AFC South: Ahmad Brooks

Arian Foster and Frank GoreGetty ImagesTwo of the NFL's top rushers, Arian Foster and Frank Gore, will try to carry their teams Sunday night.

The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.

After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.

San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?

Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.

Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?

Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.

How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?

Williamson: It would be inaccurate and na´ve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.

Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?

Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.

Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?

Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.

This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?

Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.

 

Thoughts on Texans 20, 49ers 9

August, 18, 2012
8/18/12
11:22
PM ET
Some brief, quick thoughts on the Texans following their 20-9 preseason win over the 49ers on Saturday night.


  • While we always do our best to emphasize how little we should read into what plays out in the preseason, the Texans hosted a talented team and had to like what they did. Houston looked like we now expect Houston to look. The Texans swarmed the quarterback, hitting Alex Smith far more than the 49ers would have liked. They stuffed a Kendall Hunter run on a fourth-and-1 that might have got the 49ers going. And the offense provided more than enough to make it feel like the result was never going to be in question. The three key players on offense all made nice contributions, as Matt Schaub hit on 11 of 14 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, Andre Johnson caught a 43-yard pass from Schaub and Arian Foster made a very nice 24-yard run that showed his vision and skill.
  • We’re all going to start to run out of new ways to describe the Texans' pass rush, which was very good again while the top players on defense were in the game. They had first-half sacks by Tim Jamison and a Connor Barwin/Antonio Smith combo deal. But they did far more than that in terms of making Alex Smith aware of their presence and uncomfortable. One example: Antonio Smith beat quality guard Mike Iupati with a super-quick swim move inside and was up the middle on Alex Smith in no time. Antonio Smith was flagged for roughing -- and appeared to hit the quarterback in the head. Antonio Smith will surely seek to do the same thing in the future, just with a lower target.
  • The 49ers, meanwhile, were without two of their best pass-rushers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. And a share of Schaub’s good play came with San Francisco’s backups in the game.
  • Johnson made a nice play on his deep reception. Schaub rolled right and threw back to the left where Johnson was with defenders Tramaine Brock and Trenton Robinson. Brock wasn’t badly positioned, but Johnson had a far better feel for what was unfolding, and crossed under the cornerback to haul in the reception.
  • Fullback James Casey did well on a short pass from Schaub on a third down. Casey had to come back to the ball and go to the ground. But no defender was in range, and he got up and scrambled for a conversion.
  • I wrote last week about Lestar Jean practice drops that concerned me. But he showed why the Texans remain high on him with a team-high four catches for 42 yards including a 9-yard TD on a shallow crossing route where he was granted far too much space by the defense.
  • Trindon Holliday didn’t have to do much but get to the right sideline and go for his 87-yard punt return touchdown. And it came against low-ranking 49ers who might not be in the league come opening day. But it’s the second return TD for Holliday in two weeks and certainly adds to his chances to make the team as a blazing return specialist.

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