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The Indianapolis Colts aren't at the stage in this monster-building project where they can repeat their San Francisco treat every week. But there's no doubt we've seen the vision at its clearest.
That vision is obvious when you consider the most vivid parts of the Colts' stunning 27-7 win over the 49ers on Sunday at Candlestick Park. The examples resonated whether you were there or, like me, watching from home.
The Colts were more physical than the 49ers, a sign of toughness coach Chuck Pagano wanted when he took the job. They were more balanced on offense, more deliberate, more careful. Call it conservative and you wouldn't be wrong. And yet, when you control the clock and put points up, it's hard to argue with the approach.
Finally, and equally significant, they were relentless on defense.
Pagano came from the Baltimore Ravens. Toughness, offensive balance and relentless defense were/are trademarks of the Ravens' success.
These Colts will not look like the Peyton Manning-era Colts if Pagano's vision (which is shared by General Manager Ryan Grigson and owner Jim Irsay) flourishes. That's sometimes hard to process when we see Andrew Luck look so Manning-esque at times. Yet if this alternative approach leads to more 20-point wins on the road over Super Bowl contenders, most fans will embrace the foreign style.
Also, regardless of the “power running game,” Luck will have his moments, as he did Sunday.
Let's consider each of the vision's attributes in the upset win:
The Colts were the aggressor against a team known for its aggression. Whether it was backup safety Delano Howell separating ball from receiver and receiver from senses, or running back Ahmad Bradshaw marching through would-be tackles, the Colts showed supreme toughness.
A makeshift offensive line pushed the 49ers around, leading to a 179 yards rushing and a nearly 13-minute edge in time of possession. Those statistics are not insignificant. San Francisco has had a strong run defense, one that held opponents to just under 92 yards rushing per game at Candlestick since 2009.
Bradshaw finished with 95 yards on 19 carries, newly acquired Trent Richardson scored a touchdown on his first carry and Luck cemented the win with a great designed bootleg touchdown run
Toughness delivered on defense, too. Jerrell Freeman tackles better than any Colts linebacker since David Thornton. Antoine Bethea closed the gap on previously super runner Kaepernick to prevent a scrambling first down. The secondary stuck like the grimace on Harbaugh's face to the 49ers receivers. Cory Redding and Robert Mathis got their hands on Kaepernick.
Skeptics – and I was once one – figured offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's training-camp talk of being a run-first, power-running offense would fade as NFL reality hit and Luck started flinging the ball around. I underestimated the commitment.
If nothing else could be ascertained by the trade for Richardson, it was the unwavering commitment to the run. Strictly comparing rushing and passing yardage doesn't always tell the story, of course, but the Colts rushed for 179 and passed for 164 against the 49ers.
When Luck needed a big play, as he did to keep a couple drives alive, he found Reggie Wayne or Darrius Heyward-Bey. These aren't spectacular Luck numbers: 18 of 27, 164 yards and no touchdowns. But these numbers are big: no picks and one sack.
Richardson had 13 carries for 35 yards, along with a 1-yard touchdown run on his first touch with the Colts. The best run of the day might have been by Luck, who used a tough-guy stiff-arm en route to a first down.
Luck distributed his 18 completions among six players, with Wayne catching five (63 yards) and Heyward-Bey five (59 yards). You could call it workmanlike. Or winning.
The Colts had one poor defensive series against the 49ers, allowing Frank Gore to run wild (61 yards in the series) and set up a Kendall Hunter touchdown run. The Colts gave up essentially nothing after that.
The secondary, playing without injured safety LaRon Landry, showed sustained coverage of receivers that kept Kaepernick from capitalizing when he bought time with his legs. CBS' announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms talked about the 49ers' receivers struggles to get open. Credit that to the Colts defensive backs and linebackers. When the Kaepernick did complete passes, the Colts closed quickly for tackles. Kaepernick was 13 of 27 for 150 yards, one interception and three sacks.
(Incidentally, Simms said he would take Kaepernick over Luck if he were choosing a quarterback. Maybe he meant in a beard-growing contest.)
The Colts were also without Pat Angerer at linebacker, but Freeman's speed and tackling skills were dominant. The front line stood its ground and Redding, Mathis and others maintained heat on Kaepernick, making him rush his decisions.
The Colts defense forced five three-and-out 49ers possessions. It allowed no points in the second, third and fourth quarters. That's bottom-line quality.
We'll find out whether this is the first step in the vision coming into focus or a sneak preview of longer-range goals. So far, it seems the Colts have played to the level of their opponents. Let's hope that doesn't continue. They're at Jacksonville next Sunday.
For now, their surprising domination of the 49ers is front and center. That type of play is what Pagano and friends envision. If they sustain it – a legitimate “if” for now – the critics will become crickets, drowned out by all the cheering.