3TFO: Colts @ 49ers, Week 3
In one of the best matchups of Week 3, the Colts travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers in what should be an exciting and competitive inter-conference game. The 49ers are licking their wounds and looking to bounce back after a miserable trip to Seattle last Sunday, taking a big early hit in the NFC West standings.
Likewise, Indianapolis is also looking to get back in the win column after a close home loss against Miami. In an effort to bolster their running game, they made a huge mid-week move, trading a first round pick to Cleveland for Trent Richardson. Coach Chuck Pagano has confirmed that Richardson will play, though it’s unclear how much and what impact he’ll have against a stout run defense.
Richardson aside, let’s examine a few of the other intriguing matchups and storylines to keep an eye on.
Stopping the Smiths
With pass rush so integral in today’s pass-happy NFL, it’s always interesting to watch one of the heavy-weights go at it, as is the case in this matchup. After containing one of the league’s best pass rushers a week ago in Cameron Wake, the Colts will face another enormous challenge up front in Aldon Smith. And while Gosder Cherilus had the primary responsibility of blocking Wake, this week it’s left tackle Anthony Castonzo who’ll have to keep Andrew Luck clean of Aldon and Justin Smith, both of whom line up on the defensive right side more than 80% of the time – 100% in the case of Justin.
After a putrid opening performance in Week 1, Castonzo bounced back nicely versus Miami, surrendering just one pressure, though it was against a relative non-threat in Olivier Vernon. This week he’ll have to block someone who’s been held to one pressure just four times in his career (39 games) and has never been shut out. And Aldon’s been on fire so far this season with 14 combined sacks, hits, and hurries – his 19.2 Pass Rushing Productivity rating is first among 3-4 OLBs – with some solid run defense as well.
Left guard Hugh Thornton will also be a player to focus on, given that he graded at -3.3 with five allowed pressures after replacing the injured Donald Thomas a week ago. Though bad, his one-on-one blocking isn’t the only concern; communication will also be critical between Thorton and Castonzo, especially when facing the Smith stunts that have been so ruthlessly effective for San Francisco. Indianapolis won’t get much help from its new acquisition at running back in this matchup either, as Richardson has given up the most pressures (five) of any running back through two games. Fortunately, though, they also have one of the very best pass protecting running backs in Ahmad Bradshaw, who’ll certainly be asked to provide help to Castonzo and Thornton.
Fleener vs. 49ers Pass Defense
The Colts suffered a blow this week with the announcement that tight end Dwayne Allen was done for the year with hip injury. Allen finished last season as our second-highest graded TE on the back of some outstanding play as a blocker. His injury means it’s time to step up for fellow second year player Coby Fleener, who wasn’t able to translate his chemistry with his college QB into production in his rookie year – he caught just 29 passes and got to the end zone just twice while dropping four passes. Fleener’s outlook could be improving though, after being thrown at seven times against the Dolphins, averaging 17 yards on his four catches, one of which went for a touchdown – and he caught a second TD that was called back.
Two of the players tasked with covering the Colts tight end will be ILBs Patrick Willis and Novarro Bowman, both of whom are among the league’s best linebackers in coverage. It’s worth looking at how the duo performed against another talented tight end in Week 1, Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley. The Packer caught four passes in six targets with either Bowman or Willis in primary coverage. Those throws came just 2.3 yards downfield on average, but he managed to gain 44 yards and two first downs on his receptions. It will be interesting to see how the 49ers fare against Fleener, who’s been targeted 9.7 yards downfield on average this season, particularly on crosses and other routes in the middle of the field. Though against such a strong pass rush, the Colts will likely be throwing to Fleener closer to the LOS.
Under Jim Harbaugh the 49er offense has been based on the power running game – even with the introduction of Colin Kaepernick and read option concepts last season. A rushing attack that averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season has been held to just 3.5 YPC in the first two games. The team didn’t need it in Week 1, with Kaepernick lighting up Green Bay’s secondary for 400 yards passing, but it showed up in a big way Sunday night in Seattle, as the 49ers were held to just 34 yards on 16 designed runs. Frank Gore has had a particular rough go of it, averaging 2.0 YPC with a long run of eight yards in the two games. He’s certainly been doing all he can despite the lack of running room, as he’s forced four missed tackles.
The bigger concern may be the play of the offensive line, which has been the league’s best run blocking unit the last two seasons. No player has had a worse start to his season than LT Joe Staley, our top graded tackle a season ago, who was abused by Red Bryant and the Seattle front. Among others, FB Bruce Miller and rookie TE Vance McDonald have also had their share of struggles creating any room in the running game.
The good news is the Colts don’t have the same imposing front that the Seahawks do; though the same can probably be said about the Packers. They’ve done reasonably well the past two weeks, led by Cory Redding on the interior line and Pat Angerer at the second level. They held the Dolphins to a long run of 14 yards and an average of 3.7 yards per rush a week ago, and have held running backs to just under that mark in both games combined, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for Gore – though that would raise his average on the year. What does bode well for the 49ers is that Terrelle Pryor went off in Week 1, gaining 52 yards on 7 designed runs and reeling off another 50 yards on scrambles. Given that Kaepernick is every bit the runner that Pryor is, and the 49ers OL is stronger even if they haven’t shown it, it will be a tough task for the Colts to stop the 49er QB. And who knows, if the Colts focus on stopping the QB, things may open up for Gore and the power running game to get on track.
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