NFC West: 49ers-Texans
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
The 49ers have failed to exceed 3.3 yards per carry in four of their six games this season.
"We haven’t been able to run the ball when we wanted to run the ball because they normally have about eight-and-a-half people in the box, sometimes nine," coach Mike Singletary told reporters this week. "Sometimes, that makes it a little more difficult. When you have an offensive line that’s been banged up and you’re trying to get that right, it makes for not a good combination right now, but as we build confidence, as we continue to get better, it will work itself out."
Here's the thing: The 49ers are not facing eight-man fronts every play or even most of the time. They are struggling to run the ball against fewer than eight in the box. Their guards are not very good, in my view, and Singletary has even threatened to bench one of them (Chilo Rachal).
ESPN Stats & Information saw the Texans put eight in the box against the 49ers only four times in Week 7. The 49ers passed on one of those plays. Frank Gore gained 9 yards on one of the three rushes. I watched the game again this morning and found a couple other plays when Houston arguably had eight defenders close enough to the line of scrimmage to qualify as playing eight-man fronts.
Still, it's misleading to suggest box counts are the reason San Francisco isn't a very good running team right now. Gore's injury problems this season have not helped.
Also, opponents can have an advantage with seven or fewer defenders in the box if the defense doesn't have to fear the passing game. This has certainly been a problem for the 49ers. That could change if Alex Smith plays well at quarterback and receiver Michael Crabtree develops quickly.
Earlier: Smith vs. Shaun Hill in the 49ers' offense.
The 49ers diversified their offensive personnel use once Alex Smith replaced Shaun Hill at quarterback against the Texans in Week 7.
San Francisco was trailing by three touchdowns when Smith took over, a factor that surely led San Francisco to become more aggressive. But the team also made changes that might have had less to do with situations.
- Before I continue, feel free to download this file breaking down the 49ers' personnel use by quarterback, across downs, for the game overall and for the regular season to date.
The matchup against the Texans marked the second consecutive game the 49ers trailed by at least 20 points at halftime. With Hill at quarterback against the Falcons, the 49ers used one back with one tight end more than 60 percent of the time in the second half. With Smith at quarterback against Houston, the 49ers used that group only 31 percent of the time in the second half.
Smith was most effective in the second half using two tight ends. Sometimes the tight ends lined up as wide receivers. The 49ers even lined up fullback Moran Norris wide to the right on the play featuring Smith's first touchdown pass, a 29-yarder to Vernon Davis. The team used two backs, two tight ends and only one wide receiver -- Josh Morgan -- on that play and the next two they ran.
Overall, I think the 49ers were less predictable from a personnel standpoint once Smith entered the game, almost as though offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye had more confidence in Smith than he had in Hill. Whatever the confidence level was starting out -- note that the 49ers actually opened the game with three consecutive three-receiver plays for Hill -- Raye's confidence in Smith surely grew as the 49ers enjoyed success.
Week 8 will present a whole new level of challenges because the Colts will have significant personnel advantages against the 49ers' offensive line, particularly at the guard and right tackle spots. The 49ers will have to account for those mismatches and that will affect how the offense looks.
The 49ers' troubles defending play-action passes were a problem heading into Week 7 and during the team's 24-21 defeat to the Texans.
The chart, based on information from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, breaks it all down.
The 49ers did sack Schaub once on a play-action situation not accounted for in the chart. Week 8 opponent Peyton Manning isn't bad in those situations, either. The chart shows his play-action production heading into a 42-6 victory over the Rams in Week 7.
The facts: The 49ers fell to 3-3 with a 24-21 road defeat to the Texans in Week 7.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Rookie receiver Michael Crabtree justified his spot in the starting lineup by catching five passes for 56 yards. Crabtree caught three third-down passes for first downs.
- Tight end Vernon Davis caught three touchdown passes, giving him six, a career single-season high. Davis needs two receptions to match his 2008 total.
- Quarterback Alex Smith completed 15 of 22 passes for three touchdowns in the second half. Smith led three touchdown drives in five second-half possessions. He also scrambled effectively.
- The 49ers, burned by Falcons receiver Roddy White in Week 5, prevented Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson from taking over the game or even enjoying a productive day. Johnson made one big play.
- The 49ers had no trouble with Texans defensive end Mario Williams. Don't be fooled by Williams' so-called sack on the 49ers' first play. Williams benefited from a communication error. He did not beat anyone for the sack, in other words.
- Manny Lawson had a sack. The 49ers hit Texans quarterback Matt Schaub eight times.
- Receiver Josh Morgan made strides despite two penalties. He made clutch catches in the fourth quarter. Overall, Morgan caught four passes, all for first downs, including a 17-yarder on third-and-7.
Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle wonders if Alex Smith can play well as a starter. Knapp: "Can Smith keep this up? Can he come close? He'd only have to be two-thirds as good as he was Sunday to replace Hill full-time and substantially boost the 49ers' playoff chances. But there's a huge difference between successfully taking over in a desperate situation and starting something all on your own, making it your baby and raising it right. Houston head coach Gary Kubiak, a former journeyman quarterback, said it best. 'You know I was that guy for many years,' he said, 'and when you're the backup guy, and your team's struggling, you can just go in and cut it loose.'"
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider thinks the 49ers should consider Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan as their starting receivers, with Isaac Bruce as the third guy. That seems like an obvious move.
Also from Lynch: Shaun Hill wasn't as bad as one might think. True, but the 49ers certainly played better for Smith.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' offensive line was primarily to blame for the team's struggles. Crumpacker: "Though the delayed debut of Crabtree was impressive - he was on the field for 48 of 54 offensive plays and lined up wide left, wide right and in the slot - the larger issue for the 49ers is its offensive line. The run blocking was not good as Frank Gore averaged 2.5 yards a carry and the pass protection was worse, at least in the first half when Hill was sacked twice, including the 49ers' first snap of the game on a busted play when Mario Williams went unblocked."
Also from Crumpacker: a report card singling out Arnaz Battle's muffed punt as the pivotal play on special teams. Coach Mike Singletary became defensive and criticized former return man Allen Rossum when a reporter asked about the decision to release Rossum and go with Battle. I thought it was bad form.
More from Crumpacker: Crabtree did not disappoint.
More yet from Crumpacker: Vernon Davis set a franchise record for tight ends with three touchdown receptions in one game. Crumpacker: "It was the first three-touchdown day by an NFL tight end since Atlanta's Alge Crumpler had a hat trick against Pittsburgh on Oct. 22, 2006. Davis now leads NFL tight ends with six touchdown catches. Through six games he has 29 receptions for 355 yards."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Smith appears to suit Jimmy Raye's offense better than Hill, primarily because Smith is better on intermediate and deeper passes. That was certainly the case Sunday and the theory is plausible.
Also from Maiocco: Crabtree's performance improved dramatically after he fouled up an audible on the first play of the game. Singletary: "The bottom line is when he had the chance to make plays, he made them. That’s good. You’re talking about a guy that’s been working his tail off and hasn’t been at camp, and he came in and it seemed like he had been here a while."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers' offense has no chance to match points with good teams when Hill is at quarterback. On the injury front: "The 49ers have two injuries -- both of them shoulder injuries -- that appear serious. Recently settled right tackle starter Tony Pashos will have an MRI on his left shoulder. Barry Sims filled in for him after the second-quarter injury. Meanwhile, Takeo Spikes injured his right shoulder. Rookie Scott McKillop filled in for him for most of the game." Losing Spikes would be significant. He has generally outperformed expectations since the 49ers signed him.
Also from Barrows: the case for Smith at quarterback.
More from Barrows: Shawntae Spencer wound up covering the Texans' Andre Johnson quite a bit, with mostly positive results. But Spencer also blew a coverage on H-back Owen Daniels' 42-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Barrows: "Spencer said the 49ers were in Cover 3 protection and he lost track of Daniels, who was alone when he made the catch."
Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News updates the 49ers' efforts to build a new stadium. Mintz: "The Santa Clara City Council on Tuesday could remove one hurdle in the push for a $937 million stadium project for the San Francisco 49ers. The council is set to vote on a recommendation from the city's charter review committee, which backed allowing the team to avoid a public bidding process on the bulk of the design and construction of the stadium near Great America theme park."
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News expects the 49ers to name Smith their starter for Week 8. Any other decision would expose Singletary to massive criticism, in my view.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News calls Smith the 49ers' "best hope" at quarterback.
|Bob Levey/Getty Images|
|San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree ignited the 49ers offense Sunday in his first NFL start.|
HOUSTON -- The frustration of the moment prevented Mike Singletary from appreciating the bigger picture Sunday.
The 49ers' head coach, disconsolate after a 24-21 loss to the Houston Texans left his team with a 3-3 record, needed longer than the customary 10-minute cooling-off period before holding his postgame media session.
Singletary needed so long, in fact, that the 49ers pushed back his mandatory interview session until after players were finished with their media obligations.
"Very frustrating to come down here and get 21 points behind in the first half," Singletary said. "There is no reason for that."
There are plenty of reasons, including a few on defense and special teams, but those weren't the story for the 49ers.
