Get inside this week's Colts-49ers primetime matchup with a look at Jonathan Taylor's emergence as an elite running back, DeForest Buckner's return to San Francisco and more ahead of Sunday Night Football. JJ Stankevitz
1. Jonathan Taylor is continuing to prove himself as an elite running back.
We're one-third through the 2021 NFL season and, to the surprise of no one inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, Jonathan Taylor has established himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Entering Week 7, Taylor is:
3rd in yards per touch among running backs (6.7) 3rd in rushing yards after contact per attempt (3.8) 5th in explosive running plays (13) 6th in total rushing yards 472 7th in yards per carry (5.4)
He has two plays of 76+ yards and, with his 76-yard touchdown on a screen against the Baltimore Ravens, became the first Colts player with a play that long since 2017. His 83-yard run against the Houston Texans one week later set a franchise record as the longest play in Colts history.
"He's doing it not just in the run game, he's doing it in the pass game too and that's what makes him so very special and that's why he's one of the best backs in the league because of how explosive he is," linebacker Darius Leonard said. "He gets on the outside and nobody catches him."
Taylor is an integral part of the Colts' offense - he can grind out first downs in short-yardage situations, slam a home run from anywhere on the field and be a dangerous weapon as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. And Taylor, in his second year in the NFL, has focused on doing whatever he can to stay on the field over the grind of a 17-game season.
"He's always in the training room, he's always got some kind of machine on his body making sure he's taking care of himself because he understands what his role is," Leonard said. "... He knows he can't make no plays standing on the sideline."
Taylor has put plenty of effort and focus into "pre-hab" - which means Taylor spends quite a bit of time in the Colts' training room even though he's not hurt.
"I live in the training room - even when I'm not hurt, I'm always there," wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. "I look over to my left, I see (Taylor) there getting work in."
Needing to have that dedication to "pre-hab" was one of the more eye-opening things Taylor experienced going from college to the NFL.
"Especially in college, you kind of associate the training room as a negative - you don't want to be in the training room," Taylor said. "But being here, talking to a lot of other vets, most of the time those guys that are in the training room, they're there doing pre-hab, things to prevent further injuries or trying to strengthen a certain area of weakness that you have whether it be a ligament or a joint or something like that. So that's something that I definitely learned last year going into this year is the training room doesn't necessarily mean you're in a bad spot."
All of those efforts are helping Taylor ascend to elite status among NFL running backs. His speed, toughness, vision, versatility and reliability are coming together in a big way - just like the Colts believed those traits would.
"We all saw that during training camp," offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. "You could tell he was taking that next step - just the confidence that he had while he was running the ball during training camp, he looked really sharp. He looked really good. His cuts were decisive, making defenders miss and just his understanding of the offense. You could just tell he could just play faster."
2. Will some rough weather impact the game?
As of Friday afternoon, the Weather Channel's description of Sunday includes: "Potential for flooding rains...1 to 2 inches of rain expected." It'll be windy and wet - hardly the kind of conditions conducive to throwing the ball.
"The forecast is not good," head coach Frank Reich said. "We've talked about it all week. We got good work, doing a lot of wet ball drill - we had a perfect day yesterday for practice, it was pretty breezy, and then it rained today for practice. I understand what they're calling for, it'll be a lot worse than yesterday and today but I think the players have done a lot with the wet ball this whole week, not just one day. We're as prepared as we can be."
The Colts held their Friday practice outdoors on a rainy afternoon in Indianapolis, and Thursday's practice was amid some breezy conditions. Those, conveniently, helped dial in a few rules for players when they take the field Sunday in a soggy Bay Area.
But the rain and wind will not necessarily push the Colts to solely focus on running the ball on Sunday.
"I think you have to adapt and adjust in-game. You have to get a feel," Reich said. I think you can still throw it. Obviously I've coached and played in a lot of bad weather games so I feel like I have some experience with that. I think we've got a good, strong-armed quarterback, I think we got the right kind of players we can still mix it up. But you gotta make those little adaptations during the game depending on the wind and the direction of the wind."
