As most predicted, quarterback Andrew Luck has had an incredible beginning to his NFL career. You can rattle off the stats like passing yardage, touchdowns, fourth-quarter comebacks and such, but perhaps the most remarkable thing he did was turn a 2-14 team in an 11-5 playoff contender.
Since his arrival, the Indianapolis Colts have been in every ballgame.
This weekend will bring about another challenge, as the prodigal son returns to the Bay Area to take on his former coach in Jim Harbaugh and the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.
After a beatdown last week, the 49ers (1-1) are disgruntled, eager and almost sure to be ill-tempered come kickoff on Sunday. It is bad timing for Luck and the Colts, which San Francisco is almost sure to use as a whipping post. Even though it is only Week 3, this team will be fired up, knowing it needs a statement game.
Considering all the interacting elements and news since Week 2, here are the top storylines for the 49ers as they prepare to host the Colts.
In Week 2 at CenturyLink Field, starting nose tackle Ian Williams was the victim of a cut-block by Seattle Seahawks O-lineman J.R. Sweezy. Sadly, this play broke Williams’ ankle, resulting in the 49ers having to place him on injured reserve for the remainder of the 2013 season.
As an undrafted free-agent nose tackle out of Notre Dame, his rise from training camp to the practice squad to the starting lineup was really something to watch. Williams was an easy guy to root for.
This also puts San Francisco’s defense in a bit of pickle, considering coordinator Vic Fangio runs a base 3-4 scheme and has no true 0-technique lineman to plug in on first and second down. With little else, the onus will fall on free-agent signee Glenn Dorsey, who was the team’s first out-of-house deal in 2013.
Fortunately, Dorsey has experience playing in both three and four-man fronts in Kansas City and really grew into an exceptional run-stuffer. The pass-rush ability is nothing like what Williams was offering—or players like Geno Atkins or Vince Wilfork—but he is a proven veteran defensive tackle.
He will be in good company next to Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, and the team will instead rely on pressure from the outside backers.
Dorsey, big No. 90, will be a player to watch on Sunday.
This one will be coined as the battle of Jim Harbaugh’s two protégés.
Sorry to say, but Alex Smith versus Josh Johnson just would not draw the same sort of crowd. With Luck and Kaepernick, you have two of the best young gunslingers in the NFL, and it's looking like it’ll be that way for quite some time.
In an interesting parallel between the two back in May, NFL.com senior writer Bucky Brooks ranked and compared the quarterbacks in a study called “Andrew Luck vs. Colin Kaepernick: Which young QB is superior?”
Surprisingly enough, Kaepernick was given the edge in categories labeled “athleticism” and “game management,” broke even with Luck in “arm talent” and “clutch factor,” lost in “pocket presence” and eventually went on to be claimed as the more valuable weapon in an evolving league.
Even after asking trusted peers and colleagues around the NFL and hearing what most could assume to be gushy admiration over Luck, in bold lettering, Brooks declared his stance:
However, I believe Kaepernick is the face of the future at the position, and I would confidently tap him to lead my franchise over the next 10 years.
With more collegiate principles making their way to the NFL game, I would opt for the more explosive athlete with extraordinary passing skills. While I certainly believe Luck is a great player with a diverse set of skills that allows him to fit into any offensive system, there is something special about Kaepernick's game that will change the way the position is played in the future. Time will tell on this debate, but I'm casting my lot with the dynamic player with an impressive regular season/postseason résumé.
Not only do the 49ers have to deal with the No. 1 overall pick from 2012, but now they have to deal with the guy who was selected two slots later.
A bit of a surprise move this week—in an exchange between newly appointed personnel executives—Colts GM Ryan Grigson initiated a trade with Browns GM Michael Lombardi, swapping his first-round pick to Cleveland for their franchise back, Trent Richardson.
Only an offseason ago, Richardson was the most highly coveted back in the draft since Adrian Peterson (2007), or perhaps C.J. Spiller (2010). Coming out of the University of Alabama, the only thing separating him from being a No. 1 overall pick were Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
This was a curveball for the 49ers midweek, already knee-deep in preparation for a pretty one-dimensional offense. It’s been Luck and Co., which got them to 11-5 last year, but now Richardson is in the mix.
While he still needs to get his feet wet, he is going to be a factor in this contest, which means the Colts will have the threat of balance. If the staff is able to simplify things for T-Rich, he can potentially make this a different ballgame.
He is one of those tough-to-tackle runners, which SF has struggled with (Marshawn Lynch more than anybody). San Francisco will need to get its mind right, knowing it has to contain the run, while not allowing Luck to tear up the back end, particularly off play action.