While Singletary is entitled to his misery and apparently bound by it, the rest of us are free to embrace greater meaning when Alex Smith repeatedly hits Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan in the numbers with it.
Two shockingly strong quarters from Smith at quarterback could not reverse four years of disappointment, but even Singletary had to acknowledge what Crabtree brought to his offense in the rookie's first NFL game following the longest contract dispute in 49ers' history.
"Do I think he did a great job today?" Singletary asked. "Absolutely."
The rookie receiver is a star in the making and everyone associated with the 49ers can see it.
Crabtree played all but six offensive snaps.
The 49ers converted four times on third down and Crabtree caught passes on three of them (for 35 yards). A penalty for illegal procedure against Morgan wiped out a 17-yard reception for Crabtree on a first-down play. Crabtree finished with five receptions for 56 yards, catching more passes than any wide receiver in the game, including the Texans' Andre Johnson, who suffered a chest injury late and did not return.
"I saw a guy that's going to be a good football player," Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "He ran good routes and you know he's fearless. ... I think he's going to be a very good pro in this league."
You can forget the diva talk about Crabtree, too. He's the real deal.
Offensive linemen do not walk across locker rooms following defeats to initiate handshakes with divas. It's against the lineman's code. Left tackle Joe Staley made a special trip to commend Crabtree after this one, all the evidence anyone should need that Crabtree has already earned his place in the starting lineup.
Crabtree conducts himself with the poise of a five-year veteran. The receiver's competitiveness and diligence also distinguish him.
And when perhaps 15 reporters crowded around Crabtree's locker, the receiver handled their queries effortlessly. The moment was not too big for him.
"I was kind of calm," Crabtree said. "I practiced on being calm and coming into the game and executing my plays. I did a good job and I have more work to do."
Did the time he spent catching passes from Smith during the bye week help their timing?
"I guess both have the same timing, both quarterbacks are good," Crabtree said. "My place is running routes and whoever is throwing the ball, it's my job to catch it. I like Alex, I like them both."
Right answer. Promoting Smith at Hill's expense would have become a story. Crabtree didn't bite.
Singletary declined to name Smith his starter for Week 8 even though the decision should be an easy one.
Smith completed 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns. His lone interception came on a desperation fourth-down play in the final seconds. Smith took no sacks despite occasional pressure and he scrambled twice for 16 yards. The 49ers were dramatically better with him in the lineup.
Smith led a five-play, 63-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. He led a 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive spanning the third and fourth quarters. And when the 49ers' defense could not stop the Texans from driving to a field goal for a 24-14 lead with 7:21 remaining, Smith led a seven-play, 73-yard touchdown drive to give the 49ers a chance.
"Everyone was getting excited," said Davis, who caught touchdown passes covering 29, 14 and 23 yards. "They started to believe. that's what it's about."
Starter Shaun Hill wasn't solely to blame for the 49ers' early troubles, of course, but he was a limiting factor Sunday. Hill checked down to Frank Gore on one play when Crabtree might have been open. Smith was much more aggressive pressing the ball down the field and the line seemed to block better for him.
The 49ers will find out next week whether the quarterback change produced only a temporary spark. The team's problems at both guard spots and right tackle aren't going away.
"Starting the second half down three scores, you're seeing some stagnant looks from the defense and they're not throwing as much at you," Smith said.
Smith hadn't played in a regular-season game since 2007 and there was little reason to expect instant success once Singletary made the change. But the 2005 No. 1 overall draft choice threw three touchdown passes in two quarters after Hill tossed five in 22.
The 49ers know where their offense was heading with Hill at quarterback.
With Hill under siege and struggling, Crabtree proved as functional as an aftermarket spoiler on an old Buick. He was a $10,000 set of rims on a $5,000 beater.
The 49ers entered Week 7 with a roster featuring 33 of their own draft choices, tied with the Colts for second-most in the league (the Packers had 35).
It's about time they started getting more in return for their investments.
The second half Sunday was a start.
HOUSTON -- Let the Alex Smith era begin anew.
The 49ers had to like what they saw even in defeat Sunday, with Smith coming off the bench to throw three touchdown passes -- all to tight end Vernon Davis -- as the 49ers extracted themselves from a deep halftime hole.
Benching Shaun Hill for Smith at halftime could have played out as a desperate move if Smith hadn't rallied the 49ers. Smith validated the decision by playing better than any 49ers quarterback in recent memory.
Losing to the Texans hurt the 49ers in the standings. They will probably fall to 3-4 after visiting the Colts in Week 9. But the longer-term future appears quite a bit brighter after Smith, Davis, rookie receiver Michael Crabtree and even Josh Morgan -- all 49ers draft choices -- made significant contributions.