3. Will DeForest Buckner have a little extra against his former team?
DeForest Buckner will face the 49ers for the first time since he was traded to the Colts in exchange for a first-round draft pick last year.
"It's a little personal," Buckner laughed.
Buckner was a first-round pick of the 49ers in 2016 and racked up 28 1/2 sacks in four seasons in San Francisco. He was a 2018 Pro Bowler and had 1 1/2 sacks in Super Bowl LIV - his final game, as it turned out, with the 49ers.
But in addressing how he'll feel on Sunday night, he put it the best way: "I don't know."
"Life coming full circle, I guess. I don't know," Buckner said. "Definitely don't know how I'm going to feel when I get out there, get on the field. It's probably going to be a mix of emotions, you know what I'm saying? That's where I started my family, out there. That's where I got the opportunity to play this game on the highest level possible, they drafted me. I poured my heart and soul out in that organization for four years that I was there. It's going to be interesting."
But now that Buckner is over a year removed from the sting of being traded, he has less of a hankering to prove his old team wrong. Instead, he wants to prove his current team right for investing and believing in him.
"I shifted that perspective a little bit last year," Buckner said. "It was early on for sure. I kind of shifted that mindset to I'm going to prove to the Indianapolis Colts why they paid me. I'm going to do everything in my power, I'm going to pour my heart and soul into this organization and show them why they made the decision to pick me."
4. Who's in and who's out?
We already know the Colts will be without safety Julian Blackmon (Achilles), right tackle Braden Smith (foot/thumb), defensive end Kemoko Turay (groin), running back Jordan Wilkins (non-football illness) and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (ankle) on Sunday. But there are two big decisions looming ahead of gameday: First, will wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (quad) play, and second, will left guard Quenton Nelson (ankle) be activated from injured reserve?
Hilton did not practice this week and is officially questionable with the injury he sustained during the fourth quarter of the Colts' 31-3 win over the Houston Texans in Week 6.
"It's probably not likely that he's going to go, but I'm not going to rule it out just yet," Reich said. "I just want to talk to him tomorrow, see how he's feeling tomorrow. He pushed it today a little bit to see if he was close and because it's T.Y., I just want to wait one more day before making any final determination."
Nelson missed the Colts' last three games with an ankle injury suffered in Week 3 against the Titans - with those being the first missed games of his NFL career. Reich said he's "very optimistic" about Nelson's potential availability on Sunday night, and a decision on whether or not to activate him from injured reserve will be made over the weekend.
If Nelson does return against the 49ers, the Colts will begin a rotation at right guard between Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed, the latter of whom excelled in place of Nelson at left guard in Weeks 4-6.
On the 49ers' side, defensive tackles Javon Kinlaw and Maurice Hurst are out along with quarterback Trey Lance. And left tackle Trent Williams is doubtful with an ankle/elbow injury, so we'll keep an eye on his status leading up to gametime.
5. Jimmy Garoppolo will start for the 49ers, and some other observations on San Francisco.
We won't get a Bison-off between former North Dakota State quarterbacks in Carson Wentz and Lance, as Lance - the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft - is out with a knee injury. The 49ers will go back to veteran Jimmy Garoppolo, who suffered a calf injury in Week 4 but is good to go following San Francisco's bye week.
Garoppolo, in four games, has completed 66 percent of his passes for 925 yards (7.8 yards/attempt) with five touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 96.9.
Two players to keep an eye on Sunday, one on each side of the ball:
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel has been one of the most explosive players in the NFL this year - he and Taylor are the only players in the NFL with multiple plays of 76+ yards entering Week 7. Samuel leads the 49ers with 52 targets, 31 catches, 548 yards and three touchdowns. With tight end George Kittle on injured reserve, Samuel looks like an even bigger part of the 49ers' air attack. Defensive end Nick Bosa has five sacks in five games with six quarterback hits, both of which rank in the top 10 among pass rushers this season.