NFL Preview - San Francisco (3-2) at Houston (3-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Statistics aren't important to some players and coaches in the National Football League, but Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak has to be impressed with how his run defense has been playing lately.
Houston gave up an average of 205 rushing yards a game to the Jets, Titans and Jaguars over the first three weeks of the season. Defensive coordinator Frank Bush made a few adjustments, like all coaches should, and added a few wrinkles to a Texans defense that has not allowed no more than 46 yards on the ground through the past three weeks. Bush hopes his unit will be up for another challenge Sunday afternoon, when a healthy Frank Gore and the San Francisco 49ers invade Reliant Stadium.
The Texans limited resurgent Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson to 44 yards on 16 carries in last week's 28-17 victory at Cincinnati. The effort enabled Houston to win for the second time in three weeks and improve to 3-3 on the season, good enough for a second-place tie in the AFC South standings with Jacksonville. The Texans have not finished better than third in the AFC South since entering the league in 2002.
Houston, which is only 24th against the run through six games this season, can attribute some of its success to the offense, particularly quarterback Matt Schaub.
Schaub matched a career high with four touchdown passes against the Bengals, and owns 763 yards and six scoring strikes for a passer rating of 108.7 over his two most recent games. Schaub has the Texas sitting third in the NFL in passing, although wideout Andre Johnson deserves some of the credit as well. Johnson has hauled in 16 passes for 236 yards and a pair of scores in his last two contests and is second in the league with 572 receiving yards. Johnson, who is averaging 15.9 yards per reception this season, has eclipsed the 100- yard receiving mark three times in 2009.
If there's a receiver in the league who should replicate Johnson's style and work ethic, it's 49ers rookie Michael Crabtree. It only took about six months, but Crabtree is expected to start Sunday's game in his home state of Texas for the floundering Niners. The former Texas Tech phenom was picked 10th overall in April's draft and finally signed his rookie contract earlier this month.
Crabtree has been working out with Gore, who has missed the last two games with a sprained right ankle he injured in a Week 3 loss at Minnesota. Gore owns 241 rushing yards and three touchdowns this season.
San Francisco can use Gore's services this week with hopes of getting back into the win column following a bye. It entered the break with losses in two of three games, including an embarrassing 45-10 home defeat to Atlanta in Week 5. It was the 49ers' first loss at Candlestick Park this season.
Unlike Schaub and a strong Houston pass attack, 49ers signal caller Shaun Hill is lacking a big-play receiver who can open the offense. Hill is hoping Crabtree can be that main target and resuscitate his game, since he hasn't thrown for more than 200 yards since Week 1.
Hill, who has four touchdown passes over his last three games, was San Francisco's leading rusher against the Falcons with 53 yards on four scrambles. The team is hoping Gore can make a healthy return and relieve his quarterback of those duties.
The 49ers and Texans have met just one other time, when San Francisco earned a 20-17 overtime victory at Candlestick Park in the 2005 regular season finale. The game, which was settled on a 33-yard Joe Nedney field goal, marked the Texans finale for head coach Dom Capers.
The 49ers' Mike Singletary and Kubiak will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Hill (898 passing yards, 5 TD, 2 INT) is in desperate need of a playmaking receiver, and tight end Vernon Davis is not the answer. Josh Morgan and Isaac Bruce haven't solidified their spots either, which makes the debut of Crabtree even more important for the Niners. Davis (22 yards, 3 TD) leads all San Francisco receivers in catches, yards (262) and touchdowns, while Morgan's slot position will be filled by Crabtree in three-wide sets. Morgan (13 receptions, 1 TD) has been working with the rookie in order to make sure he knows the system, despite the fact Crabtree is taking his starting spot. According to Singletary, Crabtree is progressing at a high rate and has a firm grasp of the playbook. Singletary hopes his perception is right, since the 49ers rank 29th in the NFL in total offense and 28th in passing. San Francisco owns just nine offensive touchdowns this season. Hill is 10-5 as a starter and has been sacked seven times over the last two weeks, and three times in four of five games this season. Singletary tried to remedy that situation by naming Tony Pashos starting right tackle this week, and opening a guard battle between Adam Snyder and Chilo Rachal. Singletary hopes the switch pays dividends.
