Where on earth did that come from? After mediocre defensive performances against the Raiders and Dolphins, the Colts defense was primed for a shellacking last weekend in San Francisco against a dangerous offense incorporating the dual threat of Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore at QB/RB. In the event, the Colts held the Niners to 254 total yards - completely unforeseeable.
How was it accomplished? There are a few factors to consider, in my mind. The first is the absence of Vernon Davis - having looked as though he was likely to play all week, Davis ultimately wound up inactive on Sunday, and it showed. The 49ers offense - previously the model of versatility at TE utilising Davis, Delanie Walker etc etc - looked completely flat from a passing perspective, and I'd put that down to the loss of Davis along with Michael Crabtree much earlier in the year.
The above leads me onto the second factor - the indecisiveness and development of Colin Kaepernick. He simply doesn't look like the passer we saw last year, and looks timid and afraid when it comes to putting the ball on his receivers, even Anquan Boldin. The aforementioned loss of Davis on top of Crabtree does give him some leeway there, though it doesn't really excuse his performance on Sunday, which as I alluded to earlier was poor to say the least. Having watched the tape two or three times over, there are numerous occasions on which Kaepernick should be completing the pass, often to a man in a fair amount of space.
The third factor? Damn good defense, which I don't think many (myself no exception) saw coming. Kaepernick's confidence issues with his receivers combined with some tight coverage allowed the defense to lock it down through the air, with some shorter passes to Boldin inevitably completed. LaRon Landry and Pat Angerer largely weren't missed, with the absence of Davis crucial to masking the limitations of their replacements - Delano Howell and Kelvin Sheppard/Kavell Conner - in the passing game.
I think there are two particular performers worthy of praise this week, both universally lauded Grigson acquisitions: Jerrell Freeman and Cory Redding. Freeman was simply the most impressive linebacker on the field - Willis, Bowman, Mathis.. nope. Freeman was the standout guy, flying around the field with reckless abandon to try and stall the 49ers ground game - and given Kaepernick's limitations on the day, he frequently found himself targeted in coverage on the shallow routes Kaepernick was confident enough to try. He ended the day with an impressive statline: 8 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Here are a couple of plays from Freeman's big day..
The 49ers are at this point down 13-7 with 5:00 remaining in the 3rd Quarter. It's a 1st and 10 from the SF 49, and they're continuing their efforts on the ground with the option threat of Kaepernick ever-present.
On this particular play, Frank Gore is going to fake receiving the handoff before joining the FB on the edge for blocking. Kaepernick is the designated ball carrier. I've highlighted Jerrell Freeman vs Joe Staley (LT - #74) in yellow with Kelvin Sheppard vs. Alex Boone in orange. This simply isn't a favourable matchup, and yet..
The play design initially works well, with the FB well placed to provide a crackback block on Bjoern Werner. Staley emerges to the second level to try and deal with Freeman while the fake is executed.
Staley initiates contact with Freeman, who shows his motor and keeps pushing at Staley's outside shoulder, dragging the block closer to the sideline.
Staley isn't the most athletic tackle, and his lack of adequate lateral speed prevents him from ever getting a proper handle on the Colts ILB. Gore moves up to deal with Delano Howell, who has closed on the play - but he can't completely take his eye off Freeman.
Ultimately, Gore is forced to intervene and attempts to chip Freeman in the most innocuous way possible - a palm to the shoulder, before moving on to deal with Howell. This does absolutely nothing to stop Freeman.
To avoid confusion, I've highlighted Gore in black with his attempted block on Howell. You can see Freeman in yellow constantly pushing and gaining an advantage over Staley. Combined with Kaepernick's seeming timidity, it's enough to destroy the play.
Freeman tackles Kaep for a huge 7 yard loss - the fact that I don't need to show a frame after this is a testament to Jerrell's sound tackling.
The second play I've chosen for Jerrell is the game changing sack-fumble which allowed the Colts to establish an unassailable lead in the 4th Quarter. With the score at 20-7 Colts, it's a 3rd and 10 for the 49ers with 3:57 left in the game. As the Niners needed to get the ball downfield, Freeman again made his mark.
Deep pass patterns were the order of the day given the context, while the threat of Gore/Kaep leaking out with defenders deep downfield always merits close attention. In this case, that responsibility falls to the two ILBs. Coverage on the back end is fairly straightforward with Antoine Bethea taking the TE in man and Delano Howell playing deep centrefield.
Upon taking the snap, Kaep hasn't got much. Coverage downfield is more than adequate, which combined with the fact that the routes in question take time to develop precludes any pass here. Protection is reasonably good.
Here's what I like - Gore is leaking out on a pass route, and Freeman is aware of the fact. Kaep, fortunately for the Colts, takes the decision to move off his spot a split second before the route becomes truly viable. I think there's an opportunity to go downfield for a deep shot, especially considering the context (blue) though it's clearly a tough throw.
The read and react skills are something else from a guy who was in the CFL a couple of years ago.
