Wednesday, October 17, 2012 Updated: October 18, 12:46 PM ET
What not to like about Texans, 49ers
By John Clayton ESPN.com
I talked to a scout during my visit to FedEx Stadium a couple of weeks ago.
Our discussion centered on the Houston Texans, who had blown away the Tennessee Titans the week before and were unbeaten. We both agreed the Texans were a complete team -- strong on offense, defense and special teams. But the scout reminded me that the Texans aren't a team built for big comebacks.
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I suggested the San Francisco 49ers might have a similar flaw.
As it turned out, the Texans were blown away by the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night and the New York Giants marched into San Francisco and whipped the 49ers. Once both teams fell behind by a couple of touchdowns, they didn't look as though they could come back.
Both teams are built to play great defense and run the ball. Both teams have a great chance to be top seeds in their respective conferences. I have Houston's Matt Schaub as an elite quarterback, but he's had only seven fourth-quarter comeback wins during his career. San Francisco's Alex Smith isn't elite, but his skills have bloomed under the coaching of Jim Harbaugh.
Last year, Smith did generate six fourth-quarter comeback wins, but that's not his forte. He's a smart quarterback who manages the game well. Give him a good running game, good protection and the lead, and he can do wonders. Harbaugh managed games by making sure Smith didn't get in a position to throw interceptions or commit turnovers.
Matt in New York wonders if the days of a running game-by-committee are over. He's seeing a resurgence of the feature back. I don't see it. Only two backs -- Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster -- are averaging more than 20 carries a game. That's the lowest in years. Rodney in Atlanta wonders which receiver will step up for his St. Louis Rams while Danny Amendola is out. Technically, you can say it would be Brandon Gibson, but I'd like to see Steve Smith in the slot. I think he can help. Joe in Chicago read a comment in a recent mailbag about how the no-huddle offense wears out defenses. He suggests putting some speed receivers outside and running some deep routes to wear out the corners. That might work, but it forces the quarterback to use seven-step drops. With pass rushes being so good, several seven-step drops get the quarterback hit a lot. Cole in Asheville, N.C., wants to know the rule about a player who suffers a concussion, such as Robert Griffin III. A doctor has to test him along the sideline. There is a doctor in the press box checking the replays to see hits and whether there could be a concussion. During the week, an independent doctor has to administer tests to clear the player for classroom work, contact and playing. The tests are extensive. HansSolo in Kansas City sees the writing on the wall for QB Matt Cassel. He thinks Cassel is on the way out. I would agree. After the season is over, the Chiefs will go a different direction. If they keep losing, though, they may have a chance at Matt Barkley or Geno Smith, although the second half of the season brings an easier schedule. To Mathieu in Brooklyn, N.Y., I don't know if Matt Flynn would have done better than the 4-2 start that Russell Wilson has put together for the Seahawks. Thomas in Bemidji, Minn., says he predicted a 9-1 start for the Vikings. He admits everyone laughed. The Vikings are 4-2 and he wonders whether they can get to 10 wins. They could. The Vikings' schedule looked easy at the beginning. The key for them is winning in the NFC North. They have to be 4-2 in the division to think about a 10-win season. Longtime Colts fan Jason in Martinsville, Va., likes the conversion on defense to the 3-4. I think they could eventually put together a decent 3-4, but I would have stayed in a 4-3. The 3-4 does great things for Robert Mathis, but it limits Dwight Freeney.
The stats showed last year he is more vulnerable when the 49ers are trailing. Smith was sacked 16 times in the 172 times he dropped back to pass while he was behind. The key was that the 2011 49ers never trailed too much. There were only 23 pass plays on which he dropped back when the 49ers trailed by more than seven points.
In Week 6, Smith dropped back to pass 39 times against the Giants when he trailed by at least eight points. He was sacked four times and threw an interception.
Since 2011, Schaub goes from his usual 64 percent completion rate to 56 percent when he's behind. The bigger the deficit, the harder it is for Schaub.
The good news is neither team should have to worry about big deficits too much. The Texans are running away with the AFC South. The 49ers will see where they are in the NFC West when they host the Seahawks on Thursday night.
From the inbox
Q: My Dolphins are coming together under Joe Philbin, but I still get anxious about our secondary. Trading Vontae Davis was, to me, the right thing to do. Do you see defensive backfield as a greater need position for Miami than WR or TE?
Dave in Conover, N.C.
