The Houston Texans should be looking forward to their upcoming game against the San Francisco 49ers. Anything that would help them put their heart-wrenching loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the rearview mirror would be constructive.
The time has come to get creative or get medieval. The public has tried both approaches. An area restaurant offered a sextet of burger condiments in a pointed attempt to heap the blame on Matt Schaub’s deadly interceptions.
No, this isn't at Richard Sherman's house. It's at a Houston area restaurant. pic.twitter.com/lo32Cg4kBS— Terry Blount (@TerryBlountESPN) October 2, 2013
Or can the demons be exorcised by burning his jersey?
Whatever the reactions of the fan base, the team is circling the wagons. Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com reported Arian Foster called a players-only meeting where everyone reiterated their support of the beleaguered quarterback.
While this may help repair their collective psyche, a wounded animal awaits them on the West Coast. The 49ers were good enough to make their way to Super Bowl XLVII but have been suffering from the letdown that often afflicts the loser.
The 2012 NFC champions opened the season with a solid win over the Green Bay Packers, only to be outscored 56-10 in losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts. They reversed course by taking down St. Louis 35-11 last week, but most any team playing the Rams can treat it as a get-well game this season.
The 49ers are wounded in both a figurative and literal sense. Two of their top three wide receivers, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, were placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list before the regular season had begun. Cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Eric Wright have yet to play a down due to injuries, and nose tackle Ian Williams went on injured reserve after going down in the Seahawks game.
What has hurt San Francisco are the same malfunctions that plagued Houston: turnovers. And like the Texans, most can be attributed to their quarterback. Colin Kaepernick has three fumbles and four interceptions, though none of his picks have been turned for scores.
In both cases, these miscues explain the disparity in defensive rankings. Each team is ranked in the top five in yardage allowed but are in the bottom half of the league in points allowed.
On the surface, the game plan would be as simple as winning the turnover battle. No one is more certain of that than the careless Mr. Schaub.
But if the devil is truly in the details, here are some the Texans can use to their advantage.
Offensive Game Plan
Just as surely as the Seahawks defense revolves around its secondary, the 49ers depend on their linebackers.
They are the best in the business, with Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman patrolling the inside along with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the wings. This normally impenetrable group has been struggling lately.
Willis has been hampered by a groin problem that caused him to miss the Rams game. He is listed as questionable this week but will probably be good to go by game time.
Smith has been undergoing rehab since Sept. 23 after his second DUI arrest in a year, according to Albert Breer of NFL.com. He has been replaced by Dan Skuta, a backup outside linebacker and special teams player for most of his five-year career.
Even when this foursome was intact, it was vulnerable to giving up some consistent gains.
The first rushing attempt in the Colts game was a preview of how this game would go. Ahmad Bradshaw is lined up in an offset “I” formation, with fullback Stanley Havili showing power left. There is no tight end, with three wide receivers further disguising the play’s intention.
Bradshaw takes one step to the right, and Willis bites on the direction and flow of the offensive line. Bowman stays put since he has the “B” gap and fullback to think about.
By the time Bradshaw cuts right to take the handoff, it’s too late. Willis (No. 52) has been swallowed up by the guard Hugh Thornton, and Bowman (No. 53) is engaged with the fullback.
The gain is only seven yards but shows how much responsibility San Francisco places on their two inside linebackers.
In the fourth quarter, Bradshaw helps put the game out of reach when he rushes for 45 of the 80 yards in a drive that makes the score 20-7. The Colts end up gaining 184 rushing yards, the most surrendered by the 49ers during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
The 49ers gave up over 300 passing yards per game in the 2012 playoffs. They made it to the Super Bowl because of their rushing defense, which kept their opponents under 100 yards per game. This year they have the opposite problem, ranking 19th in rushing yardage allowed and 31st in touchdowns scored on the ground.
The path for the Texans is clear, particularly in light of the Schaub factor. Duane Brown is expected to be ready for Sunday’s game, and Ryan Harris could be in line to replace the struggling Derek Newton at right tackle. Schaub should be afforded better pass protection than he has received in the last two games.
But if the 49ers stack the box on third and short, don’t expect the call to be an outlet pass to Owen Daniels.
Defensive Game Plan
For all the talk about the read option, Jim Harbaugh has decided to curtail its usage this season. It could have kept the Colts off-balance in a game where the offense struggled from the outset.
But only two plays vaguely resembled an option-style run. Most of Kaepernick’s runs were actually scrambles, coming on breakdowns in pass protection. With the read-option dimension removed, the offense has been limited to Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore.
When Boldin lit up the Packers for 13 receptions and 208 yards, it looked like the team could withstand the absences of Crabtree and Manningham. He has only caught 11 passes in the other three games, as the coverage can afford to roll his way when there are so few receiving threats.
That does not apply to Davis. When healthy, he is one of the top six tight ends in the league. A balky hamstring kept him out of the Colts game, but he did return against the Rams and scored his third touchdown of the season.
Houston has had problems with tight ends since Wade Phillips took over as defensive coordinator. Then again, every team has trouble finding a way to cover players that are too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Old pros like Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark showed rookie D.J. Swearinger just how steep the learning curve is for today’s NFL safeties.
Gore has never been a flashy back, but he is Mr. Reliability. Outside of his rookie year, he has never averaged less than 70 yards a game over a season. Give him his carries, and he will get you the yards.
The wild card in this deck is none other than Kaepernick. When he was handed the starting job in Week 9 last season, most observers did not know what to make of him. With prototypical size, quick feet and a rocket arm, he was a threat to redefine the nature of the quarterback position.
For all his physical skills, ball security has been an issue from the beginning. His nine fumbles in the 2012 regular season were followed by a flawless performance in the playoffs. The problem returned during this season, with two of his three fumbles leading directly to scores.
In these images of the plays leading up to those fumbles, Kaepernick still has the ball exposed even when the defense is bearing down upon him. His inability to sense pressure in the pocket causes him to handle the ball like the proverbial “loaf of bread.”
The offensive line has returned intact from last season but is functioning at a much lower level than 2012. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), they have fallen to 24th after topping the ratings last year.
Can this all be attributed to the loss of two wide receivers? The Texans will not bother to ask as they dial up the pass rush and dare the 49ers quarterback to beat them.