During his run in the NCAA, Rogers (6’3”, 215 pounds) put up gaudy numbers with the Tennessee Vols and Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles, finishing his three-year career with 139 receptions, 2,100 yards and 21 touchdowns (36 games played).
Talent-wise, Rogers had a second to third-round grade from numerous NFL scouts.
However, it was his off-the-field issues and overall depth from this incoming class that caused him to go undrafted. Size, speed, strength and the fact that he is a fluid runner that can hit everything on the route tree makes him an asset.
He will be an X-factor for Indianapolis this Sunday, as the 49ers secondary will be dedicating the bulk of their attention to Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Coby Fleener.
As far as Sunday’s game goes, this was not the team we're used to seeing.
Even before that, in a home win, the identity of this team appeared to be changing, perhaps too quickly. Over the past two games, Colin Kaepernick is averaging 33.5 passing attempts per game, while Frank Gore is averaging 15 rushing attempts per game.
With their shiny new quarterback, the game plans have shown that the 49ers are more focused on moving the ball through the air.
In Week 1 versus the Green Bay Packers, Gore averaged 2.1 YPC, and in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, that number sank to 1.8. He was handed the rock at questionable times and the play calls were fairly primitive, indicating laziness on the part of the staff when it came to establishing the run.
This was out of character and not smart.
If the 49ers offense is going to run 60-some-odd plays a game, Gore should be getting 20-plus carries. For five years from 2006-2010, he never averaged below 20 touches in a season, continuing to produce time and time again. And the 49ers were able to survive on that, playing ball-control football and setting up play action.
Now, this is not to say they should play Jimmy Raye football again, but rather dedicate time to fielding the innovate and effective rushing attack they are fully capable of with this prolific stable of running backs and bruising O-line.
Starting right now, the coaches need to dig deep and find that creativity that set this rushing attack apart. The volume and inventiveness was second to none, but as soon as Kap was thrust into the lineup, it went to the wayside.
Against a Colts defense that was ranked No. 29 versus the run last year, is injured and hasn’t done a lot to get better, the 49ers are in prime position to send a message to the rest of the league that their identity is intact.
On this play, Nnamdi Asomugha almost allowed his second TD in as many weeks, had Sidney Rice held onto the ball.
Carlos Rogers vs. T.Y. Hilton
If T.Y. Hilton (groin) is a go this Sunday at Candlestick Park, this might be a big-time matchup in Indianapolis’ favor. Since joining the 49ers in 2011, veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers has had difficulty containing shifty slot-type receivers that lose him with their basketball moves. Hilton is one of those guys.
According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha has missed four tackles in the first two weeks of the 2013 season, which is second-most among cornerbacks. He has also had several lapses in coverage, allowing a touchdown in Week 1 and drawing interference flags.
Eric Reid, the Terminator from Louisiana State University, has been busting heads so far in his rookie campaign, and even has a pair of interceptions in his only two NFL games played. Against the Seahawks last week, Reid had to leave the game with concussion symptoms after colliding with wide receiver Sidney Rice.
This week, Reid was in a non-contact jersey and passed his first concussion test, reportedly on track to return Sunday, per the team’s official website.
Andrew Luck (left) and Jim Harbaugh (right) celebrating after a big win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
In a lot of ways, this game will be Dr. Frankenstein versus his monster.
Going back to their days at Stanford University, coach Jim Harbaugh was responsible for recruiting and developing star quarterback Andrew Luck, who went on to become the highest-rated passer in the draft since John Elway. These two had a lot of success together in college, and separately, it has translated to the National Football League.
From Day 1, Luck has been a franchise player for the Colts, while Harbaugh turned the bottom-dwelling 49ers around single-handedly.
Presumably, No. 12 will be viewed as the league’s next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning well after those quarterbacks have hung up their spurs. And then there’s Harbaugh, who is—perhaps prematurely—already drawing comparisons to Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
Needless to say, both men are taking the league by storm, which makes this storyline one of the most engaging of any of this year’s regular-season games. The postgame meeting at center field will certainly be highly anticipated photo op.
Two notable facts:
- Colin Kaepernick is 5-0 at Candlestick Park.
- The 49ers have never lost back-to-back games under coach Jim Harbaugh.
However, entering Week 3, this is a team that is on the edge of its seat, looking to rebound in a big way, having taken a nationally televised lashing against their heated division rival in the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday.
The 49ers need a win, plain and simple.
They have Super Bowl aspirations but have played uncharacteristic football to start the 2013 season, allowing a points-against average of 31.5 per game and failing to establish any semblance of a run game. In fact, their quarterback is leading in rushing yards, while their tailbacks have yet to surpass the 100-mark collectively.
Can the 49ers find themselves this Sunday and pull out a win against Andrew Luck and this never-say-die Colts team? We’ll see.