An eventful week for the Indianapolis Colts culminates in their first, and possibly toughest, road trip of the season at San Francisco.
Everyone expects the 49ers to be Super Bowl contenders after their trip there a year ago. Few people know exactly what to expect from the Colts. Both are coming off losses, both are eager to regain season momentum.
The Colts are heavy underdogs, but here are five keys to pulling off a huge road win:
The Seahawks were able to dominate the 49ers last week by taking away quarterback Colin Kaepernick's passing game, disrupting his rhythm, ruining his looks and picking him off. Seattle could do that because of major trust in their secondary. The Colts' secondary is improved from a year ago, but both safeties LaRon Landry and Antoine Bethea were hobbled a bit this week. That's not good. Greg Toler takes risks. Vontae Davis is playing against his brother Vernon for the first time. The Colts' pass rush needs to step up in ways it hasn't so far.
Limit Kaepernick's runs
It's hard to judge which is more difficult for the Colts, slowing Kaepernick through the air or with his legs. The Colts had all sorts of issues with Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who scrambled and ran and disrupted everything, nearly pulling off an upset. Kaepernick is a better passer than Pryor. He can pick up major yardage with his legs, but he's better than Pryor at extending plays to find receivers, too. The Colts have been decent against stopping the traditional run. They can't afford to be burned by a rolling Kaepernick.
Drive long, score often
The Colts offense received a major boost, at least in spirits, by the acquisition of running back Trent Richardson. The move came after losing offensive lineman Donald Thomas, running back Vick Ballard and tight end Dwayne Allen to season-ending injuries. It's hard to say how much Richardson can do this week, having practiced with the team only since Thursday. But the Colts have to establish some ball-control drives, with Andrew Luck using a relatively balanced attack against a strong, motivated 49ers defense.
The loss of Allen was a huge blow for the Colts and for Luck's options on offense. He'll turn even more to Coby Fleener, his former tight end at Stanford. Fleener has to catch the easy passes as well as the tough ones. He has to stretch the defense a bit. No one expects him to be a blocking or pass-protecting force in the mold of Allen, but he has to contribute. If Fleener is productive as a target, that only makes things easier for Luck to utilize Reggie Wayne, Darrius Heyward-Bey and T.Y. Hilton.
This is an obvious key to any game, but it's heightened by the fact the 49ers thrive on their defense. If that defense picks off a pass or two or forces a fumble, it will be emboldened and rebound from a so-so effort against the Seahawks. Luck and the Colts offense improved late last season in limiting turnovers and he has only the one, albeit costly, interception in two games this season. Luck has to be on top of his game in knowing when to throw deep, when to check down and when to chuck it out of bounds.