Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts at 49ers, NFL Week 3

 

[Editor's note: this article was written before the Trent Richardson trade. There will be many words written about that trade. Absolutely none of them will appear in this article]
 
It was recently brought to my attention by a fine lad of great repute that one could not be a Colts fan while simultaneously being negative about the Colts. Wanting more than anything to be a Colts fan, I took this message to heart and have made the necessary adjustments to my attitude so that henceforth I shall be known not only as a Colts fan but as the GREATEST of Colts fans.
 

Last week the Colts put forth the best performance of their 30-year history in Indianapolis. While they still lost, this wasn't a bad thing, no, it should be seen by anyone with a brain, as a great thing. Teams as good as the Colts often lose focus when dealing with the "little people" of the NFL. While the Colts sights are set on their 25th-consecutive Super Bowl title, it's easy to slip up against teams like the Miami Dolphins. The Colts Week 2 loss will serve as a reminder that, even though it's almost a given that they'll be battling for the Lombardi in February, they won't be able to just sleepwalk their way to New York.
 

Now properly awakened from their slumber, the Colts travel west to take on the team who lost in last year's Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers. The combination of the 49ers' powerful offense and their stifling defense might lead many to the conclusion that this will be a tough match-up for the Colts, but come on, really? Have you seen the Colts inconsistent defense and their still-searching-for-an-identity offense? If this isn't a cakewalk for the Colts that sees Matt Hasselbeck sunbathing in the pocket mid-way through the 3rd quarter, then I'll be a monkey's 839829-times great uncle, twice removed.

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and 49ers measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis. 

 

Indianapolis Colts

   

San Francisco 49ers

 
  Offense Defense   Offense Defense
Passing 19th (16th) 16th (14th)   18th (14th) 10th (27th)
Rushing 5th (2nd) 29th (30th)   17th (24th) 24th (24th)
Total 15th (4th) 23rd (24th)   18th (22nd) 13th (28th)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense San Francisco 49ers Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 91 DT R. McDonald
80 TE C. Fleener 90 NT G. Dorsey
74 LT A. Castonzo 94 DT J. Smith
69 LG H. Thornton 55 OLB A. Brooks
64 C S. Satele 53 ILB N. Bowman
75 RG M. McGlynn 52 ILB P. Willis
78 RT G. Cherilus 99 OLB A. Smith
81 WR D. Heyward-Bey 22 CB C. Rogers
12 QB A. Luck 31 SS D. Whitner
39 FB S. Havili 35 FS E. Reid
44 RB A. Bradshaw 25 CB T. Brown

 
I believe that the key to a healthy writer/blogger-reader relationship is honesty. While I will try to make you laugh with the occasional over-the-top reference or a Blaine Gabbert joke, the underlying theme of everything I write is: it's my honest opinion. Now, I try to back that opinion up with something: stats, corroborating evidence, photos, etc… but I never just throw something out there to get a rise out of you.
 

So when I sat down to write today's Hitchhiker's Guide, I was going to write about Pep Hamilton's offense and how, though I've been a harsh critic of his, I was starting to come around on some of his concepts, though I continued to question many of his personnel groupings.

Take, for example, one of Hamilton's fullback concepts: Hamilton will occasionally motion FB Stanley Havili from the backfield to a split-wide position. His reasoning is that the defense will move a player from the box and create better running lanes. Against the Dolphins, this worked against him, in my opinion, as the Dolphins followed Havili with a cornerback, not a linebacker. The end result is a formation that is weak against the run (no fullback presence) and a passing match-up (CB vs FB) that favors the defense. But what if you replaced Havili at FB with TE Dwayne Allen? Now, however the defense decides to respond to the motion, the Colts will be creating a favorable match-up.
 

That is just one example of how I felt Pep Hamilton's concepts would be viable with better usage of his personnel. Unfortunately, the news that Allen would miss the remainder of the year was a big blow to both my writing and Hamilton's ability to better-use his personnel to fit his scheme.
 

