They didn't come from the right arm of four-time league MVP Peyton Manning, but the 49ers will gladly take four interceptions at the expense of his backups.
After all, those errant passes from Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks Curtis Painter and Tom Brandstater led to 17 points and paved the way for a 37-17 road victory in the 49ers preseason opener Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Even without the help of key starters who were either out of action because of injury or held out to avoid risking injury, the 49ers (1-0) put together a solid, defensive-minded performance against the Colts (0-1), who jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and were outscored 37-7 the rest of the way.
Even though the 49ers turned the ball over twice in a sluggish first quarter, the next 15 minutes were a different story all together.
San Francisco received good fortune on the third play of the second quarter, which kick-started the 49ers momentous upswing. Painter's misfire deep in the red zone on second-and-11 deflected off wide receiver Samuel Giguere's hands and into the arms of 49ers safety Reggie Smith, who returned it 90 yards for the team's first touchdown of the preseason.
The game-changing play seemingly infused new life into the 49ers roster as they watched the third-year safety run untouched down their sideline.
"I was at the right place at the right time," Smith said. "I've never scored in the NFL, so it felt good to get the first one under my belt. I was just focused on getting in the end zone and not getting caught."
Smith single-handedly stopped three of Indianapolis' first-half possessions.
Following Michael Robinson's fumble on the first play from scrimmage, Smith made sure the Colts did not find the end zone. He ended the drive by breaking up Manning's third-down pass intended for Anthony Gonzales in the back of the end zone. And after his interception return, Smith made a third-down, open-field tackle to force a Colts three-and-out.
Outside linebacker Diyral Briggs and cornerback Will James also added second quarter interceptions for the 49ers. James' takeaway led to a 35-yard field goal from backup placekick Shane Andrus before the end of the half, which gave the 49ers a 20-10 advantage.
"It's the first preseason game, we had some opportunities we did not capitalize on, we just have to communicate better," head coach Mike Singletary said. "But overall, I thought it was a pretty decent effort. There's a lot to work with."
Although the first-team offense wasn't as sharp as they hoped to be, the unit felt good with several plays they were able to make in the opening quarter. However, a missed opportunity between quarterback Alex Smith and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis soured their performance as it could have resulted in a deep touchdown.
After two completions to tight end Delanie Walker on the 49ers second possession of the game, Smith threw behind Davis on a deep over-the-middle pattern that they've commonly completed in previous training camp practices.
"We were both thinking the same thing right there – touchdown. He set the safety a little bit and I wasn't expecting it and turned the ball loose," Smith said of the pass that was thrown behind his intended target. "That's just the game though. If you're a foot off, two feet off, that's the difference between touchdowns and incompletions or picks. You've got to be on it. It's something we'll get ironed out."
The incomplete pass was a frustration for Smith who completed 3-of-9 attempts for 37 yards. Smith threw one interception on a pass that ricocheted off Walker's fingertips. Had he completed the deep ball to Davis, his outing would have been categorized much more favorably.
"That was just miscommunication," Singletary said of the incompletion. "They have to look at the film and decide how they want to do that exactly."
With the ground game, however, the 49ers let their physicality do the communicating.
The 49ers gained 132 yards on the ground compared to the Colts 58, a positive development for the new-look offensive line.
"I thought we went out and we were physical," Singletary said. "I thought we were tough, mentally and physically. And I thought we ran to the ball; we did a good job of running around and running to the football."
Rookie running back Anthony Dixon was most active, leading all players with 100 yards on 21 carries. He picked up 67 of his yards in the second half alone, including a 23-yard scamper in the third quarter. After rookie linebacker Mike Balogun picked off Brandstater for the 49ers fourth interception of the game, Dixon added a six-yard touchdown run at the start of the fourth quarter. It was certainly an impressive beginning to his professional career.
"I just wanted to show the coaches I was learning the plays, that I'm dedicated, that I'm willing to go out there fight every snap and that I'm willing to be great," Dixon said.
But the 49ers sixth-round pick wasn't the only draftee seeing a lot of snaps in the opener. First-round picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati not only started, but the right tackle and left guard played the entire first half and into the third quarter.
Also taking additional snaps was center David Baas and the rest of the starting offensive line, which all played the entire first half. Baas, who's taken over for the injured Eric Heitmann, impressed his teammates with his first start snapping the football in an NFL game.
"He's doing a terrific job," Vernon Davis said. "I like his work ethic."
Quarterbacks David Carr and Nate Davis led the 49ers on several scoring drives as the game progressed. Carr completed 9-of-11 passes for 98 yards and tossed the 49ers only passing touchdown, an eight-yarder to tight end Tony Curtis which capped a 10-play, 82-yard scoring drive in the third quarter.
Davis took over at the start of the fourth and completed all 5-of-6 pass attempts for 84 yards. His first two completions went to rookie tight end Nate Byham for gains of 16 and 24 yards respectively, setting up Dixon's rushing touchdown. Byham led all players with 52 receiving yards on three receptions.
Following the scores by Curtis and Dixon, the Colts responded with their only points of the second half when Brandstater found tight end Jacob Tamme for a three-yard touchdown catch.
The touchdown did not spoil the debut for the 49ers though. Having put together a successful opening performance, the team felt pleased to see their hard work manifest into a win on the field.
"We had an opportunity to see where we stand as far as training camp with all the practices and installation," cornerback Nate Clements said. "We had a chance to put it all together today."
The 49ers will return home next Sunday to host the Minnesota Vikings at 5:00 p.m. PT in a primetime matchup.