ReFo: Colts @ 49ers, Week 3
Ben Stockwell takes you inside the Colts' big win over the 49ers, a game which could launch their entire season.
ReFo: Colts @ 49ers, Week 3
Both these teams needed to answer the bell after suffering critical Week 2 defeats to derail the momentum gained in Week 1. While the Indianapolis Colts answered that call and rebounded emphatically with a statement victory, the San Francisco 49ers are now reeling from a sucker punch that leaves them two games adrift in the NFC West.
After an uncharacteristically poor performance on both sides of the ball, the 49ers now find themselves with a losing record for the first time since 2010, and in need of answers to score points having notched just 10 in their two defeats to the Seahawks and Colts. Their usually stout run defense was worn down by a persistent rather than dominant Colts’ ground game, and their own running game was under used after showing the ability to get big gains against the Colts early in the game.
For the Colts, this is a huge victory and could be a turning point in a season that had stuttered out of the blocks with an unconvincing victory over the Raiders and a home defeat to the Dolphins. They started with a quick-hitting, clinical drive on offense and then came out with urgency on defense, turfing the 49ers off the field in three plays with four defenders getting to Kendall Hunter short of the markers (admittedly including two missed tackles) on that initial third-down stop. Their urgency and intent got its reward in the fourth quarter with the two late touchdowns that clinched a victory to ignite their season.
Indianapolis – Three Performances of Note
Fast Start Sets the Colts on Their Way
The Colts’ clinical opening drive set their tempo and urgency for the game, and established an early lead thanks to a dream start for Trent Richardson on his first carry for Indianapolis. Of their eight plays, they dropped back to pass six times and didn’t give the 49ers a chance to establish their pass rush and knock Andrew Luck off his game early. Of those six drop-backs, Luck had the ball out of his hands in less than two seconds three times, and didn’t hold it longer than three seconds once. Capping-off that quick passing, the Colts’ run blockers then made life easy for Richardson on his first carry, clearing a path such that he wasn’t touched before the goal line to put the Colts up 7-0 before four minutes of game time had elapsed. The Colts weren’t quite so clinical again until the fourth quarter, but the 49ers’ defense never really looked like it was getting to grips with its opponents – particularly up front where you would have expected them to have the upper hand.
Holding Their Own Up Front
The Colts’ offensive line hasn’t made the strides thus far this season that would have been hoped from them, but in what will be one of their toughest tests of the season they come out with their heads held high, in spite of being without two of their opening-day starters. After his rough start against Lamarr Houston in Week 1, Anthony Castonzo built upon his strong showing last week with another solid all-around showing (+4.0 overall), conceding just three hurries (one nullified) and providing consistently solid run blocking on defensive linemen and linebackers alike. While Jeff Linkenbach (-4.1) was the one lineman to really struggle, the rest were solid or better and they also got some good blocking out of Joe Reitz (+1.5 run block) when he was brought in as an extra blocker. You’ll see more dominant offensive line showings than this elsewhere this season, but for this Colts’ offensive line to hold its own, if not edge the battle, against the 49ers’ defensive front will be one of the more notable and surprising results of the season.
New One-Two Punch Starts Well
Doing the leg work behind that offensive line was the Colts’ new 1-2 punch at running back, with Ahmad Bradshaw leading the way from the newly acquired Trent Richardson in terms of carries, receptions, and yards. Having arrived in Indianapolis toward the end of the week this was not too surprising, and Bradshaw took his opportunity to illustrate why he was such a smart and frugal signing by the Colts during the offseason. Bradshaw made the most of his carries and the blocking he got, and maximized those yards with three missed tackles to get close to a 100-yard game. Bradshaw separated himself most from Richardson though this week in his work in the passing game. While Richardson failed to snag any of the three passes sent his way, and let up a hit in pass protection, Bradshaw was, as ever, flawless in pass protection and brought in all three targets — which included one third-down conversion. As Richardson gets more comfortable in the offense it will be interesting to see if he takes over the lions’ share of snaps (39 to 28 in favor of Bradshaw yesterday).
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Still Lacking That Spark
In the latter half of the 2012 NFL season we got used to seeing explosive plays from the 49ers’ offense from all over the field. Watching them the past two weeks you would be excused for thinking that you weren’t looking at the same team. Certainly the loss of Michael Crabtree, so influential in the second half of last season, hurts the team but the offense in the past two weeks has just looked devoid of the threat to hit an opposing defense at any point on the field. Colin Kaepernick’s (-3.3) only completion on a pass targeted 10+ yards downfield came to Garrett Celek late in the fourth quarter with the game already dead, and his receivers couldn’t break a short pass into a longer gain to spark the offense. With the 49ers erring away from the ground game, they looked short of the big play that might have thrust them back into the matchup.
Stifling 49er Defense AWOL
Having been so dominant, so consistently, for so long, we should probably excuse the San Francisco defense for this down day. It wasn’t universal, but it was strange to see this defense so off form. Up front there were solid displays from Ray McDonald (+1.9), Glenn Dorsey (+1.2), and Ahmad Brooks (+1.3) but behind them there were more down performances from the 49ers in one game than you’d expect to see combined in a month. Both Justin Smith (-2.0 run defense) and NaVorro Bowman (-2.9 run defense) were uncharacteristically poor against the ground game, as were reserve linemen Tony Jerod-Eddie (-2.5) and linebacker Michael Wilhoite (-2.1). Meanwhile, Aldon Smith (-1.5 pass rush) chipped in with only two pressures (one sack, one hurry) in a sub-par pass rushing display. Making things worse, rookie safety Eric Reid registered three missed tackles, and both corners struggled in coverage, with Tarell Brown committing three penalties. The 49ers’ defense was poor yesterday, but should we expect this to continue? No, this is a one-off and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised to see a big bounce-back performance on Thursday night in St. Louis.
The Forgotten Ground Game
The most puzzling aspect of this game is that the 49ers were in this contest, on the scoreboard at least, for so long and yet they didn’t choose to just send a heavy dose of the ground game at the Colts to try and power their way back. On only 11 carries, Frank Gore racked up 82 yards, with 60 of those coming before contact. Alex Boone (+3.1 run block) and Bruce Miller (+2.0 run block) had big games on limited opportunities, as did Kendall Hunter. On their combined 15 carries, Gore (+1.9 running) and Hunter (+0.7 running) forced five missed tackles. The Colts got some stops in early, but even considering that, in such a close game with a struggling passing attack the 49ers’ ground game was conspicuous with its relative absence this week.
– For the third straight week inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (+3.4 overall) registered four stops for the Colts on defense.
– After being shutout in Week 1, Ahmad Brooks added five stops to his nine from last week, taking his season total to 14 after three games. Aldon Smith (with six yesterday) is second on the 49ers’ defense with 13.
– Andrew Luck was pressured on 10 of his 30 drop-backs. He was 18 of 19 for 164 yards when not pressured, with one scramble. When the 49ers got pressure on him he went 0 of 8 with one scramble and one sack.
PFF Game Ball
One of the league’s better all-around backs, Ahmad Bradshaw proved his worth this week and should be extremely useful as the Colts get Trent Richardson up to speed in their offense.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.