The 49ers biggest weapons are star linebacker Patrick Willis, running back Frank Gore, and tight end Vernon Davis, who bring size and power to both sides of the ball. First-round draft selection Michael Crabtree will also be playing in his second NFL game and will look to be a bigger factor for San Francisco as they hope to match the Colts' offensive production.
The following five players should be watched closest as the Colts try to take the 49ers playmakers out of the game.
1. S Bob Sanders: Last week, against the Rams, Sanders took the field on a limited number of snaps and appeared a bit rusty after missing the first five games of the season. On his first play in the game, the Rams exploited his aggressiveness by running a flea flicker for a long gain through the air.
This week, if Sanders can be effective and stay on the field, he will be an integral part of slowing San Francisco’s star offensive players, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore. Both Davis and Gore are powerful offensive weapons who will try to dominant the middle of the field. If Bob can lurk there and punish the 49ers ball carriers, it would go a long way in stifling the San Francisco offensive gameplan.
2. DT Daniel Muir: Daniel Muir played the best game of his career against the Rams a week ago. He will need to continue playing at that level if he hopes to become a permanent fixture in the Colts starting defensive lineup. More importantly, after defending one of the league’s best running backs in Steven Jackson, Muir will need to do his part once again to slow down Frank Gore.
Coached by Mike Singletary, the 49ers will not hesitate to exploit any defensive weakness they can expose, particularly along the Colts defensive line. Once they discover a soft spot, expect Singletary to aggressively attack that area of the field with hard-nosed plays designed to make that area even weaker.
It will be up to Muir to ensure that his gap is not the hole the 49ers find and to make necessary adjustments to stifle the aggressive attack, should Singletary guide his team in that direction.
3. CB Kelvin Hayden: While Kelvin Hayden got back on the field last week, he (like Sanders) did not appear to play as loose and fluid as he does when at 100 percent. Hopefully this week he can get closer to full speed and help shut down the 49ers passing game, particularly as it attempts to use its new weapon, Michael Crabtree.
Hayden will also be needed this week in a run support capacity as the 49ers will prefer to establish some kind of ground game, hoping to pull the Colts focus on the line of scrimmage to create holes for Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. If Hayden can keep Gore from making big gains on the edges, he will make the job much easier for the Colts secondary as they focus on shutting down the passing game.
4. WR Reggie Wayne: Reggie suffered a groin pull against the Rams but is slated to play against San Francisco on Sunday. After sitting out both Wednesday and Thursday practices, Wayne participated fully in practice on Friday. All signs indicate that Reggie will play on Sunday. Whether his groin is strong enough, after the pull, for him to be as effective as he normally would be is unknown.
If Wayne’s groin is a non-factor, look for him to be a key component in taking linebacker Patrick Willis out of the game. If the 49ers use Willis to stifle Dallas Clark and keep the Colts from establishing a running game in this middle of the field, Peyton Manning will target his outside receivers to stretch out the San Francisco defense laterally and vertically, with Wayne playing a key part in this endeavor.
5. TE Dallas Clark: The beautiful thing about Dallas Clark is that he is too big for safety or corner coverage and too fast for linebackers to stick with him. That is, except for the rare game he plays against either an unusually large safety who maintains safety speed or an unusually quick linebacker. In short, if Clark matches up against another freakishly athletic player, he can potentially be single covered.
This week there is a decent probability that the 49ers will use Patrick Willis to stymie the Colts second-leading receiver and Willis may be athletic enough to do so. How Clark responds to Willis, how he finds ways to wear him down or if he can exploit his weaknesses in pass coverage, could go a long way in allowing the Colts to break the game open.
If the Colts manage to open up the middle of the field on San Francisco, neutralizing Patrick Willis, things could get out of hand.
BONUS: Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis: One of the biggest question-marks for the 49ers at this point in the season is along their offensive line, which recently lost starting tackle Tony Pashos for the year. Joining them is an unproven quarterback, who looked solid closing out the game last week against the Houston Texans, Alex Smith.
These two characteristics together spell a big opportunity for the ambassadors of the Colts pass rush, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. If they can keep pressure on Alex Smith and force him to rush throws, it could allow the secondary to feast on errant passes.
Beyond that, Smith is somewhat fumble-prone, a dangerous characteristic when the likes of Freeney and Mathis will be breathing down your neck the entire game. Do not be shocked if you see the ball stripped away from Smith if Freeney and Mathis become regular fixtures in the 49ers offensive backfield.
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