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NFL Preview - San Francisco (3-3) at Indianapolis (6-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Peyton Manning and Alex Smith both have the distinction of being former No. 1 overall draft picks, but the careers of the two quarterbacks couldn't have gone any more differently up to this point.
Smith will have a long-awaited chance to alter his fallen-star status when the San Francisco 49ers signal-caller returns to a starting role for this Sunday's showdown with Manning and the undefeated Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Things haven't quite turned out as planned for Smith ever since the 49ers selected the University of Utah star with the top choice of the 2005 draft. After battling through injuries and struggling to adjust to both the faster- paced world of the NFL and his team's constant shuffling of offensive coordinators over his first three pro seasons, the 25-year-old missed all of 2008 due to shoulder surgery and lost out to journeyman Shaun Hill in a training-camp battle to be San Francisco's field general this summer.
Hill's production has dropped off mightily after a solid start to the year, however, and he gave way to Smith following a very ineffective first half of last Sunday's game with the Houston Texans. In his first regular-season action since November of 2007, Smith put up 206 yards and tossed three touchdowns to tight end Vernon Davis in just two quarters of work as the Niners' nearly overcame a 21-point halftime deficit in a 24-21 loss.
That impressive performance resonated with head coach Mike Singletary, who promptly named Smith the starter for this weekend's test on Monday. The fiery Hall of Fame former linebacker is keeping his fingers crossed that the one- time can't-miss prospect can breathe some life into an offense that ranks 29th out of the NFL's 32 teams in total yards.
Manning has had far fewer tribulations in a stellar 12-year career that will almost assuredly put the recognizable quarterback alongside Singletary in Canton one day. And judging by his accomplishments of this season, the 33- year-old three-time league MVP seems to be getting better with age.
He ripped off five straight games of 300 passing yards or more to begin the 2009 campaign, then tossed three touchdown strikes in a 235-yard effort that helped the powerhouse Colts abuse the woeful St. Louis Rams by a 42-6 score this past Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. The win was the 15th in a row dating back to last season for 6-0 Indianapolis, one of only three remaining teams boasting an unblemished mark this year.
Through the first six games, Manning is completing a career-best 72.6 percent of his attempts and has thrown 15 touchdown passes to top the NFL with a 114.5 quarterback rating.
The 49ers come in reeling, having dropped three of four tilts since kicking off the season with encouraging victories over fellow NFC West members Arizona and Seattle. San Francisco, which has not reached the postseason since 2002, currently sits a game back of the defending conference champion Cardinals for first place in the division.
Indianapolis holds a 23-18 edge in its all-time series with San Francisco, and snapped a two-game skid in the series with a 28-3 win at Candlestick Park in 2005. The 49ers won the previous meeting, taking a 40-21 decision at the RCA Dome in 2001. The Colts, who haven't posted a two-game winning streak over San Francisco since 1968, last defeated the Niners at home in 1995.
The Colts' Jim Caldwell and Singletary will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Although all eyes will be on Smith (206 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT), expect San Francisco to attempt to establish a consistent ground game centered around top back Frank Gore (273 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 4 total TD) with the intent of both alleviating the burden on the sparingly-used quarterback and keeping Manning and the dangerous Indianapolis offense off the field. Such a task may be easier said than done for the Niners, however, since the team has surpassed 100 yards rushing only one time this year behind a shaky front line that lost right tackle Tony Pashos to a season-ending shoulder fracture in last week's setback. Gore returned from a two-game absence due to an ankle sprain against the Texans, but could generate only 32 yards on 13 carries. Smith quickly establish an excellent rapport with leading receiver Davis (29 receptions, 6 TD), a physical marvel who's finally meeting the expectations of being the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft. Rookie wideout Michael Crabtree added five catches for 56 yards in the Houston game, his ballyhooed NFL debut after sitting out the season's first five tests because of a contract dispute.
