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.
San Francisco 49ers
|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|
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|
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.
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.
|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
Who(Visually): Jim Nantz and Phil Simms
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.
49ers – 35, Colts – 17