Texans defensive end Mario Williams (21 tackles, 2 sacks) has been bothered by a shoulder injury and has been limited in practice. The former No. 1 overall pick is Houston's top defensive threat, but his latest setback may be the reason why his sack totals are down in 2009. Williams would enjoy nothing more than to throw off the timing of Hill in his effort to get playmaking rookie Crabtree the football. Fellow end Antonio Smith (12 tackles) and tackle Amobi Okoye (18 tackles, 1.5 sacks) highlight the rest of the strong defensive front. The Texans are just 19th in pass defense, allowing 226.8 yards per game, but have two stud corners in Dunta Robinson (21 tackles) and Jacques Reeves, who has appeared in the last two games after missing the first four of the season. Safety Bernard Pollard (19 tackles) seems to have regained his health as well. The Houston secondary hasn't forced many turnovers this season, as only starting free safety Eugene Wilson (13 tackles, 1 INT) and backup strong safety John Busing (17 tackles, 1 INT) have intercepted passes.
With Gore (241 rushing yards, 3 TD) set to take on a Texans team that has been excellent against the run over the past few weeks, the 49ers may have to rely on their weak passing game. But Gore has proved doubters wrong before, having made it back from several knee injuries as a member of the Miami Hurricanes. The stocky back has missed the last two games and had the bye week for extra time of rest. He is expected to start, but his effectiveness is still uncertain. He had an awesome day in his last full game, when he ran for 207 yards and two scores on 16 carries against Seattle in Week 2. He then had one touch for four yards before leaving against the Vikings the following week. Gore has 4,074 rushing yards since the start of 2006, the most in the NFC and third-best in the NFL. Rookie Glen Coffee (183 rushing yards, 1 TD) did an admirable job as starting running back and recorded his first career score against Atlanta two weeks back. Coffee may see more of an extended role if Gore has any setbacks in Houston.
Houston's tough run defense was on display against last week, as Cincinnati posted only 46 yards rushing a week after the Texans held Arizona to just 44 yards on the ground. That performance followed a 45-yard effort by Oakland. The last three offenses the Texans have faced have averaged only 2.5 yards per attempt, a big difference compared the first three weeks of the season, in which the Texans surrendered a 100-yard rusher in each game. Much of the credit for stuffing the run goes to rookie linebacker Brian Cushing (48 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT), who was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for posting nine tackles, an interception, two passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles versus Cincinnati. Cushing, who leads the team and all NFL rookies in tackles, and linebacker DeMeco Ryans (45 tackles) are two of the best young talents at that position. Cushing, though, was limited in practice this week with a balky foot. The two linebackers will be responsible for containing Gore in his return from injury.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Schaub (1,810 passing yards, 14 TD, 5 INT) has been able to avoid injury so far this season and has the Texans boasting the league's seventh-ranked offense at 413.0 yards per game. The Texans are third in the NFL with 292.2 passing yards per contest thanks to Schaub, who leads the NFL in touchdown passes with 14. His 1,810 yards rank second in the NFL, while his 102.7 rating is the sixth best in the league. He has thrown for 200 yards in a half in five straight games and is aiming to break the franchise record with his fifth 300- yard passing game of the season. Schaub had four in 2008, and has also thrown a touchdown pass in five straight games. Johnson (36 receptions, 4 TD) is second in the NFL with 572 receiving yards and is tied for second with four touchdown catches. He led the league in receptions (115) and receiving yards (1,575) last season and is aiming for his third straight game with 100-plus yards receiving. He needs just 49 yards to reach the 7,000-yard mark in his career, a feat he could achieve by halftime on Sunday. Tight end Owen Daniels (32 receptions, 374 yards, 4 TDs) is tied with Johnson for the team lead in touchdown catches.
