Eyes in the Backfield: 49ers

12 Things to Watch in Sunday's Colts-49ers game

This Waterboy was devastating. How will the Colts' fare?

Last week, the Colts' bid to to pull out another thriller came up just short as they couldn't finish off the Miami Dolphins. This week, they take on the San Francisco 49ers in a true test of just how far the franchise has come. Here's what to be on the lookout for…

1. Watch for the litmus test. Over the next few weeks, the Colts will face three of the four best teams in football. Along with Seattle and Denver, the 49ers represent where the Colts want to be as a franchise. Forget point differential, DVOA and everything else for a moment. For fans of the good old-fashioned eyeball test, just watch the game. Do the Colts look like they are in the same league physically and talent-wise as San Francisco. Do they compete? Is the game close? Whether or not Indy sneaks into the playoffs with eight or nine wins or not, measure them against the best, and that should tell you how close they are to true contention.

2. Watch the Waterboy. Chuck Pagano said the Colts didn't bring Trent Richardson in to be the waterboy, ensuring that's his new nickname. My personal disdain for the Richardson trade aside, the biggest problem is that Indy is only getting 13-1/2 games out of him this year. Had they made this same deal two or three weeks ago, Richardson might have helped them win the Dolphins game and would be ready for the San Francisco game. Obviously, the trade wasn't "necessary" two weeks ago, but that's beside the point. How much Richardson plays in Week 3 is going to be a story. On one hand, he's in shape. On the other hand, he doesn't know the offense. No matter what he does, good or bad, this trade won't be decided this week. For now, watch his assimilation and hope he can do it all night long.

3. Watch the hole. Dwayne Allen creates holes when he's on the field, and now that he's missing from the offense, he creates a different kind of hole. The biggest problem with the Colts' efforts to be a smash-mouth run-first team is that they don't have the offensive line for it. Allen is a devastating blocker, and without him, there are serious questions as to whether Indy can open creases for the runners. This is another major problem with those expecting a rejuvenation from Trent Richardson: the Colts' line is much, much worse than the Browns'.  Richardson may be a very good back, but it's entirely possible that without Allen (and Donald Thomas), we could spend all season not knowing as he gets swarmed under in the backfield.

4. Watch for the flashbacks. Eric Walden may well feel like a veteran returning to 'Nam this week. Last time he was in San Francisco, he was repeatedly humiliated by Colin Kaepernick. Walden never did figure out how to "set the edge", and the Packers got steam-rolled as a result. Two weeks into his Colts career, Walden has been a disaster. He is undisciplined and still struggles when quarterbacks get out of the pocket. If he can't hold the line on the corner, the Niners may well run Indianapolis off the field early in this one.

5. Watch the eyes get large. The most disturbing element of Andrew Luck's young career is that he has started holding the ball too long. What I loved about him early in 2012 was that he made quick reads and threw the ball. That's a skill that's quickly eroding, however. He takes far too many unnecessary sacks and hits caused by simply pounding the ball. Aldon Smith is waiting for him this week, and he won't have the luxury of scanning the field. Against Miami, Luck didn't look comfortable on the final two drives. His line is unlikely to help him out, so Luck will have to dictate his own protection by making quick, decisive throws. The best protection any quarterback has is his own ability to make quick reads and release the ball.

6. Watch for the big ol' family affair. The Colts-49ers game features more philosophical incest than a Skywalker family reunion in Kentucky. Obviously, Jim Harbaugh has a special place in Colts' history, and a weird place in the IU family as brother-in-law to Tom Crean. But he was also Andrew Luck's head coach and Pep Hamilton's boss. Then there's the fact that Luck told him to draft Kaepernick. And Vernon and Vontae Davis are actual brothers. Half the Colts defense cycled through San Francisco at some point, and Greg Manusky used to coach for the 49ers. In a startling discovery it will be revealed at halftime that Vic Fangio is his own grandpa.

