NFC West: 49ers-Texans 102509

Eight in box no excuse for 49ers' offense

October, 29, 2009
Posted by's Mike Sando

The 49ers have failed to exceed 3.3 yards per carry in four of their six games this season.

The reason?

"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.
Posted by's Mike Sando

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 49ers used two tight ends on first down far more frequently once Smith took over after halftime. Smith averaged 12.1 yards per pass attempt with two touchdowns on seven plays featuring one back and two tight ends. Hill averaged 2.7 yards per attempt on three passes from this group.

49ers Personnel Group vs. Texans in Week 7 (1st Down Only)
Shaun Hill at QB
Alex Smith at QB
Base 62.5% 20.0%
1RB-2TE 25.0% 46.7%
2RB-2TE -- 13.3%
1RB-1TE 12.5% 13.3%
3TE -- 6.7%
Totals 100% 100%

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.
Posted by's Mike Sando

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.
Passing Stats on Play-Action Comp. Att. Yards TD INT Rating
Matt Schaub, Weeks 1-6
34 50 521 6 1 133.4
49ers Opponents, Weeks 1-6
20 32 224 3 0 115.9
Schaub vs. 49ers, Week 7
4 8 130 1 0 135.4
Peyton Manning, Weeks 1-6
25 30 442 4 1 144.4

Silver linings: 49ers at Texans

October, 26, 2009
Posted by's Mike Sando

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.
Looking ahead: The 49ers visit the Colts in Week 8.
Posted by's Mike Sando

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.

Smith, Crabtree brighten 49ers' outlook

October, 25, 2009
Bob Levey/Getty Images
San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree ignited the 49ers offense Sunday in his first NFL start.
Posted by's Mike Sando

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.
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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.

Rapid Reaction: Texans 24, 49ers 21

October, 25, 2009
Posted by's Mike Sando

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.
Posted by's Mike Sando

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.

49ers have to like this development

October, 25, 2009
Posted by's Mike Sando

HOUSTON -- The 49ers' unexpected selection of receiver Michael Crabtree made some think Alex Smith might be better suited than Shaun Hill to run the offense.

The thinking was that Smith would be better suited to the intermediate and deeper passing game.

Crabtree was late in signing, Smith showed little during the exhibition season and the thought faded quickly.

With Crabtree making his debut and the offense struggling Sunday, the 49ers made the switch to Smith at halftime. Smith immediately led the 49ers down the field to a touchdown, finding Crabtree and Vernon Davis over the middle.

This could wind up being a best-case scenario for the 49ers, even if they lose this game (Houston leads, 21-7). Smith was 2 of 2 for 46 yards and a touchdown during the drive to open the second half. The quarterback change also forced the Texans to adjust at the line. Smith's cadence drew Houston offside.

We'll see if the 49ers can sustain their success now that the Texans kinow Smith is at quarterback.

That didn't take long: Smith at QB

October, 25, 2009
Posted by's Mike Sando

HOUSTON -- Those wondering whether the 49ers might be inclined to switch quarterbacks after welcoming Michael Crabtree to the lineup didn't have to wait long.

Alex Smith is starting the second half at quarterback for the 49ers and the move appears to be sparking the offense.

Lots to talk about after this game.
Posted by's Mike Sando

HOUSTON -- The 49ers and Rams trail by a combined 42-3 at halftime in Week 7.

The 49ers haven't looked this bad on offense since ... Week 5, actually.

I expected better from the 49ers. They have now been outscored 52-3 in their last five quarters.

Michael Crabtree looks pretty good so far, but the 49ers aren't getting him the ball. I thought Shaun Hill could have thrown to him over the middle on one play. Poor pass protection has hurt the 49ers too many other times, however.

I'm already looking forward to the Cardinals and Giants tonight. Perhaps at least one NFC West team will make an impact.
Posted by's Mike Sando

HOUSTON -- Remember that note about Matt Schaub and the Texans' play-action passing game?

Well, it was a good one.

Thanks to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information for passing it along.

Schaub's latest touchdown pass, a 42-yarder to a wide-open Owen Daniels, followed a play-action fake that fooled the 49ers. It fooled me, too. I was watching the running back for about three steps before realizing Schaub was standing alone in the backfield, watching Daniels break into the clear.

49ers will hear about releasing Rossum

October, 25, 2009
Posted by's Mike Sando

HOUSTON -- The 49ers' decision to release return specialist Allen Rossum appears dubious after Arnaz Battle muffed a punt, setting up the Texans' second touchdown Sunday.

Battle appeared to lose track of the ball in the sunlight.

The 49ers released Rossum when they activated Michael Crabtree. It's impossible to know how Rossum would have fared fielding that punt, but he could not have fared worse than Battle fared. A costly, costly blunder.

On another subject: Crabtree does have one reception, a 4-yarder on third-and-16 after you know who -- right guard Chilo Rachal -- allowed a sack on second down.
Posted by's Mike Sando

HOUSTON -- Rookie receiver Michael Crabtree started for the 49ers. He has played all six offensive snaps.

But if the 49ers had specific plans to get him the ball early, those plans have not gone as expected. The 49ers have gone three-and-out twice without targeting Crabtree.

The offense has gone through Frank Gore and Vernon Davis to this point.

I would expect the 49ers to make a more concerted effort to get the ball to Crabtree.