SANTA CLARA -- It’s no secret that all eyes will be on quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Russell Wilson on Sunday when the 49ers face off against the Denver Broncos, given the pair’s recent history in the NFC West.
But while Wilson is a familiar foe, San Francisco also has to worry about subduing a former friend who certainly will look to be a difference-maker during the primetime matchup from Empower Field at Mile High.
The 49ers lost D.J. Jones to the Broncos in free agency this offseason, and they knew the time would come when the defensive tackle would stand across from them on the field, looking to stuff their run-heavy offense.
That time is now, and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans knows exactly what they can expect.
“D.J. is a tremendous player,” Ryans said after practice Thursday. “I loved working with D.J. for the past four or five years … He’s a great guy off the field, a really great guy and a really great player.”
Last season with the 49ers, his fifth and final season in San Francisco, Jones started all 17 games and racked up a career-high 56 tackles with two sacks and two forced fumbles (also a career-high). Jones’ five tackles so far in the 2022 season are tied for the fifth most among NFL defensive tackles, and his seven combined tackles are the sixth most at his position.
But that’s just what he has been able to do this year as far as the stat sheet goes -- his ability to create pressure on quarterbacks and the overall impact he has at the line of scrimmage as a run stopper can’t be understated, and it’s why Denver signed him to a lucrative three-year, $30 million contract this offseason.
“The thing I think for our guys preparing for him is they just have to work together, just understand nobody’s out there by themselves,” Ryans said Thursday. “D.J. may make a few plays, but we just have to make a few more plays than him, try to keep him out of our backfield.”
The question marks on San Francisco’s interior offensive line coming into the season -- left guard and second-year pro Aaron Banks, center Jake Brendel and rookie right guard Spencer Burford -- have played well through the team’s first two games, and they’ll have another challenge in Jones on Sunday as they block for the team's running backs, who have taken a beating so far this season.
Specifically, Banks and Brendel will have their work cut out for them, as Jones has lined up mostly at right defensive tackle this season.
Banks was PFF’s highest-graded offensive player in the 49ers’ Week 2 win over the Seattle Seahawks after he allowed just one hurry in pass protection. His run-blocking score of 72.2 came on a day in which he saw the team tally 4.2 yards per carry on 45 rushing attempts.
Offensive line and run game coordinator Chris Foerster said on Thursday that Jones’ presence opposite the interior O-line is just one of many challenges they have faced so far and will continue to face.
“The first two games were great challenges as well, ‘cause the last two guys, those guys were giants in there. They were a great challenge for our guards,” Foerster said. “Obviously, D.J.’s a great player. We have great respect for him as well as the other players on the interior of their defensive line.”
As the 49ers' interior O-line has proven they can play and succeed opposite talented NFL defensive tackles, Foerster is more concerned about how youngsters like Banks and Burford handle the pressure of a primetime game.
But Jones is looking forward to it.
“I’m excited to see my guys, but my emotions will stay in check,” Jones said at his locker in Colorado on Thursday, via Mike Klis of 9NEWS. “I’m an easy-going guy, I think, so I’m just excited to have an opportunity to play against a great team.”
How to watch 49ers vs. Broncos
GAME TIME: The 49ers’ Week 3 game against the Broncos will be played on Sunday, Sept. 25, at Empower Field at Mile High. Kickoff is set for 5:20 p.m. PT on Sunday Night Football.
TV: 49ers-Broncos will air on NBC. Mike Tirico (play-by-play), Cris Collinsworth (color analyst) and Melissa Stark (sideline) will be on the call.
For more information on the 49ers vs. Broncos matchup click here.