And in keeping with the honesty theme: it's hard to write immediately after hearing the news about Allen. He is, in my mind, the second-most important player on the offense. There is no one on the Colts offense who can do what Dwayne Allen does. He's a TE, yes, but he's also a 6th-OL when the team needs blocking. He can be a fullback. He can be an h-back. He can be the TE. He can catch short passes. He will, in my opinion, develop into one of the most-dangerous red zone targets in the NFL. Coby Fleener will finish his career with better receiving totals. TEs Dominique Jones and Justice Cunningham (or a 6th OL, like Joe Reitz) can come close to replacing his blocking. But no single person can come in and do everything that Dwayne Allen does. So his injury is an enormous blow to an offense I once felt could be one of the top-5 units in the entire league.
 

Now, the focus turns to the Colts. How do they react to the loss of Dwayne Allen? Against the Dolphins, they reacted by playing Jones and Havili on nearly 40% of the offensive snaps. That plan kind of made sense if they wanted to continue to run their normal offense with Allen expected to return in week 3, but with the news now that Allen won't return at all, the team MUST run fewer 2-TE and FB sets in favor of more 3-WR groupings.

It is wonderful that Hamilton had a scheme, a vision in mind for the Colts. But the fact is, as the Colts have been telling us all year, the NFL is about winning, and it's easier to win with your best players on the field. Right now, Reggie Wayne, TY Hilton, DHB, and Coby Fleener are your four-best offensive weapons. If they don't fit in your scheme, to hell with your scheme. A great coach understands that it's about players, not plays. This is the talent you have. Fit your scheme, your vision, to work with them.

A failure to do so will cost the Colts wins, on Sunday and in the future.

What I'm watching for, offense:

1) Life without Dwayne – Sunday will be the first game where the team knew they'd be without Dwayne Allen for the rest of the year. Do they adapt? If so, how? And more concerning, if they don't, why not? Having the best scheme (offensive or defensive) doesn't matter if you don't have the players to run it.

2) Don't waste your 2nd (half) chance to make a good impression – My friend and colleague, Kyle Rodriguez, pointed out a pretty disturbing stat: the Colts have never scored more than 7 points in the second half of a Chuck Pagano-coached game. I know this is a huge stat, but I'm not 100% sure what it's telling me just yet. Are the Colts becoming too conservative in the 2nd half? Are they failing to make halftime adjustments? Is it a coaching issue? A player issue? I don't know. Hopefully the Colts find a way to end the trend, and soon.

3) Formation Mania – Per 1070's Conrad Brunner: the Colts have run a formation with 0 or 1 WR 26 times in the first two weeks. Those plays have gained, on average, 4.1 yards. Every other play has gained an average of 6.2 yards. Those formations are fine in short-yardage and goal line situations, but the Colts are running them in the course of their normal offensive game plan. It's gotta stop. Please, for the love of all that is holy, STOP removing the weapons from Luck's arsenal, stop telegraphing runs through formations, stop pretending to be a power running team.

When the 49ers have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense San Francisco 49ers Offense
90 DE C. Redding 10 WR K. Williams
97 NT A. Franklin 74 LT J. Staley
99 DT RJ. Francois 77 LG M. Iupati
93 OLB E. Walden 59 C J. Doodwin
51 ILB P. Angerer 75 RG A. Boone
50 ILB J. Freeman 76 RT A. Davis
98 OLB R. Mathis 85 TE V. Davis
28 CB G. Toler 81 WR A. Boldin
30 FS L. Landry 7 QB C. Kaepernick
41 SS A. Bethea 49 FB B. Miller
23 CB V. Davis 21 RB F. Gore

When the Colts defense takes the field on Sunday, they'll be looking into the abyss a mirror. Sort of. You know what I mean. An offense led by a young QB with a strong arm and dynamic legs, a freak of nature at TE, and an ageless WR who seems to always make the catches his team needs. In fact, there are really only two key differences between the 49ers offense and that of the Colts: 1) the 49ers feature one of the best OLs in the NFL and 2) the 49ers coaching staff, despite the presence of a dominating OL and a great group of RBs, has decided that they want to have a balanced offense with a dynamic passing attack.
 
So how will the 49ers attack the Colts? While they will certainly have a plethora of options at their disposal, I believe they'll open with a bit of the read-option. While the damage done by the Raiders' read-option in week 1 was largely overblown, the Colts did struggle with Terrelle Pryor's athleticism, so I believe the 49ers will come out with a game plan that allows Kaepernick to use his athleticism to maximum efficiency, unless/until the Colts show they can stop it.
 