7. Watch the bumps and bruises. You never want to see the following names on the injury report at the same time: T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne and Darius Heyward-Bey. The last two have been on full participation, but that's also just one side of the ball. Both safeties also missed practice on Thursday. Indy has lost three offensive starters in the past week alone, so it's getting pretty crowded on the sidelines. Indy isn't a deep roster to begin with, so if they lose anyone else, they may end up needing the actual water boy to suit up. I feel like there is a "water carrier" joke to be made here, but as the Indy press is so vigilant and critical of the current regime, I decided it just wouldn't be fair.

8. Watch the rebound. Indy is getting San Francisco at the worst possible moment. Having been waxed on the road at the hands of division-rival Seattle, the 49ers need a win against the Colts. Had they beaten the Seahawks, perhaps you could have made the case that this was a trap game. After all, they play another division rival in just four days. After a terrible showing in prime-time, however, there's just no way San Francisco overlooks the Colts. A big showing against the NFC champs will be all the more impressive because Indy will get the best shot San Francisco has to offer.

9. Watch a tradition unlike any other. The Colts get their first dose of Jim Nantz and Phil Sims this year. One of the overlooked aspects of sliding down the NFL pecking order is avoiding Sims' commentary on a near-weekly basis. Easily the most bland of the major broadcast teams, it's still remarkable how often Sims is just…wrong about things. He gets rules wrong, analysis wrong, strategy wrong. He's the Matt Millen of broadcasting. Except that now Matt Millen is a broadcaster too, so that means there's someone even worse out there. Geeze, even at being the worst, Sims is bad.

10. Watch the rarity. The Colts have won one game in San Francisco since 1968. That was the 28-3 win in 2005. That might be discouraging for Indy, except they've only played in San Francisco three times since 1972. In the Indianapolis era, the Colts are 1-2 when visiting the 49ers. With the current cycle of games, Indy won't play there again until 2021. So enjoy that authentic Rice-a-Roni while you can, Colts fans. It's a rare and heady dish.

11. Watch for redemption. Coby Fleener took a big step forward last week in his quest to get in the good graces of Colts fans. With a nice day that should have been better (he scored a potential game-winning touchdown that was nullified by penalty), he got out of the dog house. Now with all the wideouts ailing and Allen on the shelf for good, it's time for Fleener's impact to be felt regularly in the passing game. The only problem is that the 49ers have been very good against tight ends. They've finished no lower than 7th in DVOA versus tight ends since 2008. They are fourth this year. With outstanding linebackers, San Francisco is poised to take away what Indy needs to thrive. A big game by Fleener would speak volumes about his ability to make an impact for the Colts.

12. Watch for a rout. It's time for honesty. I don't think the the Colts are very good. I don't like the roster construction. I don't think they are built to win in today's NFL. I think they can still make the playoffs thanks to a weak AFC, but don't expect them to be competitive against the elite teams. The most likely outcome on Sunday is that they go to San Francisco and get run over.  49ers 35 Colts 17.

Eyes in the Backfield-49ers (full)

18 Things to Watch for during Sunday’s Colts/49ers Game

Everyone says Gore is going to carve up the Colts.  I’m not seeing it.

Last week, the Colts crushed the hapless Rams in a game that went pretty much how we predicted.  This week the Colts leave the dregs of the NFL behind and move on to tackling the shrinking middle class.  The San Francisco 49ers are coming to town, and while at one time they would have been a high profile opponent, now they elicit a shrug.  As the game unfolds on Sunday, be sure to watch:

1.  Watch the same old formula.  Yes, yes, we know the 49ers are starting Alex Smith, but you know Mike Singletary wants to run the ball, control the clock, keep Manning off….blah, blah, blah.  It’s what every team wants to do to the Colts, and perhaps the only difference is that the 49ers want to do it to every team they play.  Their goals have to include 150 yards rushing, forcing Indy into 2 turnovers and being plus 10 minutes in ToP.  Yawn.  Go ask Jacksonville and Miami how that strategy worked for them.

