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Top 10 Spotlight: 49ers vs. Texans

Posted Oct 3, 2013

49ers.com ranks the top 10 storylines to track in the upcoming matchup against the Houston Texans.

The San Francisco 49ers host the Houston Texans this Sunday night at Candlestick Park. The matchup of 2-2 teams will be crucial for both as they look to keep pace in their respective divisions. Since the Texans’ inaugural season in 2002, the teams have only faced each other twice, splitting the all-time series with each franchise winning its home game. Sunday’s winner will take a lead in the series, but more importantly have a winning record in 2013.

Here are 10 storylines to track in Sunday’s 49ers-Texans matchup.

10. Baldwin's Impact
Jon Baldwin made his 49ers debut last week against the St. Louis Rams and caught two passes for 19 yards. Despite the limited number of targets, Baldwin proved he could be a “trusted agent” in the passing attack. Baldwin could be in line for a greater role with San Francisco now that rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton is out of action with a fracture in his foot. Patton was the No. 2 receiver in two-receiver sets in St. Louis. Baldwin has been playing catch with Colin Kaepernick after practice to get ready for an expanded role. 

9. Facing Reed
The Texans made a free agency splash this offseason with the addition of future Hall of Fame free safety Ed Reed. The 12-year veteran missed the entire preseason and the first two games of the regular season while recovering from hip surgery but is now healthy in the Texans defensive backfield. Since Reed’s return in Week 3, the veteran has six tackles. Reed has 61 career interceptions, including 15 in the past three seasons. The ball-hawking ways of the safety only enhance Houston’s No. 1 ranked pass defense.

8. Bowman's Dominance
Without Patrick Willis in the lineup last week in St. Louis, NaVorro Bowman turned heads and proved why he’s a two-time All-Pro inside linebacker. The 49ers repeatedly blitzed Bowman up the middle and the star linebacker showed everyone that he can beat one-on-one blocks. Bowman recorded 2 sacks and forced a fumble in a 35-11 win. Bowman’s performance, which earned a nomination for NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, helped spark a dominant performance by his defense. Willis has been limited in his return to practice this week, but the loss of an All-Pro like Willis is lessened when you have another top-notch defender like Bowman in the middle. Willis’ participation against the Texans will likely be a game-time decision, but teammates like Justin Smith believe he’s definitely playing.

7. Tight End Battle
Both teams will rely on tight ends to make big plays in the passing game. San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio noted that Texans have two pass-catching tight ends as an integral part of their passing attack.  Houston tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham have combined to make 30 receptions through four games. San Francisco tight ends Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek have combined to make 16 receptions. Davis was absent in Week 3 due to a hamstring injury, but he was active last week in St. Louis and caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick. The 49ers tight end has a team-high three touchdown catches in three games. Davis said his hamstring continues to improve.


6. Play-Action Offense
Houston sports a truly balanced offense. With the NFL’s No. 7 rushing attack (134.3 yards per game), the Texans are able to suck in defenders and make plays downfield with play-action passes. Fangio noted that San Francisco’s inside linebackers have the toughest job of determining if the Texans are handing the ball off to standout running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, or throwing downfield to hit Andre Johnson, a future Hall of Fame receiver in Fangio’s estimation. All of Houston’s running plays work in conjunction with the play-action passes, but Fangio noted that the Texans have the capability of attacking the entire field in any situation. The 49ers will look to minimize the first- and second-down production of Foster and Tate (520 combined rushing yards). Strong safety Donte Whitner, who revealed he’s changing his last name to “Hitner” this week, said the key for defensive backs is to be cautious with each step and trust what their eyes are seeing before reacting too aggressively.


5. Offensive Precision
The 49ers offense enjoyed improved execution in last Thursday’s win over the Rams. Kaepernick threw a pair of touchdown passes. Plus, three running backs scored on the ground. It was the first time the franchise had accomplished this feat since 2001. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman maintained that precision is the key for San Francisco’s offense. When asked if his offensive line had lacked energy in the first three games of the season, Roman noted the group played without precision and could not establish offensive rhythm. The 49ers played downhill last week in St. Louis and will need that same strong start against Houston. 

4. Gore Gains
Against St. Louis, the 49ers offensive line paved the way for 219 rushing yards and an average of 5.5 yards per carry. Frank Gore supplied 153 of those yards on the ground and is eager to keep the production going. The offense picked up 19 first downs against the Rams, with eight coming through the air and eight through the ground (with three via penalties). It helped the 49ers win the time of possession battle for the first time since Week 1. Gore is hopeful the 49ers will stick to the basics against the Texans and allow the running game to set up downfield passes to Boldin, Davis and potentially Baldwin.


3. Pick-Six
The 49ers will want to see if quarterback Matt Schaub can make the right decisions from the pocket. The Texans quarterback has thrown a pick-six in three consecutive weeks. In Houston’s overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Schaub lofted an errant pass in the right flat, which was intercepted by Richard Sherman and returned 58 yards to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. Consequently, a Texans fan purchased Schaub’s jersey and lit it on fire in the parking lot of Reliant Stadium. Adding to the negative reaction, a Houston restaurant has been offing a “Schaub Burger” where patrons could “pick-six” toppings. Despite the bitter treatment, Schaub has completed 65.5 percent of his passes for a total of 1,193 passing yards, the eighth-most in the NFL. It’s important to note that Houston’s veteran signal-caller has thrown eight touchdown passes against six interceptions. Schaub has thrown at least one interception in his last seven games played (10 total), dating back to Week 17 of the 2012 regular season.

2. Kaepernick in Control
The 49ers quarterback solved his turnover issues against St. Louis. Kaepernick had no interceptions after throwing four in the team’s Week 3 and 4 losses. Kaepernick’s demeanor was noticeably more upbeat with the media this week. San Francisco’s starting signal-caller had everyone’s attention last week when he walked into the Edward Jones Dome with a determined game face for the ages. Kaepernick was focused on winning and was able to produce the desired result. He completed 15 of 23 passes for 167 yards, and he finished the game with a 115.7 quarterback rating. The 49ers improved to 6-0 when Kaepernick starts and posts a quarterback rating of 100 or better.

1. Block Watt
Precise blocking will be important once again with Houston coming into town. The Texans feature a physical defensive front led by defensive end J.J. Watt, “a rolling ball of butcher’s knives,” as Roman put it. Right guard Alex Boone will be matched up with Watt for much of the game and feels like this game is one of the biggest and toughest tests of his four-year career. Roman said Watt can “wreck a game,” while Jim Harbaugh said Watt could “ruin” it. With that said, the 49ers chances of winning will be tough if No. 99 is able to disrupt their offensive momentum. 


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