That means the Colts, both players and coaches, will have to stay disciplined. For the players, mind your keys and stay at home. Robert Mathis and Erik Walden must not get drawn inside by the running back. If they do, Kaepernick will simply pull the ball away from his RB, dart outside, and pick up a healthy chunk of yards before a defender can reach him. The same is true for the ILBs and safeties: be mindful of the run, but don't get sucked into the mass-of-humanity at the line of scrimmage, only to see the QB scamper for an 80-yard touchdown. The read-option is so successful because it introduces another offensive threat (the QB's legs) to every play. It truly pushes a defense's ability to read and react to the limit. It's beautiful. It's dangerous.
 
Where does patience come in for the coaches? Against the Raiders, we saw the Colts get more and more aggressive with their blitzes as the game wore on. And as they blitzed, Pryor exploited them. Kaepernick, who is better than Pryor in every way, would simply do a better job of exploiting the Colts aggressive play-calling. Sure, a passive game plan may yield some easier completions for the 49ers, but easier does not necessarily equal more-productive. I believe by playing passive, by forcing Kaepernick to stay in the pocket and go through his reads, the Colts can better defend him than by blitzing and simplifying his decision-making process.
 
Outside of Kaepernick, the Colts back-7 – which has struggled covering TEs so far this year – will have their hands full with TE Vernon Davis. Davis, a top-5 TE in the NFL, is a dangerous mixture of speed, size, power, and athleticism. There are few players – and none of them play for the Colts – who are equipped to cover him one-on-one, so stopping Davis will be a group effort, though a few big hits from safeties Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry might dissuade Davis from happily catching passes in the middle of the field.
 
And then there's WR Anquan Boldin. Not as fast as he was when he broke into the league, Boldin is still a tough match-up for any CB. Physical, tough, and armed with an unbreakable will, Boldin is one of the best 3rd-down and goal line weapons in the league. Whichever Colts CB draws this assignment, their primary focus with Boldin should be limiting Boldin's damage after the catch. Given his size and strength, Boldin excels at breaking arm tackles and extending plays. The Colts must bring him down, and bring him down quick, if they want to keep the score close enough for their offense to have a chance late.
 
Whatever the 49ers decide to do on Sunday: run, pass, watch the Mark Sanchez Comedy Hour while drinking Mai Tai's on the beach, they'll likely find success. The Colts defense simply lacks the kind of players along the defensive line required to attack the QB without the need for coverage-compromising blitzes. But if they can fight their urge to be aggressive, if they can force Kaepernick to stay in the pocket and beat them with his arm maybe – JUST MAYBE – they can find a way to win this one late.

What I'm watching for, defense:

1. For whom the bell Tolers – CB Greg Toler was one of the most-heralded signings of the off-season. Many said he was the perfect fit for Chuck Pagano's defense. So far, Toler has had, well, an uneven time with the Colts. Sure, there have been some exciting plays, but he's also been burned more than a few times. Unless a magical lamp falls out of Andrew Luck's neckbeard in the next few days, the Colts aren't going to magically have a dominant pass rush, which means Toler is going to have to be better in one-on-one situations. He'll get a big test in that department this week, whenever he's forced to lineup across from Anquan Boldin. If Toler can't right the ship and play up to expectations, the Colts defense is going to continue to look as lost and ineffective as it did for periods against the Dolphins.

2. Bjoern to be Wildddddddddd – I don't like Erik Walden. As a player. I'm sure he's an awesome person. In fact, let's give him the Nobel Peace Prize this Sunday and force him to accept it in person. Walden was brought in specifically to set the edge. Against the Dolphins, the only edge involved was the one his play sent me over. 

I realize it probably takes more than 2 games to figure out what you have in a player, but let's be honest: Ryan Grigson is the only person who thought Erik Walden was worth a 4-year, $16MM deal in the first place. The player we've seen these first two weeks is the player Walden has been for most of his career. So while there's a slight chance he turns it around, I'd rather give the starting job to rookie Bjoern Werner. Yea, I know, he's a rookie. And yes, I know, Werner is no better at setting the edge than Walden. But Werner IS a competent pass rusher and Werner WILL get better in all facets of the game. Why not let him start improving now? While there's still a chance to save my sanity.

