Even though this team is fresh off a spirited road win and still a top five ranked club in its conference, it is not hard to see that Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco 49ers have plenty of work to do.
They’ve been asked to endure all sorts of adversity this season, so a Super Bowl, or even playoff seeding for that matter, will not come easy in 2013.
This week, the 49ers have an opportunity to accomplish their first winning streak of the season, while getting back over .500. They also haven’t forgotten how their heated division rival, the Seattle Seahawks, are cruising so far this year, putting the 'Niners in a position to play catch up.
Standing in the way of their goal are the Houston Texans—the fourth 2012 playoff team the 49ers will have faced in five weeks. They embody a similar mold as San Francisco, favoring the balanced attack on offense, geared by power rushing and play action. While defensively it is about their pressure-generating 3-4 front.
With Harbaugh’s 'Niners falling to similarly hard-nosed teams like the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and St. Louis Rams in past years, the Texans are certainly in a position to sneak up and steal a big road win at Candlestick Park.
To prevent such a catastrophe, the 49ers must respect their opponent while bringing their blue-collar style, coupled with a masterful game plan.
Dealing with a laundry list of NFL superstars will be no easy feat for a shorthanded San Francisco team, but scheme, fundamental performance and careful play-calling can help them overcome.
Here is San Francisco’s official blueprint to defeating Houston in Week 5.
No. 1: Neutralize the Freak, J.J. Watt
In Sunday night’s matchup, the besieged 49ers offense will have a new challenge, pitted against the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year (and that title alone does not even do him justice).
Houston Texans' freak defensive lineman J.J. Watt is easily one of the most devastating forces inhabiting the league today, and when he catches fire in a given matchup, his game reaches unstoppable proportions.
He is a selfless, bright-minded and physically remarkable workhorse defenseman with a high motor and a knack for decapitating offenses up front in the box. In trailblazing style, Watt is doing all these things at a position that players before him have not been able to do, simply because he is gifted and ambitious.
He has tapped into what makes him a rather extraordinary physical specimen for the position, has enhanced those strengths and has consciously begun taking advantage of them by attacking offenses in a litany of ways.
Setting lofty goals for himself, the 6’5”, 290-pound defensive tackle confessed he wants to invent the football triple-crown award, which consists of 20 sacks, 20 batted balls and 20 tackles for loss in a season, per Pete Prisco of CBS Sports.
It is no surprise that coach Jim Harbaugh said in this week’s presser that “[Watt] can ruin a game,” via the team’s official website.
The 'Niners offense, along with its No. 1 rated offensive line (per Pro Football Focus), needs to shut this cat down. If they allow Watt to get rolling in this game, it will have a ripple effect on the rest of the Houston defense, which recently invested heavily in its secondary.
That could be bad news bears for this San Francisco team, which really gets down on itself and tends to unravel when the opposing defensive line beats them at their own game. If No. 99 is neutralized, it will allow the 49ers offense to flow and not risk losing the turnover battle.
When he pass rushes
The quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line—so according to the laws of physics, the 49ers staff needs to do itself a favor and devise ways to set barriers between Watt and the ball carrier, specifically making it so he has to circumvent a lot of traffic on his way to the pocket.
For his sake, the hope is that J.J. Watt likes guacamole, because he’ll be eating chips all day (we know he likes burritos).
Chipping from the backs and tight ends will be a big part of the game plan. And let it be known, Frank Gore is one of the best blocking backs in the National Football League, which is a facet of his game that is often forgotten.
He is sneaky good. In terms of protection, No. 21 can be counted on to sit back and put a lick on virtually any incoming attacker because he is disciplined in his assignments and consistently wins the leverage game (See: Hit on Lance Briggs). He also has a huge heart and would step in front of a truck for any one of his teammates.
That 18-wheeler will be J.J. Watt this weekend.
Outside of Gore and the right side of the O-line, fullback Bruce Miller, as well as tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald will also be some of the stronger bulls tasked with dealing with Watt in Week 5.
Before and after he engages with the line, the 49ers have to make it so the defensive MVP gets a chip from the tight end and one from the back. So, not one obstacle, but at least three Watt will have to face on any given passing down, which lasts between four and eight seconds from snap to release.
J.J. Watt still playing at high level. Top ranked 34 DE, leads position in defensive stops in run game, 2nd in total pressure— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 23, 2013
When he is run stopping
The 49ers will want to use schematic advantages here, such as double-teams, chips and down blocks. It is vital that they continue to throw haymakers at Watt and wear him down over the course of the game.
If you checked in for last week’s game preview, you might’ve read a detailed breakdown on the wham block, which San Francisco tends to run with a degree of success. And with Watt being the marquee player on their line, again, this is a logical technique to employ against their front seven.
The 49ers used this against the Detroit Lions, isolating star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and challenging the rest of the defense to beat them. In 2011 they dismantled Suh, and in 2012 they took Suh and Nick Fairley completely out of the play at times, going 2-0 in those contests.
Despite facing an All-Pro defensive tackle and the No. 13 overall pick, Gore accrued 230 yards and two touchdowns (7.1 yards per carry).
Again, former tight end Delanie Walker is off the line of scrimmage, set to go in motion a moment prior to the snap. His goal is to use his head start and proper angling to ram into the side of defensive tackle Nick Fairley (yellow circle, No. 98), derailing him from his rush lane.
As we can see in this frame, Fairley shot the gap and was immediately met by Walker, who used the defensive tackle’s own momentum against him to knock him right out of the play.