Change of angle helps..
Freeman creams Kaep and the latter fumbles, allowing Kavell Conner to recover at the 8 yard line. Typifies his day, really. Joint player of the day (Bradshaw) for the Colts.
Moving onto Redding - he proved constantly disruptive lining up at LDE, with RT Anthony Davis completely unable to deal with his lateral movement and power on a few occasions. Success against RG Alex Boone reinforced Redding's credentials with Boone considered by some to be an under-the-radar gem at RG. The fact that his statline (a tackle, an assist and 0.5 sacks) doesn't particularly stand out is irrelevant - he was constantly penetrating the pocket and moving Kaepernick off his spot in the passing game, which only helped cloud an already troubled mind.
The play in question is a 1st and 10 from the IND 10 with 5:02 left in the 1st Quarter. 7-0 Colts. Redding is lined up on the outside shoulder of the RT, with TE Vance McDonald also tasked to help Davis with a chip block. The offensive playcall is a delayed toss to the right, which Kendall Hunter receives before reversing field to the weak side to take advantage of pulling blockers.
After the snap, Redding powers forwards in between the TE McDonald and RT Davis. The pulling blockers all make their way to the weak side to clear a potentially huge path - though not if Redding can blow it up.
McDonald does his best against one of the better 3-4 DEs in the league, while I can't say the same for Davis. He stands rooted to the spot, seemingly delegating the main responsibility for the block to his TE. That doesn't seem right. None of the pulling blockers intervene, making them superfluous for the time being.
The TE McDonald eventually has to peel off with Kaepernick's running threat in mind, just in case the latter has decided to keep it. McDonald leaves Redding to deal with Erik Walden (talking of superfluous..), and by this point it's too late. The rooted Davis is feet behind Redding as Hunter changes direction. A couple of paces of pursuit, with Kaepernick getting out of the way, and...
I call this one 'The Leaping Bear'.
And while it isn't enough to bring Hunter straight down, it completely puts him off balance and destroys the play. What do I love even more?
Redding's as quick as anyone to finish it off - he jumps off the ground and hustles to the ball, setting a great example for the other defensive players. Some took heed, some did not. Talking of which..
The flip side of the Grigson coin is the question of FA spending and specifically Erik Walden, who again showed his limitations. The 49ers initial success on the ground with Frank Gore primarily came while running in the direction of Walden and Greg Toler at LOLB and LCB respectively - and a cautionary note should spring from that point. Frank Gore gained 82 yards on 11 carries for a 7.5 YPC average. Why the 49ers refused to use him later in the game for extended periods when Kaepernick's timidity became clear is beyond me - and for anyone to say that the Colts truly got to grips with Gore I think would be stretching it. It doesn't stand as the only questionable Harbaugh call, however - the fact that Aldon Smith was even on the field was an embarassment.
The play in question immediately succeeds Redding's great tackle - proving the former to be an isolated success on the first drive. On said first drive, runs of 22, 11, 21 and then this 13 yard touchdown were all conceded with runs to the right - directed at Erik Walden and Greg Toler. I'm not quite prepared to rag on the latter just yet, but it certainly bears watching as a potential axis of run defense doom.
It's a draw, designed to take advantage of Mathis and Redding rushing upfield. Jerrell Freeman is highlighted in yellow for those interested, and he winds up having the C blocking him downfield. Walden on the other hand has the same TE that failed to impact the previous play, Vance McDonald.
The call for a draw works fantastically - another TE moves to block Kelvin Sheppard on the inside, while Jonathan Goodwin moves downfield to take care of Freeman as previously stated. McDonald vs. Walden is in pink.
As Hunter takes the handoff, the extent to which the Colts are imperiled is clear. Mathis and Redding, the two most formidable defenders in the Front 7, are out of it. You'll see what I mean regarding axis of doom here. Toler in purple, Walden in pink.
It's great one on one blocking near the pocket to clear a path, it must be said - and the swift moves to the second level to take care of the ILBs were perfect. Watch Toler in purple, however.
Toler dives inside and forces Hunter to go outside against Walden - who to his credit looks to be attempting contain while occupying a blocker to free up a teammate. That or he's being blocked out of the play by the TE and doesn't know what's going on. Your call.
Walden's completely unremarkable athletic talents don't allow him to compensate for poor timing regarding disengaging the block. Hunter is able to get position and make a beeline for the endzone.
Toler's notable lack of hustle to the end of the play is worthy of remark, as well. Second time in two weeks that there's been a negative on that front, so it bears watching.
RE: Walden - If he had remarkable athletic talents, it'd be easier to look over the fact that he doesn't seem to have much by way of awareness, pass rush ability or coverage ability. He seems to be completely dead weight, and given the increasing impact of Bjoern Werner, I'd be surprised to see him stay in the lineup or on the roster if he continues to play like this. (If you're a glutton for punishment, here's more on Walden and the defense from the perenially excellent Kyle Rodriguez.) On the opposite side of things regarding guys I haven't mentioned yet - Aubrayo Franklin and Josh Chapman are both providing very helpful depth to this DL. This is what we had in mind when Pagano came to town.
