Commentary

Element of surprise helps Colts

RB Addai's first-ever TD pass fools 49ers, propels Colts to hard-fought victory

Originally Published: November 1, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Joseph AddaiBrian Spurlock/US PresswireThe Colts called on RB Joseph Addai to execute a bit of trickery against the 49ers.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Through three quarters and 61 offensive snaps Sunday afternoon, the Indianapolis Colts ran the football on consecutive plays exactly one time.

And so with tailback Joseph Addai having concluded the third quarter with a 10-yard burst over right tackle on Indianapolis' trademark "stretch" play, it stood to reason that the Colts, trailing San Francisco 14-12 and with a first down at the 49ers' 22-yard line, would open the final quarter with a pass, right?

Right indeed. Just not this pass.

On what amounted to a perfect play call for the situation by senior offensive coordinator Tom Moore, quarterback Peyton Manning handed again to Addai, who started off the left side, then pulled up short and lofted an arcing left-handed pass to wide receiver Reggie Wayne at the back of the end zone. Wayne, who had a game-high 12 catches and has clearly become the Colts' go-to receiver in the post-Marvin Harrison era, reached out to make a fingertip grab for an 18-14 lead that held up for the final score.

The play, the first touchdown pass of Addai's four-year professional career, was almost as big a stretch as the desperate lunge Wayne made to complete the winning catch.

"It probably wasn't as pretty as if Peyton had thrown it," sheepishly conceded Addai, a former high school quarterback, in the Colts' locker room, "but it got there. And that's what counts. It was just enough."

Indianapolis' lone touchdown of the afternoon -- Manning threw for 347 yards and, despite 17 snaps inside the San Francisco 39-yard line, settled for four Matt Stover field goals until Addai's surprising aerial -- was enough for the Colts to remain unbeaten at 7-0. First-year sideline boss Jim Caldwell is the first rookie coach in modern NFL history, since 1970, to start a season with victories in his first seven games. The Colts have now started a season 7-0 for the fourth time in five years, and Indianapolis has a winning streak of at least seven games in six straight campaigns.

Not that the victory was easily earned against the physical 49ers, who sacked Manning three times after he had not been sacked at all in his three previous games. And the win certainly didn't follow the normal script for the usually prolific Colts, who entered the game averaging 29.8 points per outing.

Addai (20 carries for 61 yards), Manning and tight end Dallas Clark all confirmed that, after having the halfback pass in the playbook for several years and leaving it undisturbed, the team rehearsed it twice during its practice Friday afternoon.

Obviously, the third time was a charm.

"The first time on Friday, [Addai] didn't sell it well enough," Manning related. "It looked almost too much like a fake run. I think Joseph showed 'pass' a little too soon when we were running it in practice. But this time, you could see [the 49ers] coming up to stop the run. Joseph really sold it well."

The stingy San Francisco defense bit hard for the fake, and the Colts, particularly Addai and Wayne, made them pay for their aggressiveness.

Said free safety Dashon Goldson, who finished with a game-high 10 tackles: "It's one of those plays where you start forward, then the ball goes back over your head, and you're thinking, 'Oh, [heck].' It's really frustrating, because we played so well."

That the Colts had to scrape so hard to remain undefeated was in part due to the tough inside running of San Francisco tailback Frank Gore, who scored on a 64-yard run on only the 49ers' fifth play from scrimmage, and the timely throwing of quarterback Alex Smith, who was making his first regular-season start since Nov. 12, 2007. The mobile Smith completed 19 of 32 passes for 198 yards, with an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis, the formerly disappointing first-rounder who now has four scoring grabs in the past two games.

But as stout as the San Francisco defense was, it failed to register a takeaway against its typically cautious opponent. Indianapolis is now 32-2, including 24 straight wins, when it doesn't turn the ball over since Manning came into the NFL in 1998.

Even though it protected the ball, Indianapolis was unusually lacking on third-down plays. The Colts converted 8 of 19 third downs overall, but were particularly bad on third downs of 4 yards or less. In the first half, the Colts were 0-for-5 on third-and-short and netted minus-7 yards.

In fact, it wasn't until the final minutes of the game, when Indianapolis ran out the final 5:45 of play to secure the victory, when the Colts finally converted on a third-down play of 4 yards or less.

"Yeah, it was getting really frustrating," allowed Clark, who finally ended the drought with 5- and 9-yard catches that enabled Indianapolis to kill the clock. "We're normally so good in the red zone and on third down … but that wasn't the case for whatever reason today. We were looking around at each other and thinking, 'OK, who's going to step up and make a play here?'"

In the end, it was Addai, who has not been particularly good this season in third-and-short situations, who finally made the play to save the day.

"Let's face it," Addai said, "I get paid for running the ball."

Not on this day, he didn't.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.