Smith figures to face a stern challenge from a Colts defense that's yielding a league-low 5.5 yards per pass attempt and has surrendered only two touchdowns through the air in the club's six victories. Opposing quarterbacks have had to unload the ball quickly against the tremendous pass-rushing duo of ends Dwight Freeney (13 tackles, 7 sacks) and Robert Mathis (20 tackles, 4.5 sacks), with the former having notched at least one sack in every game this season and the latter forcing three fumbles thus far on the year. Teams have had greater success running the ball on Indianapolis, which stands just 19th overall versus the run (111.8 ypg) and gave up 134 yards on 23 attempts to St. Louis star Steven Jackson a week ago. That ranking could improve now that former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders is finally healthy. The difference- making strong safety, who's been recovering from offseason knee surgery, played for the first time in 2009 against the Rams and was used in a rotation with Melvin Bullitt (26 tackles) and top tackler Antoine Bethea (42 tackles, 2 INT).
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The Indianapolis offense has been operating at maximum efficiency throughout this 2009 campaign, as the Colts are averaging a shade under 30 points per game and have converted better than 53 percent of their third-down chances in addition to topping the NFL in passing yards (310.8 ypg). Manning (1880 passing yards, 15 TD, 4 INT) has been playing at a level even higher than his usual lofty standards, while All-Pro wide receiver Reggie Wayne (39 receptions, 542 yards, 5 TD) and tight end Dallas Clark (38 receptions, 485 yards, 3 TD) are among the elite at their respective positions as well. Wayne, who left with a groin strain in last Sunday's blowout but isn't expected to miss this weekend's test, has a touchdown catch in four consecutive games, while rookie slotman Austin Collie (24 receptions, 4 TD) has hauled in four scoring deliveries from Manning over Indy's past three outings. With regular starter Anthony Gonzalez likely to sit out another week to recover from a knee sprain, Collie should hold down a key role in the passing game once again. Rookie running back Donald Brown (212 rushing yards, 2 TD, 7 receptions) is also expected to miss after suffering a shoulder contusion against the Rams, meaning the steady Joseph Addai (274 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 5 total TD) will be taking on the bulk of the ball-carrying duties. He's averaging a pedestrian 3.3 yards per rush, however, for a Colts attack that ranks only 27th in rushing offense (91.7 ypg).
Addai could find the going tough on Sunday, considering the 49ers are allowing a mere 3.3 yards per rush attempt and have not let an opposing back over the 100-yard mark this season. A sturdy front seven is headlined by dynamic inside linebacker Patrick Willis (59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT), and that group should be bolstered by the slated return of hard-hitting strong safety Michael Lewis (30 tackles) from a concussion that rendered him inactive against Houston. Stopping the pass has been more of a chore for San Francisco, which allowed Atlanta's Matt Ryan to compile a career-best 329 yards in a lopsided loss to the Falcons two weeks back and permitted 246 net passing yards and two touchdowns to the Texans last time out. It's imperative that outside linebackers Manny Lawson (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Parys Haralson (14 tackles, 1 sack) apply effective pressure to Manning, but that's no easy feat. The Colts have given up just two sacks on the season and zero over the last four games.
In the most glaring overstatement of the obvious in this preview, Manning should be in all fantasy lineups under any circumstances. Wayne owners should monitor his progress in the days leading up to Sunday's game, but if the stud wide receiver practices without any major restrictions, he's a no-brainer start as well. This contest features two of the premier tight ends this season in Indianapolis' Clark and San Francisco's Davis, both of whom need to be used this week. Without the threat of having touches taken away by the ailing Brown, Addai becomes an attractive choice at the running back position, while the 49ers will be feeding the ball heavily to Gore. Smith is now worth picking up off the waiver wire, but hold off on playing the resurgent quarterback right now. Crabtree's solid showing in his debut bodes very well for the rookie's chances of making an impact this season, and one could do worse that inserting the young wideout as a bye-week fill-in. With the 49ers struggling to move the ball and about to be led by a guy who's played two quarters of real football in nearly a two-year span, the Indianapolis defense becomes a strong choice.
Smith's relief effort was certainly an encouraging sign for the 49ers, and with Davis establishing himself as a go-to guy and Crabtree and Gore back in the fold, there's finally some talent in place for the team to break out of its offensive funk. Problem is, San Francisco's going to have to win a shootout in order to take down an Indianapolis squad that's firing on all cylinders right now, and the Niners just simply aren't at that stage of development as of yet. Look for the formula to be the same for the Colts as it was in many of their 15 straight victories, with Manning and the offense roaring out to an early lead that will allow Freeney and the defense to pin its ears back and attack.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 34, 49ers 17
10/29 10:04:08 ET