Sunday Night Football Preview

Sunday Night Football: Deep Dive

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: October 24, 2021, 2:24 pm ET

This is typically the time of year that Frank Reich and the Colts turn things around and I want to be there when it happens.

In Reich’s four years as Head coach, his team is:

0-4 in Week 1
8-12 in Weeks 1-5
22-12 from Week 6 onward

This team simply starts slow and takes a while to get adjusted.  But once they do, they are a difficult team to deal with.  

They are also a difficult team to deal with anytime they are on the road catching at least 3 points, where Reich has led this team to an 9-4-1 ATS record.

The exact opposite is true for Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers.  

Under Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers are 13-20-1 (39.4%) against the spread at home, 31st in the league. That includes a 5-13-1 record ATS as a home favorite, 30th in the league over that span.

Shanahan also hasn’t been his best with extra rest.  Off a bye week, he’s won just 1 game out of four by over 3 points, and any game with 10+ days of rest, his 49ers are just 2-4 SU and ATS.

Despite playing during a time when it’s historically been difficult, early in the season, the last 5 games for the Colts have actually been surprisingly good.  

They are 4-1 ATS despite being 2-3 SU.  The lone ATS loss came to the Titans, in a game where the Colts made two trips inside the Titans 10-yard line and went 0-2 in conversions.  They went 1-3 inside the red zone and missed a FG.  

The Colts drove to the Titans 5, 9, 9, 25 and 33 yard line and settled for 1 TD, 3 FGs and 1 missed FG.

It was a game they were out-statted and didn’t deserve to win, but they absolutely shot themselves in the foot multiple times.

The weakness of the Colts defense is against the pass, where they rank 29th.

But there are multiple reasons why this may not be the Achilles heel for them this week as it sounds like.

#1 – with Jimmy Garoppolo working his way back from calf injury and practicing only in a limited fashion each of the last two days, and with QB Trey Lance not even practicing on Wednesday or Thursday due to a knee injury, the 49ers may not be looking to over-extend Garoppolo.  They may want to run it a little more than usual.

#2 – the rain and wind – the forecast is calling for amounts of both, particularly gusty winds and potentially heavy rain.  If that is the case, downfield passing certainly may not be nearly the concern as it typically would be.

#3 – absence of George Kittle – Kittle has commanded the second largest target share of deeper passes from Jimmy Garoppolo this year, but he’s out for this game.  The only receiver that has delivered with any semblance of consistency downfield has been Deebo Samuel, but even then, only 9 of his 50 receptions have come beyond 15 air yards.

#4 – the one area the Colts are successful against the pass is preventing explosive gains – the Colts rank #5 in limiting explosive pass gains, despite playing the 4th toughest schedule of explosive pass offenses.  Meanwhile, that’s not how this 49ers offense has been making hay – the 49ers rank dead last in the NFL in explosive pass gains.  Thus, it’s unlikely there will be big strikes or pass completions (even short ones) that generate huge gains and flip the field position quickly.

So, if the 49ers aren’t attacking the defensive weakness of the Colts, their #29 pass defense, as often or as effectively, the 49ers will be running the ball more frequently.  And that’s unlikely to be ultra successful.

That’s because the Colts rank #1 against the run.  The Colts were the team to snap the Ravens streak of 100+ yard run production.

Over the last 5 weeks, the Colts have not allowed any RB to record any consistent production.  They held every RB to 4.6 YPC or lower with the exception of Phillip Lindsay, who had just a 14% success rate on 7 rushes but had one long run to average out to 5.6 YPC.  The Colts even held Derrick Henry to 4.0 YPC and 36% success.  They held the Rams Darrell Henderson to 4.1 YPC and 54% success on 13 carries.

While the Shanahan outside zone rushing scheme could give the Colts more trouble than some of these prior opponents, it still is less likely to be extremely productive.

The first three games this season, the 49ers faced three bottom-10 run defenses in the Lions, Eagles and Packers, each ranking #25 or worse.

Then the 49ers ran into the Seahawks, who rank #16, and the Cardinals, who rank #8.  The 49ers lost both of those games.  Not that it was entirely the fault of the run offense, but the fact was, the 49ers did not have as weak a run defense to face.

On the other side of the ball, this 49ers defense has played the NFL’s toughest schedule of both rushing and passing offenses.  And yet they still rank #12 overall.  They played three top-7 offenses in consecutive weeks (Packers, Seahawks and Cardinals) before heading into their Week 6 bye.

Off the bye, they get the Colts offense which is league-average which is off an easy Texans defense last week.

If the Colts need to turn more to the ground out of necessity, they may be in luck as LG Quenton Nelson returned to practice from a 3-game absence on IR and there is the outside chance they could get the return of RT Braden Smith, who hasn’t played since Week 1.

Ever since a Week 1 performance against a bad Lions rushing offense, the 49ers run defense has allowed production to inside zone runs from 11 personnel, which is what the Colts love to utilize:

Colts offense:    +0.34 EPA/att, 5.4 YPC, 71% success
49ers defense:    +0.15 EPA/att, 5.3 YPC, 75% success

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.