This created a gaping hole where the run was designed, while allowing left tackle Joe Staley and center Jonathan Goodwin to get to the second level and get helmets on the linebackers.
Gore had more room than he knew what to do with.
In the end, the 49ers had a plan to eliminate their star defensive lineman, they had the personnel to do so and their flawless execution overcame talent. This is the approach offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to take; he must focus on eliminating the strength of their defense from the play, which is Watt.
When he is batting passes
When he goes up for the ball, either right tackle Anthony Davis or right guard Alex Boone need to plant their hands on his torso area and knock him back. The idea is to change his trajectory in midair so he misses the ball in flight. They can’t allow him to block passing lanes without paying for it.
Besides, when he goes up for the ball, his body is totally vulnerable a knock. His feet are not planted and he has no leverage whatsoever. If Davis and/or Boone get enough force behind the push, they’ll be able to redirect his body.
However, the problem is that it all happens so fast that the instincts by Davis and Boone will have to be uncanny. Maybe the best advice to give to the offensive linemen is to tell them to watch his pad level. If it sinks, he is preparing to leap.
Other than that, San Francisco’s line has to play heads up football and Colin Kaepernick needs to be safe with the football. Any one of those deflected balls can wind up in the arms of a Texans defender, which is particularly dangerous with Johnathan Joseph and Ed Reed lurking back there.
No. 2: Make Matt Schaub Win It (Because He Won’t)
As the quarterback of the Texans since 2007, Matt Schaub has been a mainstay for the franchise as management has built around him. However, now that the rest of the talent has finally caught up, and the players and coaches are talking about a Super Bowl, it is becoming clearer that Schaub is a weak link.
He just hasn’t been able to make that jump to an upper echelon quarterback.
Schaub tends to make mistakes, which often turn out to be costly decisions, giving him that intangible Tony Romo or Mark Sanchez gene. Sure, on a good day, he can execute the offense to a T. But when it really matters, and he has to be the spark for the offense, they fall apart.
That being said, the 49ers need to put the Texans’ immensely talented two-headed rushing attack in a vise, making the offense one dimensional and thus forcing Schaub to win it in the air. As far as Vic Fangio’s defensive game plan goes, this is the optimal course of action for San Francisco.
Ben Tate is currently averaging 4.5 yards per carry...AFTER contact. Leads league by a yard (from AP). 2.4 better than Foster.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 2, 2013
Priority No. 1 is taking away the run game with Arian Foster and Ben Tate—those two cannot take turns ripping this defense for yards. The esteemed run-stuffing unit made of Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald needs to put together one of their best games in the trenches.
They’ve got to win their matchups and generally control the line of scrimmage, allowing the linebackers to flood the designated gaps. Running against the 49ers needs to come off as futile. This will make Houston put it in the air without giving them the full advantages of play-action.
This is how San Francisco can handicap that out-of-sync Texans offense.
No. 3: Run the Football Down Their Throat
After sustaining a concussion versus the Seattle Seahawks, the Texans expect to have outside linebacker Brian Cushing back in the rotation for Week 5, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. This is a very fortunate break for the Texans defense, which, as a result, won’t be missing arguably its second best player.
Leading the team with 33 tackles, Cushing will return to command the middle alongside Darryl Sharpton and Joe Mays. Outside backers Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus fortify the corps on the edges, and defensive end Antonio Smith gives Houston another tough-as-nails lineman to complement Watt.
All in all, it’s a robust front seven.
But defensively, these guys want to rush the passer way more than they want to stop the run. They’ve got speed all along the linebacking corps and few powerful players in front who can stack gaps and let LBs run free.
The Texans have also invested capital in their secondary between Ed Reed and D.J. Swearinger, and would like for their defensive backs to capitalize on the ducks that the front seven is churning out. The 49ers are not going to play into their hands, and will counter by running the football.
Greg Roman has to be dedicated to the run game and trust that Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and even LaMichael James can contribute.
A lot has been built up regarding the potential of this three-headed attack, but we have yet to see it function at full capacity. With questions looming around the team’s ability to be consistently productive in the air, and its obvious identity as a run-first team, the 49ers would be wise not to neglect the run.
They need to start on the ground and ad-lib around the success that it breeds.
Running the football effectively sets the tone, puts this game in their control, wears out the defense and sets things up in the passing game for Colin Kaepernick. Once they’ve demoralized the Texans by imposing their will, Kap can really go to work with his loose schoolyard style of ball, acting as a closer.
- Win the Field Position Battle: It is a sure thing that All-Pro punter Andy Lee will bring his game, but the punt and kick coverage unit has to be up to par. Houston will have return specialist Keshawn Martin, and he is a compact speedster that can slip through a crack and change the game.
- Smart, Fundamental Play: There is really no substitute for it. Sound blocking and tackling, as well as avoiding the yellow flags, will help the 49ers pull this one out. More often than not, the team that plays the cleaner game puts itself in the most advantageous position to win.
- Feed Different Playmakers: It’s been four games and none of San Francisco’s up-and-comers on the offensive side of the ball have surfaced as viable week-to-week options. It has been disheartening to watch this unit struggle, but something’s got to give. The 49ers need to make an effort to integrate players like Vance McDonald, LaMichael James and Jon Baldwin, getting them more touches.
- Respect the Stars: The Texans have all sorts of game changers on both offense and defense, so the 49ers will have to be cautious of them. Besides J.J. Watt, safety Ed Reed, wideout Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster are all lightning rods capable of making a play that forever shifts the momentum toward their team.