2.  Watch the #1 overall picks.  Saying that Peyton Manning and Alex Smith are similar because they were both selected first overall in the draft is like saying they are similar because they are both human males.  The last time Smith regularly saw the field (2007), he averaged 4.7 YPA and completed less than 50% of his passes.  While it’s true that the 49ers are a better overall team now than they were then, there is no reason to expect Smith to instantly make the San Francisco offense formidable.  On the other hand, Manning is Manning.  This game presents a microcosm of the risk/reward of taking a QB #1 overall.  If you hit it right, you are a contender for a decade. If you miss, well the 49ers record is 26-45 since drafting Smith.

3.  Watch the active list.  Reggie Wayne didn’t practice much all week, but Bill Polian said he’d likely play on Sunday.  Now Dwight Freeney and Foster have shown up as questionable as well.  While it’s true that Indy has gotten good production from the other WRs, trading Reggie Wayne for Hank Baskett is bad swap.  If Indy is going to drop this game, it will be because Wayne and Freeney doesn’t play, and the offense never gets untracked, and the defense can’t apply pressure.  Both might come down to a game time decision, so keep your eyes on who Indy activates Sunday.

4.  Watch Vernon Davis verses Gary Brackett.  Davis has blossomed this season under Singletary’s firm hand.  He leads the 49ers in catches, yards, and touchdowns.  Indy will counter with tight end kryptonite Gary Brackett.  Brackett was involved in a lot of blitzes early in the season, but hopefully, Coyer will find someone else to bring the pressure.  Watch for Brackett and Sanders/Bullitt to clamp down on Davis and neuter the Niner attack.

5.  Watch the rookie struggle.  Michael Crabtree had a respectable first game against the Texans last week, though the 49ers were playing from behind most of the game against the 27th ranked Texans pass defense (by DVOA).  The Colts D is appreciably better (5th).  Watch for Crabtree to have no more than 3 meaningful catches, though he might snare a few in garbage time.

6.  Watch the workload. Don Brown is doubtful, so Joe Addai won’t be getting many breathers.  It was interesting to see the reaction of the “Hate Joe” brigade to Brown’s injury.  They were pleading for him to come back already.  If Addai had gotten hurt on the other hand, they would have called him fragile.  Injuries are only held against the player if his name is Addai or Sanders, apparently.  Addai could top 25 carries Sunday for the first time since the New England game in 2007, especially if the Colts get off to a lead.

7.  Watch the healthy trend.  Jim Caldwell and Mike Singletary represent a new wave of black head coaches.  That is to say, neither had to interview for the job.  Caldwell was selected as to be the Colts’ next head coach before Dungy was out the door.  Singletary was the 49ers linebackers coach, and was promoted to head coach when Mike Nolan was fired.  Both men did many interviews in other cities, but were ultimately hired on the basis of their tenure and job performance where they were.  The point isn’t to laud that method of hiring a coach, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.  The point is that now African-American assistants are becoming part of the ‘old boys’ network’ at least in some cities.  The Rooney rule helped these men be seen as legitimate candidates for jobs, and so their teams had little trouble convincing the fan bases to accept them with open arms.

8.  Watch the Zombie. As long as Halloween night doesn’t wear him out, Bob Sanders will be looking to feast come Sunday afternoon.  Sanders seemed displeased with his performance last week, and an angry Bob Sanders is a sight to behold.  The 49ers will bring a heavy dose of Frank Gore, so it’s imperative that Bob have a big game.  We’re betting that he will.

9.  Watch the underrated guy who is overrated. Frank Gore got a big rep as being one of those “great players no one knows” guys for his 2006 season.  The problem is that he’s never really been that good again.  FO had him at 24th and 25th in DVOA the last two years, and now he’s actually well below replacement level.  Gore had a huge 207 yard game verses the Seahawks, but has battled injuries and hasn’t topped 32 yards in any of his other games this year.  The 49ers other back, Glen Coffee averages just 2.5 YPA and has a DVOA of -43%.  The 49ers are actually one of the worst running teams in football, despite their reputation.