Keys to the game (Besides outscoring your opponent)

1. Protect Luck (For the third-consecutive week!) - This should be a given for every team, every week, so I considered dropping it from this (and subsequent) week's Hitchhiker's Guide. But honestly, this is, in my mind, the biggest key to victory for the Colts, week-in and week-out. If they can keep Luck upright and relatively pressure-free, they will win more than they lose. If they can't do that, it'll be a long season. Well, not really any longer than normal, it'll just feel longer, because the human brain processes painful, depressing moments slower than it processes joyful, happy moments. That's why Blaine Gabbert feels 60 years old.

The Colts pass protection was slightly worse between week 1 and  week 2, though that's to be somewhat expected given the absence of TE Dwayne Allen and the in-game injury to LG Donald Thomas. Against the Raiders, Luck was pressured on 38.7% of his drop backs. Against the Dolphins, that number jumped to 44%.

To better understand how Luck is affected by pressure, let's take a deeper look at the numbers.

Luck finished the game a respectable 25 of 43 (58.1%) for 321 yards (7.5yards/attempt) with 1 TD, 1 INT, for a QBRating of 79.7. He was also sacked 3 times and hit an additional 6.

His stats against the blitz, as they did against the Raiders, should serve as a warning to teams: if you're going to blitz Luck, you'd better hit your target – Luck was 12 of 19 (63.2%) for 200 yards (10.5yards/attempt) and a 98.6 QBrating when the Dolphins blitzed.

And now for the set of stats that will fully tell the story, Andrew Luck under pressure: 7 of 16 (43.8%) for 131 yards (8.2yards/attempt), 1 TD, 1 INT, 3 sacks (67.4QBRating). When the Dolphins pressured Luck, Luck – as most quarterbacks do – struggled.

Now, while most of this – in my opinion – falls on the offensive line, Luck needs to shoulder some of the blame. There were times when he held on to the ball too long. There were times when he seemed unsure where he wanted to go with the ball. And there were times when Luck looked indecisive, especially when it came to scrambling. Does the latter fall on the coaching staff, who have publicly said they feel Luck runs too much? I can't say for sure, but I doubt it helps.

Against a 49ers defense that features Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Aldon Smith, everyone – the OL, the tight ends, the running backs, and, yes, Andrew Luck – will need to put in their best performances of the year if the Colts offense is going to neutralize the pass rush and have a big game.

2. Be like water (on offense) – "Empty  your mind. Be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip OR CRASH. Be water, my friend" – Bruce Lee
 

Too often during the 2013 season – including the preseason – I've felt that the Colts offense was rigid, inflexible. They wanted to be one thing all the time, instead of whatever was needed for a specific time. They want to be a tough, physical, power running offense, despite having the personnel suited to be a dynamic passing attack.
 

The news that TE Dwayne Allen will miss the rest of this season only exacerbates this point. Do the Colts want to continue having TE Dominique Jones, who is significantly worse than Allen – no disrespect to Jones intended, but Allen was on his way to being a top-5 TE in the NFL – continue to play the Allen role? Jones played 38% of the offensive snaps on Sunday, and not just in running situations or formations: he lined up split wide on multiple occasions and his drop turned out to be a major turning point in the game.

Along those same lines, do they continue to play FB Stanley Havili nearly 40% of the time, in an effort to be that "power running team" who physically imposes its will on opposing defenses?

Even without Allen – who seemed to be put on Earth specifically for the Pep Hamilton offense – the Colts have enough weapons to field an incredibly-dangerous offense. Will Hamilton and the Colts allow themselves to be more flexible in the coming weeks, or will they continue to try to fit a square peg into a round hole? If the Colts expand the roles of Jones and Havili, you'll have your answer. And it'll be depressing.

3. Don't blitz Kaepernick!!! - 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is well on his way to becoming a great player. After taking his team to the edge of winning a Super Bowl in 2012, many expect him to get over the hurdle (is it a hurdle when you're only 25 years old?) this year. But while he fits my prototype for the "future best QB in league history" – it's my personal belief that the next great QB will be one of these "next-gen" players who can extend plays with their legs when needed – he's not perfect.

