The 49ers Week 4 victory over the St. Louis Rams saw a team that was struggling to find their identity on offense get back to basics and lean on what had made them so successful in the first place. The power running game has been a staple of the San Francisco offense since Jim Harbaugh took the reigns in 2011. The early part of this season has seen San Francisco go away from that philosophy and the results have not been 49er like. In returning to their roots in St. Louis, the 49ers rushed for 219 yards ran the ball 40 times while only dropping back to pass 25. Will they continue to rely on the run in Week 5 when they host the Houston Texans or was the more simplistic approach to the offense the product of a short week?
Considering the Texans have only been around since 2002 and play in the AFC, there is not a lot of history between these two teams. Although you could say what past they do have revolves around Alex Smith. In 2005, the teams met for the first time in the last game of the season. The 49ers won in overtime 20-17 and capped off an unmemorable 4-12 campaign. It was a particularly trying year for Smith who had one of the worst rookie seasons of any quarterback in recent memory. He was intercepted 11 times and threw only one touchdown pass. That pass, however, came against the Texans in this matchup.
In 2009, the teams met again, this time in Week 7. The Texans jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead which prompted then 49ers’ head coach Mike Singletary to bench quarterback Shaun Hill and go back to Alex Smith. Smith responded by throwing three second half touchdown passes to Vernon Davis and almost brought the 49ers all the way back before ultimately losing 24-21. Smith would start for the rest of the season and actually set his career high for touchdown passes (which stands to this day) with 18. This game also marked the debut of Michael Crabtree who had finally ended his six week rookie holdout. Crabtree caught five passes for 53 yards.
Also of note is that current 49ers’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio served in that same role for the Texans from 2002-2005. Also on that staff as an assistant was Greg Roman who is now the offensive coordinator in San Francisco.
Players to watch
When the 49ers needed to find themselves on offense in Week 4, they put the ball in the hands of their best player. Frank Gore gained an impressive 153 yards on 20 carries and scored a momentum shifting 34 yard touchdown on a 4th and short to with :37 seconds remaining in the half. Gore had 115 of those yards on runs between the tackles which signifies a return to the power running philosophy. By comparison, Gore only had 88 yards total between the tackles in Weeks 1-3. It will be interesting to see if the 49ers continue to make Gore the focal point of the offense or if they go back to putting the ball in Colin Kaepernick‘s hands, hoping he can make a big play.
Matt Schaub has had a tough few weeks. The Texan’s quarterback has thrown an interception for a touchdown in his last three games and his mistakes have cost Houston wins. It’s been so bad that a local restaurant is offering a “Matt Schaub Special: Pick 6 Burger” where you can pick any six toppings for your burger and pay dearly later. It’s safe to say that Schaub is on the hot seat in Houston and he must play a clean game on the road for the Texans to win. Giving the 49ers a short field and/or some easy scores would make pulling out a victory almost impossible for Houston.
Game changing factor
Both teams will want to rely on the running game and how their respective front sevens perform will go a long way in who comes out with the win. As long as there are no setbacks, Patrick Willis is expected to play for the 49ers which means they will have their All-Pro tandem in tact at inside linebacker. Navorro Bowman is coming off possibly the best game of his career (two sacks and a forced fumble) as he led a defense that held the Rams to 18 yards rushing.
The Texans are strong upfront as well with linebacker Brian Cushing and all world defensive end J.J. Watt. Houston held opponents to under 100 yards rushing in two of their first three games but were gashed for 179 yards on the ground by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 4. Russell Wilson accounted for 77 of those yards so you can bet the 49ers may want to unleash Kaepernick at times in this one.
Stats to know
The 49ers have only converted 37 percent of their third downs this season (21-of-57) and have a minus-4 turnover ratio. They have also given up 12 sacks in the first four games. Even more telling of the team’s offensive struggles, San Francisco has gone three-and-out of 43.1 percent of their series which is the fourth highest in the league.
The fact that the offense has had trouble sustaining drives can also be the reason that the defense has faltered at times, especially late in games. The Niner’s defense has actually forced opponents to go three-and-out 39.6 percent of the time (fifth in the NFL) and has kept the team within striking distance late in the game in both of their losses. The defense gave up 31 points in the fourth quarter in those defeats which was the result of the offense turning the ball over and putting them in undesirable spots.
The Texans have not looked very impressive this season and have dropped their last two games. They could easily be 0-4 if not for late rallies against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans in Weeks 1 and 2. The 49ers have had issues of their own but may be about to turn a corner. This game is will answer a lot of questions about both teams but the 49ers should beat a reeling Texans squad at home to get over .500.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
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