It feels weird and wrong to write an 0-4 team should win its next game, but that’s what I’m doing, folks. The winless 49ers should beat the 1-3 Colts on Sunday. Here’s why.
1. The Colts are worse than the 49ers.
How, you’re asking? The Colts actually won a game, unlike the 49ers. This is true, but the Colts beat the Browns, which is no big accomplishment. And the Colts beat the Browns by just three points. During the other three games, opponents outscored Indianapolis by 68 points.
The Niners have been outscored by only eight points the past three games. They’re less bad than the Colts. In this case, less bad is almost good.
Without looking at the Colts roster, how many players on it can you name? Five? Maybe six? They have the great Frank Gore, three-time-Pro-Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, rookie free safety Malik Hooker, Vernon Davis’ little brother Vontae and … that’s about it.
The Colts roster is full of nondescript players. Their offensive line is horrible. Their defensive line is horrible. Their linebackers are horrible. They’re a rebuilding team that hasn’t even begun to rebuild. They’re still in the demolition phase.
They’re as bad as they were the season before they drafted Andrew Luck, the season they won only two games. Luck practically is their entire team, and he’s out with a shoulder injury.
The Niners will face the Colts backup quarterback — Jacoby Brisett. He has started only five games during his career. The Niners should play well against him. They played well last week against Carson Palmer, who’s better than Brissett.
The Colts are the worst opponent on the 49ers schedule.
2. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has a ready-made game plan to stop the Colts offense.
Saleh doesn’t have to work hard or be creative this week. He just has to watch last week’s game between the Colts and Seahawks and copy the Seahawks defensive game plan.
The Seahawks laid it all out for Saleh when they beat the Colts 46-18. The Seahawks and 49ers run the exact same defensive scheme – Saleh used to coach for Seattle. Everything Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll does, Saleh can steal and apply to his players.
Saleh can steal the blitzes and pressure schemes Carroll used to hit Brissett 11 times and sack him three times. Saleh can steal Carroll’s coverages that shut down the Colts only weapon in the pass game, T.Y. Hilton. And Saleh can steal Carroll’s play calls that held Frank Gore to just 3.8 yards per carry.
There’s no shame in stealing from a mentor. Mike Holmgren famously stole from Bill Walsh during 1989, Holmgren’s first season as the 49ers offensive play caller. That season the Niners played the Bears at Candlestick, and Holmgren called virtually the same sequence of plays Walsh called against the Bears when the 49ers played them the previous season. Holmgren’s offense scored two touchdowns and the 49ers won 26-0.
3. The 49ers offense has significant matchup advantages over the Colts defense.
For starters, the Colts can’t stop the run. They gave up 194 rushing yards last week to the Seahawks. Carlos Hyde should have a big game.
Which means Brian Hoyer should play well, too. Hoyer is a good play-action passer. His run fakes this week will be effective against a Colts defense that will be focused on stopping Hyde and the rest of the 49ers running backs.
When Hoyer fakes a handoff and throws downfield, he will have two players he can count on to get open. One is rookie slot receiver Trent Taylor. Taylor usually matches up against a team’s nickelback, or No. 3 corner. But he won’t face the Colts’ No. 3 corner – Nate Hairston. Hairston is injured. Taylor will face the Colts’ No. 4 corner, whoever that may be. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano hasn’t said who will take Hairston’s place. Regardless of whom Pagano picks, Taylor will have the advantage.
The other player Hoyer can count on to get open is rookie running back Matt Breida. Breida is one of the fastest players on the 49ers offense and has fresh legs. The Colts don’t have a linebacker who’s fast enough to cover him.
Last week, Hoyer threw a touchdown pass in the red zone to Breida, but the touchdown didn’t count because Trent Taylor committed offensive pass interference. Look for the Niners to come back to Breida on Sunday, and not just in the red zone. He may catch a long pass down the sideline, as he did frequently during training camp.
4. The 49ers will play hard.
Even though the 49ers haven’t won a game, they have played extremely hard every week. And they will continue to play hard all season.
Some players would check out and stop trying if their team started a season 0-4. But the players on the Niners can’t afford to check out. They know their team is in a rebuilding, transitionary phase. They’re fighting to be here for Year 2 of the rebuild.
If the 49ers were to cut someone, who would sign that player? Who wants to draw from the discard pile of a team that’s 0-4? Getting cut by the 49ers could end someone’s career. Each 49er will play as if his livelihood is at stake.
5. The biggest threat to the 49ers in this game is themselves.
You could argue the 49ers have beaten themselves in every game this season. They certainly did last week.
They committed 13 penalties, turned the ball over once, allowed three sacks and dropped five passes. That’s 22 errors. And they were on the field for 79 plays. So they were trying to overcome their own mistakes for more than a quarter of the game.
If the Niners continue to butcher 25 percent of their plays, they’ll lose to the Colts. The Colts will know the Niners inevitably will give away the game.
The Niners can’t be the reason they lose. They have to give themselves a chance to win, and that means eliminating careless mistakes. I believe they will eliminate the mistakes. They’ve had a quarter of the season to fix this issue. I believe they will play a clean game and win by two points.
The final score will be 49ers 16, Colts 14.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.