San Francisco's secondary may still be reeling after its last-second loss to Minnesota a few weeks ago. In the loss to Atlanta before the bye week, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while wideout Roddy White burned the Niners for 210 yards and scored twice. San Francisco is 20th against the pass, allowing 234.0 yards per game, and gave up five touchdowns in the first half. Free safety Dashon Goldson (27 tackles, sack, 1 INT) saw the back of White's jersey plenty of times in the recent loss, and the same goes for veteran cornerback Nate Clements (29 tackles, INT). Clements displayed poor tackling skills on a big score by White and will try to use this game as motivation for the upcoming weeks. Shawntae Spencer (12 tackles, 1 INT) was also held responsible for the defensive backfield breakdown and will try to bounce back against one of the best wideouts in the game. Safety Michael Lewis (30 tackles) is not known for his coverage ability, but has to learn fast with Schaub and Houston's high octane offense.
Texans running back Steve Slaton (274 rushing yards, 1 TD) hasn't rushed for more than 76 yards in a game this season after he led all NFL rookies with a franchise-record 1,282 rushing yards a year ago. Slaton finished tops on the team in rushing in 15 of 16 games, and his five 100-yard games were a team single-season record. Kubiak can only hope the former West Virginia product will regain his rookie form against a tough run defense in San Francisco. That may be too much to ask, since the Texans rank 30th in rushing. Slaton, who had 19 carries for 43 yards in the win over Cincinnati, has 282 receiving yards for a total of 556 yards from scrimmage in 2009. He has a favorable matchup against the 49ers' 3-4 defense and mediocre front line. Slaton is a threat catching the ball and had six catches for 102 yards and a score last week. Houston linemen Chris Myers and rookie Antoine Caldwell have been solid up front this season, with Myers aiming to make his 39th consecutive start. Backup running back Chris Brown (106 rushing yards, 1 TD) has a season-high 45 yards on nine touches last week.
Not only did the Falcons pick apart San Francisco through the air, they also took advantage on the ground with running back Michael Turner, who had 97 yards and three scores on 22 carries. It was Turner's most productive game of the season. Luckily for the Niners, Slaton is having a tough second year in the NFL for the Texans' 30th-rated ground attack. Slaton gets to face San Francisco's 3-4 defense and one of the best linebackers in Patrick Willis (49 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT), who leads the team in stops and has the speed to run down Slaton from behind. Willis has finished with 10 or more tackles in three of five games this season. Fellow linebackers Manny Lawson (27 tackles, 0.5 sacks), Takeo Spikes (25 tackles, 1 sack) and Parys Haralson (13 tackles, 1 sack) will try to have a better performance this time around now that they're well rested. Defensive end Justin Smith (11 tackles, 1 sack) must apply pressure on Schaub in order to keep him from finding an open receiver. Schaub isn't light on his feet, but like Kurt Warner, Kerry Collins and Tom Brady, his precise passing skills make up for his immobility.
The Texans have a litany of fantasy stars in Schaub, Johnson and Daniels. Slaton, however, is a risky choice since he's been so unproductive running the football this season. Plus, the 49ers are a tough unit against the run and will make it hard for him to revert back to his 2008 form. Schaub and Johnson are easy starts and Daniels is having a career year. Owners can gamble on the Texans defense with a gimpy Gore returning and an inexperienced Crabtree making his NFL debut. Meanwhile, Gore is worth a start since he has the perseverance to bounce back from injury. Morgan's stock has plummeted like the Dow Jones, leaving Crabtree and Davis as San Francisco's only receiving threats.
Houston is feeling pretty good after its big win at Cincinnati last week, but the 49ers have more firepower with the return of Gore and the debut of Crabtree. Gore has been counted out most of his football career and has turned heads as one of the best young running backs in the game. It will be no surprise to see Gore help San Francisco back into the win column this Sunday. Singletary's defense, led by Willis, has a shot at redemption after getting waxed in front of the home crowd by Atlanta before the bye week. The 49ers have thought about that game long enough and are ready to take out their frustrations on the inconsistent Texans.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 23, Texans 16
10/22 17:32:40 ET