A: Imagine what the record might be had the Dolphins kept WR Brandon Marshall. The Colts made them an offer for Davis they couldn't refuse. Plus, there was enough depth at cornerback to let him go. Receiver is the bigger need. Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill has done an amazing job of picking up the no-huddle offense and working it without a great group of receivers. There is hope in Miami.
Q: If you looked at Buffalo's schedule at the start of the season you would have said the road games at San Francisco and Houston were going to be difficult. They should be able to split with the Jets and maybe split with the Patriots. That gives them four or five loses. The rest of the schedule is rather easy, playing five games against rookie QBs. What do you think?
DJP in Tacoma, Wash.
A: You went through the same procedure that I did with the Bills in the preseason. That's why I had the Bills as a surprise team. But their 3-3 record is an ugly one. The defense has been horrid, but the Week 6 victory at Arizona was huge. It gave the franchise a second life. It's hard to believe the Bills are tied for the AFC East lead. I can't see them getting to 10 wins, but they could get to eight or nine.
Q: What is up with the 49ers abandoning the run so early in the Giants game? They had 15 total rushes (not counting two scrambles by Alex Smith), nine of which came on the first four drives.
Keith in Alamogordo, N.M.
A: What amazed me is seeing Smith throwing a long interception toward the beginning of the second quarter. I know the 49ers have been going deeper this year, but that was so unlike Jim Harbaugh to call for a high-risk pass that early in the game. Whatever the Giants did threw the 49ers out of their normal game plan. It's not as though the Giants are a 3-4 defense that stacked up against the run. They rush four and play pretty basic. Maybe the revenge motive might have been the reason. The 49ers wanted to prove something after losing that championship game last year to the Giants. I'm sure they will get back to the run over the next few weeks.
Q: The impact Louis Delmas has on the Lions' secondary can't be overstated. He keeps that secondary in place, and keeps the communication moving like a quality defensive captain does.
Tom in Dallas
A: One of his teammates compared his importance to the Lions' defense to that of Ray Lewis in Baltimore. I might not go that far, but his return to the lineup made a big impact in the win over the Eagles in Week 6. Delmas admittedly wasn't 100 percent. He's smart. He makes plays. He will now have the bye week to get back in shape and fix some things in the secondary.
Buccaneers CB Aqib Talib has already served one game of a four-game suspension.
Q: I have been taking Adderall since I was a freshman in high school. I am 24 now and I still take it. I do not know if I could be anywhere professionally without that medication. Is this string of Adderall-related suspensions a new rule? What if the player has a prescription? I am a Bucs fan and we lost Aqib Talib to something that allows me to not only sit and watch an entire Buccaneers game but also makes me a productive member of society.
Kirby in Seattle
A: If Talib was as open and honest as you, he wouldn't have been suspended. Adderall is permitted when it's prescribed and the team knows about it. Joe Haden of the Browns and Talib were suspended because they didn't let their teams know. Maybe pride was involved and both players didn't want it known they needed Adderall. The league isn't outlawing Adderall. Its intake has been known by the team and the drug testers.
Q: Whenever we talk about the offenses today we seem to discredit some of the achievements by saying today's NFL is a passing league and is geared toward offense. How come then we don't give extra credit to the dominant defenses in the league like San Francisco and Houston? Isn't it likely that these defenses would have dominated even more had they played in the past?
Tito in Leominister, Mass.
A: I don't think there are any passing achievements being discredited. No asterisks are going on these records. In many ways, we are marveling at some of the achievements of the quarterbacks. As for the Texans and 49ers, their defenses could have held up well in any given year. First, they are built to stop the run. Second, they have good pass-rushers. Third, they have playmakers in the secondary.
Q: The Eagles have one of the top five running backs in the league in LeSean McCoy and a quarterback who has a track record for turning the ball over in Michael Vick. Why don't the Eagles utilize McCoy and the running game more?
Kevin in Madrid
A: Only six backs have more carries than McCoy, so in a lot of ways, Andy Reid is running him a little more than usual. Understand that Reid often uses the short pass like a running play. He's a West Coast offensive coach and really doesn't like to overdo the run. He's had a couple of games this year in which he has committed to the run. Thanks to Vick's ability to run, McCoy gets a little break in the running lanes because defenses have to make sure they contain Vick inside the tackles. McCoy has 111 carries and 25 receptions. He's getting plenty of touches.