10. Watch for damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  One of the silliest ways to figure out a team’s strength is to worry about the record of the teams they’ve played.  San Francisco is 3-3.  That means that if Indy wins on Sunday, they won’t have beaten a “quality opponent” because the 49ers will be 3-4.  If they lose, however, the 49ers go to 4-3, and Indy will have lost to a “quality opponent”.  There’s just no way for the Colts to look good using that metric.  Similarly, if the Jags beat the Titans, all of a sudden the Colts’ win in week one becomes a quality win.  If the Jags lose, Indy gets no credit.  Of course the irony is that that game was played two months ago, and nothing that happens on Sunday changes anything that took place on the field.  Perception is not reality.

11.  Watch for sleepy eyes.  We know the Horse got a raw deal when they had to play back to back night road games, but that gave Indy a break too.  The 49ers and Seahawks had to come East this year, and both games were scheduled for 1 PM.  Given that West Coast teams rarely win when forced to come East and play at 1, in this case the schedule favored the Colts. Perhaps the advantage will be mitigated slightly by daylight savings time ending Saturday night.  The 49ers will get an extra hour of rest.  I’m thinking that’s not going to save them come Sunday.

12.  Watch the replay board at the Luke.  Invariably, it will replay highlights from 1995 when San Fransisco played in Indianapolis.  The game made our list of “Best Colts’ games” at number 17.  It was a huge win that included a goal line stand and a gave winning field goal.  If you are in attendance on Sunday, it’ll surely be “Today’s Colts’ History Moment brought to you by Hoffmeister Jewelry” or whatever they are calling it these days.

13.  Listen for noise. It’s time for the Luke to start growing up.  I’m convinced that the notion that Lucas Oil Stadium isn’t as loud as the Dome had more to do with the general depression from the crowd last year.  Indy lost the first two games played there, and all season it felt like catch up time.  The Colts had no big games at home down the stretch, and this year there have only been two home games (the Jags and Seahawks).  Now, the Colts are rolling, optimism is high, and we have three straight home games that will help define the season.  It’s time to make some noise, people.  If by the end of this run (which will hopefully culminate in a a nice 11 game home win streak) the Luke still hasn’t popped any ear drums, I’ll accept that it just isn’t a loud building.

14.  Watch for something that means nothing.  16 straight wins means jack crap because of the loss in San Diego.  Last year’s team was last year’s team, and what they did was impressive given their talent and injuries, but you won’t see us doing any dances over 16 consecutive regular season wins.  Such things don’t matter. I’ll be more pumped over three straight wins the next three weeks.

15.  Watch for bizarro world. 15 years ago, had you said that one day the 49ers would be counted among the dregs of the NFL unable to develop a quarterback, and that the Colts would be one of the NFL’s best teams every year lead by a guy who may be called the greatest ever before he is done, most people would have burned you at the stake for witchcraft and madness.  People did that kind of thing 15 years ago.  You have no idea how primitive the world was back then.  Still, that insane future has become our reality.  That will teach you not to burn crazy witches!  Murderers.

16.  Watch the blitz.  Smith hasn’t played in a while, so Indy may try to force him into quick (re: bad) decisions by bringing extra pressure.  The Indy blitz has been a very mixed bag this year despite being tabbed as the ‘easy answer’ for why the defense has played so well (the real answer is: health).  If the 49ers can pick up the pressure, they will be able to extend drives.  If the Colts can rattle Smith into throwing to the guys in blue, the game could get out of hand quickly.

17.  Watch the cloud of rubbery particles. The 49ers have a stout run defense that ranks among the best in football.  Indy’s rushing goals on Sunday will be modest:  3.5 yards a carry and some first down conversions and a touch down would be a solid effort against a stout front four.

18.  Watch for a big win. Stylistically and talent wise Indy is the superior team.  They never fall for trap games and won’t be caught looking ahead to Houston, NE, and Baltimore.  DZ says it’s not close.  Indy 35 SF 10.  Demond looks for a comfortable 28-17 victory.