in the postgame locker room. "That's what you're in the NFL for, you get to play against the best of the best. Joe Staley has been doing this for a long time and when I go out there I want to make my mark on somebody who's been doing it for what (13) years?
"I just want to be the best me, whether that's against a rookie left tackle or 15-year vet, I just want to be the best me and I feel like it will always work out like that."
Garoppolo wasn’t poised enough to handle the Denver pass rush as he completed just 1 of 6 passes for no yards. He was intercepted by Isaac Yiadom to kill his first series and Garoppolo should have been picked off again on his next series but Broncos cornerback De’Vante Bausby dropped a pass to his midsection. His passer rating computed to 0.0.
Flacco and Sanders played the entire first quarter while the Broncos’ starting offensive line – which included Austin Schlottman in for Ron Leary, who was rested as a precaution, at right guard – and running back trio of Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker played well into the second quarter.
Flacco completed 7 of 11 passes for 59 yards. Courtland Sutton, who is starting alongside Sanders at receiver, had two catches for 28 yards. At tight end, starter Jeff Heuerman didn’t play because of a shoulder injury and Fant suffered a foot injury at the end of the first quarter.
Lock played the second quarter and led the second-team offense on two field-goal drives. He completed 7 of 12 passes for 40 yards and also scrambled twice for 11 yards in what was an encouraging performance until he took the sack and suffered the thumb injury in the third quarter.
The Broncos also lost rookie linebacker Joe Dineen to a broken hand, sources told 9NEWS.
Hogan, who had been the Broncos' No. 2 quarterback through the offseason, most of training camp and the first two preseason games until he was replaced by Lock 10 days ago, came in to replace the injured rookie.
The Broncos' offense got little going in the second half until 49ers' fourth-string quarterback Wilton Speight fumbled and Denver defensive lineman DeShawn Williams recovered at the San Francisco 24. On the first play, Hogan stepped up through a clean pocket and scampered for the touchdown.
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