Crabtree quickly emerged as the best wide receiver on the team. He was clutch on third down and appeared to play an error-free game in terms of the basics (Morgan was the one flagged for illegal procedure). Davis emerged as a dynamic threat over the deep middle.
If the 49ers were going to lose a game, this wasn't a bad way to lose one. They can feel better about their future.
HOUSTON -- Alex Smith's second touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in three drives as the 49ers' new starter cements his status as the top quarterback beyond this game, I would think.
Smith appears poised and under control. He appears decisive. The pressure is off and he is responding.
The offense has responded well to Smith. Josh Morgan and Michael Crabtree are making plays on third down. Davis is working the middle of the field.
The outlook is suddenly much brighter for the 49ers, even as Andre Johnson is getting open deep for the Texans as I type this.
Smith has shown good instincts in this game, sensing the rush and knowing when to scramble. He looks good so far.
By the way, the Texans' Johnson is down with an injury right now. Not sure the severity.
HOUSTON -- I'll be posting to the blog periodically and also participating in this live discussion featuring ESPN.com analysts.
The 49ers-Texans kickoff is moments away.
HOUSTON -- Top 49ers free-agent acquisition Brandon Jones is among the players inactive for San Francisco against the Texans in Week 7.
Fellow receivers Jason Hill and Micheal Spurlock are also on the inactive list.
It is Michael Crabtree's time, in other words. Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan and Arnaz Battle are the receivers for the 49ers.
Also inactive for the 49ers: offensive lineman Cody Wallace, defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, safety Reggie Smith, safety Michael Lewis and quarterback Nate Davis, who did not make the trip.
Inactive for the Texans: safety Nick Ferguson, receiver Glenn Martinez, cornerback Fred Bennett, linebacker Jamie Winborn, guard Tutan Reyes, tight end Anthony Hill and defensive tackle Frank Okam. Dan Orlovsky is the third quarterback.
HOUSTON -- A few 49ers players are warming up down on the field at Reliant Stadium.
The view from the 800 level press box has its advantages. One, it's easier to see plays develop. Two, see No. 1.
Here's a snapshot view from my seat at about the 30-yard line.
I can see one player lying on his right side and doing ab crunches in the corner of the end zone. Another is lying on his right side and stretching his quadriceps. Another is working with a trainer to get limber.
HOUSTON -- The Texans have held Michael Crabtree scoreless with about 18 hours left until kickoff Sunday.
That's a mild upset given the 49ers' obvious excitement over No. 15.
Crabtree's NFL debut Sunday against the Texans at Reliant Stadium should give the 49ers a lift. Win or lose Sunday, I would expect the 49ers to bounce back from their 45-10 home defeat to the Falcons in Week 5.
They've had two weeks to prepare, which should help. They have also had two weeks for that embarrassing defeat to fester. And they are welcoming two key additions to their offense: Crabtree and a guy named Frank Gore.
This game stands as a big test for the 49ers' coaching staff. Mike Singletary suggested the Falcons outcoached the 49ers when Atlanta was coming off its bye. Singletary and staff need to show they can do the same to an opponent when given extra time.
Should be a fun game to watch.
The Eagles' Donovan McNabb averages a league-high 17 yards per attempt on play-action passes this season. The Rams' Marc Bulger, running the same offensive scheme without the same personnel, averages 5.2 yards per attempt.
Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information passed along a spreadsheet listing NFL quarterback stats in play-action situations. I noticed the disparate numbers for McNabb and Bulger before noticing something else: 49ers opponent Matt Schaub has put up excellent numbers after faking the handoff. I then asked Hank how the 49ers' defense has fared against play-action passes this season.
The answer appears in the chart below. So, when you're watching the 49ers and Texans on Sunday, keep an eye on that aspect of the game. The Texans' zone blocking scheme lends itself to selling the run up front. And when Schaub plays along by faking the handoff, opponents can be fooled.
No peeking in the backfield, Nate Clements.
Mario Williams is playing hurt for the Texans and it shows.
The 49ers still have to be concerned about him, especially when the 2006 No. 1 overall choice lines up against right tackle Tony Pashos. Williams is obviously talented and the 49ers' offensive line has struggled (Joe Staley and Eric Heitmann excepted).
I just charted Williams while watching every Texans defensive snap against the Bengals in Week 6. Williams lined up at left defensive end 29 times and right defensive end 16 times. He did not play seven defensive snaps.
Williams, playing through a shoulder injury, came close to getting pressure a couple times. He made one dominant play, shedding a tight end to make a powerful tackle against the run. He drove back the offensive tackle one time. But he was not a dominant force.