Colts’ Opponent Preview: San Francisco 49ers
The Colts played in Seattle on Sunday Night Football, and they acquitted themselves fairly well, as the score was tied at 18 nearing the end of the third quarter. However, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks broke the game wide open as the Colts’ lack of depth showed, ending with a 46-18 final.
This week’s opponent also resides in the NFC West, but circumstances are far less dire. The San Francisco 49ers roll into Indianapolis with a winless record and a roster that is arguably among the worst in the league. Even better news is that center Ryan Kelly will make his first start of the season and a certain Andrew Luck (!!!) returned to practice this week. Luck will not play this week—or likely for several more weeks—but his debut is inching closer.
San Francisco made a surprising “splash” hire this offseason when they lured John Lynch out of the broadcasting booth and into their front office as general manager. Lynch then signed the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, as his new head coach. The men were each given six-year contracts, which is an eternity in NFL timelines, so 49ers ownership knows that this team is in for a long rebuild. They were able to get things started on a good foot during the draft this spring, stockpiling picks, and bringing in two of the highest-rated defensive players in the class (Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster). Those two are expected to build the foundation for this 4-3 under, single-high defense to thrive in coming years.
You may remember that Seattle runs this same defensive scheme, and San Francisco snagged Robert Saleh from the scrap heap in Jacksonville, where he coached under former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. The NFL is cyclical and incestuous (not in a perverse way, only in that coaching “family trees” don’t branch out very far). Saleh’s defense is less talented than Seattle’s (as almost every other defense in the league is), but they do have some nice building blocks. In addition to Thomas and Foster, San Francisco has a ginormous defensive line, with tackle DeForest Buckner and end Arik Armstead both measuring in at 6’7” 300. Safeties Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid are San Francisco’s version of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and they’re finding their way.
Offensively, Shanahan’s philosophy is to use multiple formations, motions, and personnel groupings to create matchup problems for opposing defenses. In Atlanta, he was able to do this with stunning efficiency, bringing Matt Ryan and the Falcons to the doorstep of a Super Bowl title. The cupboard in San Fran is a little less stocked, and the results are to be expected: quarterback Brian Hoyer is completing 58% of his passes with more interceptions than touchdowns. Wide receiver (and former Colt) Pierre Garcon is tough to cover, but he and running back Carlos Hyde are the only legitimate options through which the offense can run. If Hyde is healthy, he should scare the Colts. He is averaging almost five yards per carry and has broken three runs of 20+ yards already. He has also caught 17 passes for 88 yards.
Buckner has accrued 19 tackles already this year, which is pretty impressive from a defensive tackle. He could be very disruptive against the Colts’ still-in-flux offensive line, especially in the attempt to establish Frank Gore and the running game. While Buckner is not necessarily a pass rusher, he is disruptive and causes a lot of chaos inside. He needs to be accounted for.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is a bit of a wild card. Shanahan wanted him specifically for the role that Patick DiMarco filled in Atlanta: a run blocking, pass catching, ass kicking fullback (isn’t that all fullbacks? But I digress). While he has only rushed twice for eight yards and caught six passes for 66 yards, he is more vital to the offense than his numbers suggest. He will be moved around, Hyde will run behind him, and Hoyer will attempt to throw to him against overmatched linebackers in coverage. He is key to their success, offensively.
Colts come out swinging, build a big lead, make it closer than it should be, and eventually secure the win.
Colts 27, 49ers 23.
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