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 naïve 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.