Colts Win Ugly, Yet Satisfying
By Corbin Smith
The Indianapolis Colts 27-7 upset over the San Francisco 49ers was in no way, shape or form a pretty one, but Chuck Pagano will take any win he can get. Especially against a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick on the road.
For the second straight week, San Francisco got out-muscled in the trenches and sloppy play on offense left the defense on the field too frequently. As the game winded down, physical play by the Colts offensive line ended up wearing down a normally strong defensive team and helped break the game wide open with back-to-back touchdown drives.
While it's only one game and there's a lot of time left on the schedule, this contest could have a major impact on where these two teams stand come January. Indianapolis came to Candlestick following a turbulent week in which the team lost Dwayne Allen and Donald Thomas to season-ending injuries, while also making a major trade to bring Trent Richardson to town.
The 49ers, on the other hand, needed a strong bounce-back performance after getting pummeled in Seattle the previous week and also had to deal with an off-field circus created by star linebacker Aldon Smith. In the end, the Colts picked up a signature win in a tough environment to move to the top of the AFC South, and the 49ers already find themselves two games behind the Seahawks only a few weeks into the year.
The Colts needed this win, but San Francisco probably needed it even more. After watching the game and digging deeper into the box score, several things stood out as critical factors that led to an Indianapolis victory.
1. The Colts offensive line imposed its will on the 49ers stout front seven.
Indianapolis could've entered yesterday's contest hoping to win by airing it out, but they decided to play hard ball with a team that has recently been one of the most physical in the league. The Colts offensive line has been highly criticized for poor play during the team's first two games, but the unit made great strides this weekend and simply pushed the 49ers defense around. Even though Adam Vinatieri missed a 51 yard field goal during the opening minutes of the 4th quarter, that drive signaled a change in momentum as the Colts started winning big in the trenches. After forcing a quick three-and-out, Indianapolis took over and put together a methodical seven minute drive that broke the 49ers back and ended with a six yard touchdown run by Andrew Luck. Colin Kaepernick quickly fumbled and gave the football back to the Colts inside the 49ers 10 yard line, and Ahmad Bradshaw pounded the ball into the end zone three plays later as a clinching blow.
A much-maligned offensive line deserves all the credit for this win. The Colts came in with a game plan to pound the rock between the tackles against a tough defense, and after grinding out tough yardage during the first three quarters, big plays started to open up in the final quarter as the 49ers ran out of gas. Indianapolis managed to generate a push up front that had been absent for the most part in the prior two games, and Bradshaw took advantage by having a monster game. The ex-Giant finished with a healthy five yards per carry average and nearly eclipsed the century mark, giving the Colts great offensive balance, while Richardson found paydirt in his first action with the team. Pass protection also looked better, as left tackle Anthony Castonzo did an excellent job of protecting Luck's blindside and limiting Aldon Smith's output. Luck didn't have to carry the Colts on this day, and that's a great sign moving forward.
2. Indianapolis won the turnover battle and played a clean game offensively.
Turnovers have been a major problem for Indianapolis in recent weeks, but the Colts turned the corner yesterday in this department. Pagano's defense came out playing fast and aggressive, and the unit flustered Kaepernick all afternoon. The star quarterback completed only two passes in the first half, and his fumble after a Colts score ended up being the nail in the coffin for his team. With the game already well in hand, a late interception by Cassius Vaughn sealed the deal.
After throwing a costly interception late last week against Miami, Luck did a great job taking what the defense gave him yesterday. Although he only threw for 164 yards, he didn't try to force the football into coverage on too many occasions and did a solid job unloading the football before taking sacks. Ultimately, he did a great job managing the game, and the Colts went a full four quarters without giving away the football. When you don't turn the ball over in the NFL, you have a great chance of winning, and yesterday held to that theory.
3. Major improvements against the read-option keyed the defense.
Terrelle Pryor ran wild on the Colts on opening day, and Oakland nearly pulled off the upset thanks to his scrambling ability. Kaepernick has given opponents nightmares in the past as both a passer and a runner, and many thought he would cause major problems for the Colts defense. However, Indianapolis did a much better job flying to the football this week and Greg Manusky had his squad better prepared to stop the read-option. On several occasions, Kaepernick faked the handoff as a defensive end crashed down on Frank Gore and looked to run outside, but the Colts always had at least one player waiting for him.
Unable to do much with his legs, Kaepernick ended up forcing several throws and had to run out of bounds for losses on multiple plays. After tossing for over 400 yards against the Green Bay Packers on opening day, he's had two poor performances in a row and seems to have lost confidence. Teams have caught on to him being eager to tuck and run, and the Colts always appeared to be a step ahead of him yesterday. Kudos to Manusky for making adjustments after Pryor's big day two weeks ago and having his defensive unit ready to play.
4. San Francisco went away from what worked early, and the Colts took advantage.
Even though the final score makes this game look like a lopsided affair, San Francisco had plenty of opportunities to take the lead in the second half. Jim Harbaugh’s team appeared to have a major advantage running the football in the first half, but somehow, the game plan went away from utilizing Gore when the game was on the line. During San Francisco’s only scoring drive of the game, Gore and Kendall Hunter gashed Indy’s defense with several big gains on the ground, with Hunter culminating the drive with a dazzling 14 yard touchdown run.
After that drive, the 49ers went away from everything that worked on that possession. Gore became a decoy for the most part, while Hunter only had four carries the entire game. Kaepernick will take much of the blame for San Francisco’s offensive ineptitude, but Harbaugh’s staff should take plenty of criticism as well. The 49ers had a distinct advantage on the ground early and chose to get fancy by moving the ball through the air instead. It’s completely understandable why Gore left the field angry after being used sparingly in the second half. Indianapolis arrived well-prepared to contain the passing game, and once the 49ers moved away from the running game, the Colts dominated the rest of the afternoon.