In the end, it was a fantastic performance from all three units - offense; defense and special teams. Cautionary examples do exist to stop us going over the top, if there was any danger of that. Walden has shown himself to be inadequate while the secondary didn't face a real test, in my opinion. We might struggle on that score again vs Jacksonville, though I'm not complaining. I think the games against Seattle and Denver may give us a true indication as to where we're at, one way or another. The thought of this defense vs. Peyton isn't a particularly positive one, even after the high of Sunday.
To Jacksonville! Or in my case, to Wembley. I can't deny the allure of the Jags game, though a chance to see Adrian Peterson live unfortunately takes precedence. Will let you all know about the London Experience next week, for better or worse.
Very enjoyable, Ben. Your screencaps of Freeman´s play against Joe Staley astound me. What a performance by him. Thanks for the great read, as always.
Is it safe to say that Walden and Toler have been the two most disappointing players for this Colts D so far this season? Toler did have the INT against OAK, but nothing memorable after that. Always seeing Walden chasing the ball carrier from behind most of the time.
Those are the details of how Indy "out-physicaled" SF. Indy's secondary also didn't have to fear any deep speed. Davis' injury took out SF's last deep threat. Harbaugh had brainlock in the 2nd half and backed off of a ground game that was working. He stopped it, not Indy. He knows that now.
The NFL has solved the read-option. Ask the Eagles' Rich Kelly. Without a ground game, without open receivers, Kaepernick was stuck. Harbaugh must've been in shock to see Indy (Hamilton and Luck) beating SF with the Stanford play book; no mystery, just execution. SF's only hope had been abandoned when their ground game was shelved--by Harbaugh. Indy was probably going to win anyway but SF lost time of possession by too much and Harbaugh stood and watched it happen. That exuberant spike by Andrew Luck when he scored on his bootleg was a clear "mission accomplished" gesture.
BTW, Ben Savage, this was NFL Week 4.
"The thought of this defense vs. Peyton..."
Even if the Broncos receivers were reduced to a similar state as the Niners' were for this game -- say, god forbid, they lost Thomas, the other Thomas and Welker before they play the Colts, leaving only Decker for that game (like Kaepernick had Boldin)... Even then, there's no way Manning only scores 7 on the Colts' D.
Which I suppose is just a very long winded way of saying Manning is better than Kaepernick. Duh.
But also, that the Colt's offense is going to need to put up more than 27 points to win that game.
Key word: "Upside" What possible upside is there to continuing to play Eric Walden relative to Bjoern Werner? Is Walden going to get any better? Or will Werner get better faster with more playing time.
Also other than being cautious about Chapman's post ACL surgery develop, Chapman is on the verge of being a real impact. Have him playing on half the snaps by mid-season and he will be a difference maker.
Great stuff, Ben! I don't think Cory Redding's impact can be overstated. When he can play like that and get penetration and disrupt plays from the inside, Mathis and Werner will perform better as well.
Speaking of Werner, how do you think he is coming along? I am just hoping he becomes what the Colts need him to become instead of just replacing Walden because he is so freaking awful! I think Werner's pass rush is getting better but I still have worries about other aspects. I still like seeing him improve, though.
As always, great breakdown!
Wow, good stuff! I was hoping you'd say that Walden is just doing his assignment, but it only looks bad.
Now, if we can get five or six weeks in a row of this kind of defensive play, we'll be in great playoff shape.
This is a fantastic article! Really thoughtful, in-depth analysis of scheme. Great, great work.
I hope Werner can step up and make an impact as a replacement for Walden. I also hope the front office and coaching staff will be quick to pull a player (Walden or whoever) if they aren't working out, regardless of who got which contract or who got drafted highly.
But again, great article. Excited to see more stuff from you.
As always, a wonderful job, Ben. I agree that Walden is a liability and that Werner is improving at such a rate as to plant Walden's fanny on the pine where he belongs. Or maybe the waiver wire.
@Coopman33 I think that's certainly fair to say. Sheppard has been pretty darn poor, but he isn't viewed as a starter like the other two.
@Jayjaybe The Colts moved to 2-1 on the season in Week 4?
@bradicus18 I didn't particularly like the pick at the time, though I have to admit he's exceeded my expectations from a tape perspective thus far.
It's so noticeable when he's on the edge as opposed to Walden, and he actually offers something positive in both the run and pass game with his strength/tackling and pass rushing.
It's enjoyable to watch a guy learn and adapt as you say, and considering he's coming along well, I'm content with the pick. Still wanted a corner though.
@dansvirsky Nail on head.
As you say, it's all about the coaching staff recognising it and pulling the guy in question. Too often in previous years we've had consistent underperformers in the lineup on D.
Glad you liked the read.
@WyattL We can yet hope.