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SF ground game gives Colts another big test

Mike Marot

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Alex Smith has been stealing the headlines in San Francisco all week.

He’s back as 49ers starting quarterback and getting help from the recently signed Michael Crabtree and the rejuvenated Vernon Davis. It looks like a whole new offense.

The unbeaten Colts aren’t buying it.

“I don’t think they’re going to change their game plan just because he (Smith) is in there,” cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. “I think they’re going to try to get (Frank Gore) the ball.”

If the 49ers make their expected power play, Indianapolis (6-0) will be in for a real challenge.

While three-time MVP Peyton Manning has gotten much of the credit for Indy taking another perfect mark into November, the fourth time in five years, it’s the Colts’ defense that has made the starkest improvements. The pass defense Smith faces is ranked No. 6 in the NFL even with rookie Jerraud Powers starting five games and undrafted rookie Jacob Lacey playing a prominent role since Week 2.

But the run defense remains a work in progress.

Indy is allowing 4.3 yards per carry, though it has played four of the league’s top nine rushers. Gore is next in line, and he has something to prove after returning from an ankle injury and producing just 32 yards rushing last week at Houston.

So with a new quarterback and a preference for power over finesse, why would the 49ers (3-3) change?

“I would think the way Mike (Singletary) likes to play the game, they would be more of a run-oriented team,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “But they can spread it out and mix it up a little bit.”

Actually, Singletary is seeking more balance in his offense. The hope is Smith will provide that.

The top pick in the 2005 draft won back his starting job after throwing three TD passes in the second half, all to Davis, in relief of Shaun Hill. It will be Smith’s first start since Nov. 12, 2007, and coincidentally, it comes against the same team Smith faced in his first NFL start.

Singletary, the 49ers coach, is cautious about what should be expected.

“It’s not that you just look at the quarterback position and go, ‘Hey, yeah, we got a quarterback, so let’s go,”‘ he said. “It is looking at the entire team, some of the things that we have done, some of the things we’ve been able to do, some of the things we haven’t done very well. I just think we have to give ourselves a chance to get out there and play the game and play it as best as we can.”

That won’t be easy against Indy, which continues to meet its high standards.

Manning, a No. 1 overall draft pick (in 1998) like Smith, is also coming off a three-touchdown game. The Colts have topped 30 points each of the past four weeks, have won all four games by at least 17 points, and need one more win to become the eighth team in league history with 16 consecutive regular-season wins.

And, they’re playing at home for the first time since Oct. 4.

Consider, too, that the 49ers will be missing right tackle Tony Pashos, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a broken left shoulder blade. Singletary has not said who will replace Pashos, but it’s likely Adam Snyder, who shared the right tackle job with Pashos earlier this season.

That means Snyder has to slow down Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis and occasionally Indy’s other Pro Bowl end, Freeney. The tag-team tandem already has combined for 11 1/2 sacks and four fumbles this season.

“I don’t know if you can really game-plan against a guy like that,” Singletary said of Freeney. “He’s spinning and turning and flying and doing all kinds of stuff coming off the ball, and we’re going to have our hands full trying to allow Alex enough time to throw the football instead of throwing on the run.”

The bigger question is whether Indy can slow down Gore?

Last week, Steven Jackson bowled over the Colts for 134 yards. But the Colts have kept winless Tennessee and winless St. Louis out of the end zone in the last two games and they’ll need to slow down Gore to run that streak to three.

“The main thing is we’ve got to stop these guys,” Hayden said. “In the NFL, you’re going to face an elite back every week. Last week, Jackson had 134 against us and we can’t have two weeks back-to-back like that.”