Indianapolis Colts vs. San Francisco 49ers: Keys to Defending the Read Option


Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After a tough and disappointing loss to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday at home, the Indianapolis Colts are preparing for their first road game of the season. How sweet it would be to head into San Francisco with a 2-0 record? Unfortunately for the Colts, that is not the case. The Colts and the 49ers are both coming off tough losses last weekend, and are ready for a bounce-back performance.

For the first time this season, the Colts are without a doubt considered the underdogs in this match-up. Playing on the road at Candlestick Park against a Super Bowl team from last season doesn’t sound like fun and games at all. Having shown difficulties with stopping a mobile QB already this season against Terrelle Pryor and the Raiders in week 1, the Colts defense is in for a bigger challenge when they face a true game-changer in 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Unfortunately for the Colts, it’s not just the legs of Kaepernick that the Colts need to defend against. The 49ers already know about the Colts’ struggles against Terrelle Pryor and will certainly look to attack the defense with a heavy dose of the read-option offense.

Whether it is in the pistol or the shotgun formation, the 49ers have relied on the read-option in big time games. It was a 6.56 second, 60 yard touchdown by gallop by Kaepernick that helped the 49ers defeat the Green Bay Packers in last year’s NFC Championship game. 6.56 seconds? Ridiculous.

I really hope that the 49ers don’t find that same success this Sunday against the Colts that they found against the Packers. Thankfully, there are ways to stop the read-option, and if the Colts can play their best defensive game of the season, there are ways to slow down Kaepernick and the 49ers read option offense.

Before I start talking about who can do what and what group needs to step up for the Colts, let me explain just what the read option is. Thankfully, it’s an easy concept that revolves around one basic play, in which the QB, usually in the shotgun with a running back next to him, takes the snap and does one of two things. His options are: hand off to the back on a dive between the tackles, or keep the ball and run around the outside. The QB is the brains of the operation. As the play developes, the QB reads a deliberately unblocked player usually playing as a rush LB or DE on the line. If the defensive player takes horizontal steps to attack the RB, the QB will keep the ball and run around him. If that defensive player reads QB keeper all the way and takes off vertically, the QB will make the exchange and let the RB do his work.

When the Colts have faced Tom Brady in the past, or when they prepare to take on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos this season, one thing is for certain, they don’t have to worry about these two beating them on every play with their legs. Unfortunately, it’s a different story this weekend.

When the intentional unblocked defensive player reads wrong and lets the QB burn right by him, it quickly becomes 11 offensive player vs 10 defensive players. So what can the Colts due to not get burned on Sunday? There are really two options, but one I prefer the most.

The first is to “slow down” on defense. The Colts could play Bjoern Werner at the rush linebacker spot. As the play develops, Werner would take a few hard steps forward and then react to the dive or the keeper. The job of the unblocked defender in a slow paced situation is to put doubt in the QB’s head by taking away his fast read. Even the smallest bit of hesitation can swing the advantage back to the defense. Indianapolis could play LB Erik Walden as the unblocked defender in the slow read. Walden is known as a run stopper and offers good speed to catch up to the QB on a keeper or the RB if the QB decided to pitch it too him outside. With Walden’s ability to set the edge and stop the run, I would rather have him on the left side of the ball. Walden got burned quite often last season in the playoffs against Kaepernick when the Packers tried to send him as the read when they used a type of “slow down” approach.

While many coaches preach the slowed down pace when facing the read option, I have to disagree. The Colts preach fast, strong, aggressive, and relentless, and with that in mind, the “slow down” just doesn’t fit that mold. A large part has to do with their personnel. When you have the monster that is 5 time Pro Bowler Robert Mathis, asking him to slow down would be a disgrace and an insult to his skill set.

