The biggest name for San Francisco along the offensive line is former first round pick and left tackle Joe Staley. Staley is an impressive athlete, but hasn't yet learned all the subtle nuances of playing the position at the NFL level.
In Week 7 against the Texans, he ignored his assignment — right end Mario Williams — in the first quarter and gave up an easy sack on Shaun Hill. The 49ers didn't give Staley any help against Williams, who is one of the premier players at his position, so it is doubtful that he will be given any help against Dwight Freeney.
San Francisco is averaging only 3.04 yards per carry to Staley's side — with 26 attempts to left tackle and left end — but Freeney is giving up 4.25 yards per carry on 34 attempts to his side, so the 49ers might try to get some success there early, especially if they run more draws and slant plays out of the shotgun with newly appointed quarterback Alex Smith at the helm.
Robert Mathis is giving up an average of 4.22 yards per carry on 27 attempts to his side, but San Francisco has not been at all successful running to the strong side of the formation behind right tackle Adam Snyder, so it is most likely that they will try to run the ball up the middle or to the left, where Indianapolis has struggled at points during the season — especially in the third quarter against Steven Jackson and the Rams in Week 6.
Behind center Eric Heitmann and guards Chilo Rachal and David Baas, the 49ers have rushed 73 times (second in the NFL) for an average of 5.52 yards per attempt. The Colts have faced 63 rush attempts (eighth most in the NFL) and are yielding a respectable 3.95 yards per carry.
That average rose fairly sharply after the St. Louis and Tennessee games, where they gave up an average of 4.8 yards per carry, so Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson need to dig in. They will be tested early and often on Sunday.
The big edge the Colts have is in terms of rushing the passer up the middle. None of the interior blockers for San Francisco is particularly gifted in pass protection, so look for Eric Foster and Raheem Brock to get some time on the inside and for Muir to hopefully flash some of the pass rushing ability he showed against the Rams.
Gary Brackett could also play a factor, as could Bob Sanders, provided Indianapolis is ready to unleash some of the blitz packages they have been planning since Larry Coyer took over as defensive coordinator.
Michael Crabtree is the best athlete in this group and showed that he has quickly assimilated the offense against Houston in Week 7. He looked smooth in his routes, was not caught out of position, and was fluid catching the ball.
Look for the 49ers to get the ball in Crabtree's hands as directly as possible on Sunday, probably with some screen passes and end arounds, as he is the most explosive player they have on the perimeter. This will also ease the burden on Smith by getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers — Frank Gore is the other — as quickly and easily as possible.
Josh Morgan is also a very talented athlete with tremendous upside as a receiver, but he has not been able to put everything together at this point in his career. He is a fairly good route runner and uses his body to adequately shield the defender, but veteran receiver Isaac Bruce is who the 49ers quarterbacks usually look to to make a big play in the deep passing game.
Quarterbacks for the 49ers have attempted only six deep passes to the Morgan/Crabtree side of the field in the first six games (8.33 average per attempt), but have attempted 16 deep passes (10.06 average) to Bruce's side of the field. Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey should have their hands full, along with Antoine Bethea covering the deep half of the field to Bruce's side.
Crabtree is not an easy draw for Kelvin Hayden, but Hayden should be able to crowd the line of scrimmage in order to jump the shorter routes San Francisco is likely to deploy on Crabtree's side of the field.
The 49ers have actually averaged 12.18 yards per attempt on 11 attempts to the deep middle of the field, but most of that success was realized running deep posts to Vernon Davis against the Texans in Week 7. Houston was, apparently, not interested in covering that particular route, so Davis gained 93 yards on seven receptions and scored three touchdowns look for Brackett and Tyjuan Hagler to back up a little more in their zones than usual in passing situations, in order to prevent the gap over the linebackers and in front of the safeties to be too large.
The man to watch here is Frank Gore, who is returning from injury. He missed two games earlier in the season and returned to the line-up against the Texans in Week 7, following San Francisco's Week 6 bye. He did not return strong, with only 13 carries for 32 yards, but the 49ers are certainly expecting him to return to form.
They were still able to run the ball between the guards effectively using backup running back Glen Coffee, so their success is part system-based, part player-based, since they were certainly more effective with Gore at tailback.
Gore is not as explosive to the edges as Jackson or Chris Johnson and the tackles for the 49ers are not as skilled in the running game as are the interior linemen, as evidenced by the numbers and the game tape, so the Colts should focus their efforts on clogging the middle, but not overcommitting. Gore is not as explosive overall as Jackson or Johnson, but he does have exceptional top-line speed and is extremely quick in and out of his cuts. San Francisco's guards trap and pull very well, which is why Muir and Antonio Johnson cannot overcommit.
If they do, Rachal will seal off Heitmann's outside shoulder and Gore will cut to the right side of the play, or Baas will seal off Heitmann's inside shoulder, bursting into the second level in either case. Gore will get to the second level in a hurry once he's made his decision and, as soon as he does, he's very difficult to bring down and is surprisingly elusive in the open field.
Indianapolis needs to do what Houston did in shutting Gore down last week — crowd the box with seven men in tight in the formation. This will leave the outside rush lanes open, but, as stated previously, the 49ers and Gore do not run the ball well to the edges and Gore is not known for his jump cut.
Regardless of whether San Francisco decides to line Smith up in the shotgun or they line up in a more conventional formation — though Gore runs considerably better from the I-formation with a fullback in front of him -- the 49ers will look to shove the ball down the Colts' throat. Everyone on the front seven — and Bob Sanders, though he should be wary of play-action — needs to commit to not letting that happen by filling the rush lanes and taking away the cutback.
Smith fared extremely well in the second half of Week 7, coming in for the struggling Shaun Hill. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns and nearly brought the 49ers back from a 21-0 first half deficit.
But, it should be noted that he was allowed to work primarily out of the shotgun, where he is most comfortable. He was also able to complete a number of deep, relatively easy passes to Davis that the Colts will no doubt be on the lookout for and will not give up as readily as the Texans did in Week 7.
Alex Smith is a very intelligent player and an extremely talented athlete — he showed his running ability in the third quarter of the Houston game on a couple of key scrambles for first downs — but he has yet to prove that he can play and win consistently at the NFL level. He has a considerably higher ceiling than Hill, but Hill is far more reliable and has a much higher floor than Smith does.
Smith will not be able to pick Indianapolis apart with precision passes underneath and should not be able to connect with Bruce or Crabtree on deep balls, given the fact that the Colts are among the best passing defenses in the league in terms of yards per attempt in the short passing game and to the deep perimeter. They're also one of the best defenses in the league in terms of yards allowed per game (179.8 per game, sixth) and passing touchdowns allowed (2 allowed, first ranked).
If the 49ers come out in a shotgun formation, passing the ball and running Gore on slants and draws, they will be playing directly into the Colts' hands. Indianapolis has a defense that is structured to take away that type of game plan and will not allow a team to methodically drive down the field by throwing the ball — especially in the early going.
San Francisco's best chance for victory is to play to their strengths by running Gore to set up play-action. They need to get Crabtree involved early on as well, but that can be done using more conventional formations. For their part, the Colts need to clamp down on Gore and get the 49ers into an early hole.
If that happens, Smith will not be able to duplicate last week's success, because Indianapolis is ready for him and they are built to dismantle a spread formation, come-from-behind offense that puts itself in known passing situations.
The safeties and linebackers will start hitting, Freeney and Mathis will start pinning their ears back, and Smith will be in for a long afternoon. Therefore, San Francisco has limited options and must succeed in the running game if they are to succeed on offense.
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