Colts at 49ers: What to watch for Sunday night

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Indianapolis Colts running back Nyheim Hines (21) hands the ball to running back Jonathan Taylor (28), during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Colts defeated the Dolphins 27-17. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ primetime meeting Sunday with the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Kickoff: 8:20 p.m.

Broadcast: NBC.

History lesson

We can spin the Colts’ track record on NBC’s SNF stage in a positive manner. They’ve won their last two appearances, and each was memorable. There was the epic 19-13 upset of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium in 2019 and a 33-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville in the NFL’s final regular-season game in ’18. The latter clinched a wild-card berth and the franchise’s first playoff spot since ’14.

And we can spin Indy’s recent SNF history in a negative light. Prior to the back-to-back keepers, there were six consecutive losses.

Also, the Colts have won the last four meetings with the Niners. The most recent was a 26-23 overtime nod at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2017. You remember that Jacoby Brissett vs. Brian Hoyer battle, right? Adam Vinatieri ended it with a 51-yard field goal.

Handle the weather

It’s a pleasant Saturday in Santa Clara. Temperatures in the mid-60s and a light breezy. Enjoy it while you can.

The forecast for Sunday night involves heavy rain and wind gusts that might approach 50 mph. The local community has been warned of possible flooding and – wait for it – mudslides.

In preparation for whatever conditions are present at kickoff, coach Frank Reich put his team through outdoor practices this week. Thursday, that meant dealing with a stiff breeze. Friday, the wind had subsided a tad, but there was a steady drizzle.

“We’re as prepared as we can be,’’ Reich said.

Even if the conditions are just miserable and not severe, Sunday night’s outcome probably hinges on which team is able to operate with a higher degree of efficiency and can avoid a game-swinging turnover(s). You know, a botched center exchange or handoff, or pass that goes through a receiver’s hands and is intercepted because the football is wet and slippery.

The Colts have suffered just five turnovers, tied for second-fewest in the league. Carson Wentz is the only quarterback who’s started every game who has just one interception on his ledger. Remember that shovel pass against the Rams? Running backs have yet to fumble on 138 attempts and the passing game has spread 126 receptions among 12 players with nary a fumble.

That’s not an attempt at jinxing these guys. It’s to point out how the coaching staff stresses ball security and it’s finding receptive ears.

The Niners are a minus-5 in the takeaway-giveaway department, but that’s more a reflection of their inability to generate takeaways than sloppiness. Their defense has just two takeaways in five games, tied with Jacksonville for the fewest in the league. The offense has turned it over seven times.

Sunday, ball security in what likely will be nasty conditions is paramount.

Hand it to Taylor

Reich is confident Wentz possesses the arm talent to throw in any conditions, and we’ll defer to him on that subject. But we suggest he and coordinator Marcus Brady lean heavier on their running game and an offensive line that embraces the return of left guard Quenton Nelson.

Jonathan Taylor ranks 5th in the league in rushing (472 yards) and has been gathering steam of late. He’s averaging 100 yards per game and 6.9 yards per attempt over the last three games. The offense has followed his lead, averaging 145.3 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per attempt during that span which has complemented Wentz’s strong play.

The Niners’ defense ranks 18th against the run (113.2), but won’t be a soft touch even though tackle Javon Kinlaw (knee) and backup tackle Maurice Hurst (calf) will miss the game. Since being gouged for 151 yards in a 17-11 win at Philadelphia in week 2, it has allowed averages of 99.7 yards per game and 3.7 per attempt during the team’s three-game losing streak.

Handle Bosa

Pass protection has been an issue for Indy. Wentz has been sacked 14 times in six games, and at least twice in each game. Blame a patchwork offensive line, but also blame Wentz for occasionally holding onto the football too long.

Everyone should be on high alert because of the presence of end Nick Bosa. The 2nd overall pick in the 2019 draft has 5 of the Niners’ 11 sacks along with eight tackles for loss. Bosa is a game-wrecking presence.

“Very, very good player; very talented,’’ left tackle Eric Fisher said. “Has a motor like no other, just flying around to the ball.

“Heck of a challenge for me, but as an offensive lineman, you look forward to these kind of matchups and challenges.’’

Handle Samuels

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returns after missing one game with a calf injury. His running game took a hit when Raheem Mostert suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Detroit, which shifted the load to rookies Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell. The Niners’ ground game ranks 12th in yards per game (120.0) and 14th in yards per attempt (4.2).

Whatever troubles the Colts’ defense has had this season, dealing with the run isn’t near the top of the list. And that probably will be the case again Sunday, especially with tackle DeForest Buckner looking forward to a reunion with the franchise that traded him away prior to the 2020 season.

Work against the pass, though, has been a different matter. Indy catches a break with tight end George Kittle still on IR with a calf injury, but Deebo Samuel is a serious threat. The 2019 second-round draft pick ranks 5th in the NFL with 548 yards and his 17.7 per-catch average is 3rd among receivers with at least 20 catches. Samuel opened the season with nine catches and 189 yards at Detroit and had eight for 156 in week 4 against Seattle.

The weather conditions might limit the big-play opportunities, or aid Samuel. If the Colts miss a tackle, he’ll make them pay. He’s had three receptions of at least 40 yards this season, tied for 3rd-most in the league. His 79-yard TD against the Lions is the league’s second-longest reception this season. He also had a 76-yarder against Seattle.

It’s worth noting the Colts will be without starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (ankle) and starting free safety Julian Blackmon (placed on IR with a torn Achilles).

It’s also worth noting the Colts’ pass defense has allowed six receptions of at least 40 yards, tied for second-most in the league.

And the winner is: Colts 17, Niners 14.

OK, I’m reversing field on this one. I entered the week believing the Colts would play well, but fall short. My reasoning? They would miss the big-play capabilities of T.Y. Hilton and Julian Blackmon. But the more I’ve thought about it, if the weather conditions are as bad as the extended forecast indicates, this one won’t hinge on generating big plays, but making enough of the routine ones and avoiding turnovers. I like the way the Colts are going about their business. Besides, this is one of those “winnable’’ games that will be so critical if they’re going to be relevant in December.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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