The second option is the alternative “speed up” option that I hope to see on Sunday. This fast passed defensive attack is all about relentlessly attacking the QB. The unblocked player, or in this case for the Colts, Robert Mathis, charges the QB, forcing him to make quick decisions. The goal is to get Kaepernick as uncomfortable as humanly possible, forcing him to make wrong decisions that will ultimately lead to losses of yardage and even turnovers. If the QB keeps the ball, Mathis will crush him, if he hands it off, the fast-closing defender Mathis will arrive just after arrive after the exchange just in time to deliver a legal blow on the QB. Thankfully for the Colts, Kaepernick has never seen the likes of Robert Mathis. Repeated hits from Mathis would definitely add up over the course of the game, leaving Kaepernick a bit unsettled on offense.

The best part of the “speed up” scenario is that it makes the day a lot easier for Mathis. His only job is to ignore the running back and stick to the QB in every situation. The responsibility of stopping the RB on the option goes to the defensive line and the tackling machines Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman. Everybody on defense has a duty and if each defender performs this duty well, each read option threat should be covered. If guys up front like Aubrayo Franklin and Josh Chapman can consistently drive their man back and demand a double team, the LB’s jobs become easier when stopping the run and will allow Saftey LaRon Landry to run clean allies to get to the RB or Kaepernick even quicker if they get past the outside linebacker.

Thankfully for Mathis, all these potential hits on Kaepernick are considered legal according to NFL’s Vice President of Officiaitng, Dean Blandino. This offseason, Blandino said the following about the quarterback in the read option:

"“He is still treated as a runner until he is clearly out of the play. The quarterback makes the pitch, he’s still a runner – he can be hit like a runner until he’s clearly out of the play. The quarterback and the running back, they’re both treated as runners. We don’t know who has the football, we don’t know who’s going to take it, so both players are treated as runners.”"

Although Mathis and the Colts defense seem set up for success on defense, there is a big factor missing from the 49ers read options threat. That factor is the passing ability of Colin Kaepernick. The read option suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to defend when you’re able to pull the ball back off of the RB and sling it to an open receiver for a big gain. Kaepernick has some outstanding weapons to throw to with WR Anquan Boldin and TE Vernon Davis.

The only true shot the Colts have of shutting down the 49ers on offense lies heavily on the secondary. With the defensive line and linebackers focused on their assignment, getting pressure and stopping the run, the Colts must rely on the ability of their secondary to play tight zero, or man-to-man coverage. Stopping the run takes up so much of the defense’s brainpower, but to effectively shut down the read-option, defensive coordinators must place more trust in their cornerbacks to turn and run with wide receivers down the field. As Evan Massey pointed out, the Colts thankfully have the necessary play-makers in their defensive backfield, they just have to make the plays. Greg Toler has shown his ability to get his hands on the football to swat passes away or even get interceptions. Antoine Bethea always makes plays and is considered a rock for the Colts defense. Bethea always seems to make the right play on the ball and is an outstanding open field tackler. Vontae Davis on the other hand? His number hasn’t been called much the past two games. While that might be a good thing if he isn’t getting called out for being burned by the WR, he is due for a big game this season and the Colts couldn’t ask for a better time than on the road against the 49ers at Candlestick Park.

With LaRon Landry ruled out on Sunday, the job of the secondary becomes increasingly difficult. Ideally, the Colts would use Landry in the box on the read option with Bethea patrolling the deep middle and man-to-man coverage. That job will probably now go to Joe Lefeged or Sergio Brown.

The key to stopping the read-option for the Colts is to bring a “stop the run, defend the pass” approach, getting the offense in third and long situations. Third and long creates a distinct defensive edge by reducing the effectiveness of the option run and the play action fake and lets you defense send pressure on the QB with a bit more coverage downfield. Of course none of this happens if the Colts don’t set the edge on running plays. Erik Walden will be key in setting the edge along with the ability of the defensive line to eat up blockers and get off of blocks quickly.

With pressure up front, a set edge on running plays, a green light for Mathis to attack Kaepernick, tight man coverage, and solid tackling all around, the Colts should have an easier time against the 49ers on defense come Sunday.

Chris Fultz is a Staff Writer at Naptown’s Finest. Follow Chris and Naptown’s Finest on Twitter.