With only 18 games under his belt in the NFL, few teams know Colin Kaepernick better than his NFC West division rival, the Seattle Seahawks. On Sunday, the Seahawks gave their opinion on how to best-handle Kaepernick and the 49ers offense: sit back and force Kaepernick to go through his progressions.

Kaepernick dropped back to pass 35 times on Sunday. His overall numbers were 13 of 28 (46.4%) for 127 yards (4.5yards/attempt), 0 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks, for a 20.1 QBRating. Of those 35 drop backs, the Seahawks blitzed 5 times. Kaepernick's numbers on those 5 blitzes? 3 of 4 (75%) for 45 yards (11.3yards/attempt) and a 111.5 QBRating.

The kicker here, of course, is that the Seahawks have a dominating defensive line, capable of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks without HAVING to blitz. The Colts, well, their defensive line is Blaine Gabbert. Still, the Colts would be better served running a more-passive game plan against the 49ers than they did against the Dolphins on Sunday when they dialed up the blitz on 36% of Tannehill's drop backs.

Think back to week 1: the Colts, desperate to stop Pryor and the Raiders offense, called more and more blitzes as the game went on. By the end of the game, they had blitzed on 43.2% of Pryor's drop backs. Pryor's stats against the blitz? 8 of 10 (80%) for 116 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 1 sack, and a rating of 148.3.  I mention Pryor because he's more comparable to Kaepernick than Tannehill. But Kaepernick is better than Pryor. And the 49ers' offensive line is better than that of the Raiders. In fact, everything about the 49ers offense is better than the Raiders.

And easier reads is not even the worst part of blitzing Kaepernick: forcing him out of the pocket is. Last year, Kaepernick carried the ball 63 times for 415 yards, 5 TDs and 18 1st-downs. While there's been more emphasis put on his passing this year, a heavy dose of blitzing from the defense would be just the motivation the 49ers need to let him run wild.

4. Make some big plays - When we talked about the Raiders in Week 1, we talked about how the underdog could make a game of it with big plays in special teams. Well, the Colts are the underdog this week, so the same logic now applies to them. But let's expand it beyond just special teams: yes, a big kick or punt return would be nice, but a big interception or fumble would also go a long way towards helping the Colts pull off the upset.

And don't stop there, the 49ers have a fierce pass rush, let's limit Luck's exposure to big hits by producing a few big plays on offense, too.

The Colts are going to need a few things to go their way on Sunday if they are going to get the win. A few big plays is the perfect way to get the upset ball rolling.

The injury reports

NOTE: This guide comes out Thursdays, official injury statuses are not released until Friday, the Probable or Questionable designation in these reports is based on Wed/Thur participation only.

Indianapolis Colts

LB Pat Angerer KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
S Antoine Bethea TOE (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Kavell Conner ANKLE (PROBABLE)
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey RIBS (PROBABLE)
WR TY Hilton GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)
S LaRon Landry ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
WR David Reed QUAD (QUESTIONABLE)
C Samson Satele ELBOW (PROBABLE)
WR Reggie Wayne SHOULDER (PROBABLE)

San Francisco 49ers

RB LaMichael Lames KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
TE Vernon Davis HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)
DT Ray McDonald BOTH ANKLES (QUESTIONABLE)
DT Justin Smith SHOULDER (QUESTIONABLE)
LB NaVorro Bowman WRIST (PROBABLE)
LB Aldon Smith BACK (PROBABLE)
G Mike Iupati SHOULDER (PROBABLE)
QB Colin Kaepernick FOOT (PROBABLE)


 

Series note and a video

  • The Colts and the 49ers have met 42. The Colts have a 24-18 series lead in those games.
  • Here is a video from the last time these two teams met:

 

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS

Who(Visually): Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Where(Audio): 1070 AM The Fan WFNI and 97.1 HANK FM

Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Jim Sorgi

Is the Game on in your area? Good question! The people at 506Sports will be able to tell you.

Prediction

49ers – 35, Colts – 17

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