SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts square off in Week 5 on Sunday with the Niners still seeking their first victory. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. ET at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Here are three things to watch from the Niners' perspective going in to this matchup:
Offensive breakout coming?
The 49ers teased a full-blown offensive breakthrough in Week 3, when they put up 39 points against the Rams. But the fact remains: That game was the only one of four this season in which the Niners have scored a touchdown.
Could that change Sunday? Signs point to yes, as Indianapolis enters this meeting allowing a league-worst 34 points per game. For their part, the 49ers look as though they'll be healthy, with receiver Marquise Goodwin on track to return from a concussion and running back Carlos Hyde not even appearing on Friday's injury report after dealing with an oblique issue.
The Niners believe they're on the verge of getting over the hump.
"It’s encouraging because you can see that you’re only a few plays away," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "But it’s also tough to swallow because you know that you’re that close. And we’re not. We’re 0-4. It’s a results business. No one’s going to care that we almost won that game, or almost won this game. You only care if you win. It’s tough, but you can either go in one of two directions. You can say I’m going to just keep doing what I’m doing, or are you going to work that much harder to get that extra edge to win that game.”
Particular areas to watch for the offense: penalties and drops. The Niners are tied with the Seahawks as the most-penalized team in the league and have the most drops in the NFL. Improvement in both areas will be paramount in landing their first victory.
Keep the pressure coming
Last week, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said when the sacks start to come for his defense, they'll come in bunches. That proved prophetic in Week 4, when the Niners dropped Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer six times and hit him an additional 16.
Of course, that came against a porous Cardinals offensive line. The good news for San Francisco is that Indianapolis actually isn't much better when it comes to protecting quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Pro Football Focus ranks the Colts No. 28 in the league in pass-protection efficiency, noting that the offensive line has allowed 48 pressures and eight sacks. Overall, with running backs, tight ends and others in the protection mix, Indianapolis has yielded 14 sacks on the season.
The Niners have been hit or miss in getting to quarterbacks in the first four games, taking advantage of Arizona and Seattle but not getting home against the Rams or Panthers. While there's plenty of reason to believe they can get to Brissett, he does offer a different challenge than Palmer because of his mobility.
"He’s not as much of a run threat as Russell [Wilson], or Cam [Newton], but I think Brissett is a really underrated quarterback," Saleh said. "The guy can make every throw. He sits back there. He sits back there tall, strong. He does have good patience. And he can throw everything."
It's up to the 49ers to make Brissett uncomfortable.
Through the first four weeks, the Niners' most successful unit has been special teams. It comes as a bit of a surprise after that group struggled in the preseason. But any cause for alarm disappeared once the Niners began using players in that phase of the game who were actually on the 53-man roster.
Pro Football Focus ranks the 49ers as the top special-teams unit in the league, a ranking that's validated by their standing in expected points added, a metric that measures total performance from a given unit. The 49ers are second to the Raiders in EPA with 18.86. They were on a record-setting pace after three games, but that number didn't move much after Week 4 in Arizona.
Still, the combination of strong kicking from Robbie Gould, punting from Bradley Pinion, excellent coverage on punts and solid return work has helped the Niners stay within striking distance in three narrow losses.
Coach Kyle Shanahan wants to see that consistency continue, though.
"It starts with effort, but it goes to executing and playing the best that you can," Shanahan said. "Statistic-wise and result-wise, we’ve done a better job of that on special teams compared to the other two phases. We’ve been more consistent in all four games, like you’re saying. I don’t come to conclusions really until the year’s over. There’s a lot of ebbs and flows throughout a year. Each game is different depending on the matchups, what type of people you’re going against. You always rate a team, but it’s also different, the battles inside a game, what’s the matchup, the offense versus their defense? The defense versus their offense and the special teams? Each week is a little bit different. I think our special teams has definitely been the most consistent and done the best so far, but we’ll see when the year is over.”
The test Sunday will be to succeed without two of their key special-teams performers: safety Adrian Colbert and linebacker Dekoda Watson, who won't be available because of injury. The Colts don't necessarily have a dangerous returner, but anytime there are moving pieces on coverage units, there's always the chance for a big play to go the other way.
In a game that figures to be close, special teams could make the difference.