Frank Gore will be one of the keys to victory.
The San Francisco 49ers righted the ship last week against the St. Louis Rams, but with the Houston Texans coming to town hellbent on ridding themselves of the bitter taste left in their mouths by the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers will need to build on their performance from last week in order to emerge victorious this Sunday.
The blueprint for victory was established against the Rams, as the 49ers returned to their physical, bruising style of play. The run will play a vast role in this game, with both teams looking to establish their most efficient form of offense.
While the defense looked to have improved tenfold, the fact remains that it was only against the Rams. Houston boasts a far more formidable stable of talent, and stopping the likes of Arian Foster and Andre Johnson will be the true barometer of how far the defense has come.
With both teams at 2-2 and looking up in the division standings for a change, getting a victory here could prove crucial for their playoff runs. Here are the five most important things the 49ers must do to ensure they walk away with that crucial win.
Frank Gore must punish the Texans like he did the Rams.
Watching the 49ers offense in Weeks 2 and 3 was like watching someone choose a McDonald's cheeseburger over some perfectly cooked Kobe beef.
It made absolutely no sense.
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And when you have a dominant offensive line, a terrific stable of running backs and next to nothing at receiver, you run the football.
Watching the 49ers abandon the run against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, especially when it was working so well, was mind-boggling. Watching them revert to the status quo against St. Louis was promising, but if they are to secure a victory against the hungry Texans, they must continue to pound the rock.
Frank Gore must continue to prove that age is just a number, and Father Time can be defeated. If he continues to run like he’s 25 and not 30 like he actually is, the 49ers are the most dangerous team in the league. When Gore runs well, it allows the 49ers to control the pace of the game and dominate the time of possession.
While the Texans defense has been stout over the last few years, it seems to be a shell of its former self, allowing 113.3 yards per game on the ground. The Texans can be run on, and the 49ers must exploit this chink in their armor.
Justin Smith must wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage.
This is obvious, right? Establishing the run is as crucial to the Texans’ game plan as it is to the 49ers'. And with perhaps the most lethal one-two combination in the league, stopping it is one tricky feat.
The Texans rate as the seventh-best rushing team in the league this year, picking up almost 135 yards per game. While the 49ers rush defense has left a lot to be desired so far this season, rating as 19th overall, defensive tackle Justin Smith believes that the defense turned a corner in last week's shellacking of the Rams, via Eric Branch of SF Gate:
It seemed like we got our identity back a little bit — stopping the run and running the ball. I think that was important. And I think it’s going to be important to keep having success to keep doing that.
With Patrick Willis set to return this week, the 49ers must use this opportunity to prove to the naysayers that their once-vaunted defense can still be just that. There will be no tougher test this season than that of the duo of Foster and Ben Tate.
Foster and Tate are still as unstoppable as ever, but the 49ers must show they can still be the immovable object they once were. Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage could ultimately determine who wins the game outright. And it could fall on the shoulders of this next guy to ensure the 49ers prevail.
NaVorro Bowman put together the most impressive defensive performance of the season last week against the Rams, seemingly flying around the field like an unstoppable whirlwind. I, for one, saw enough in that performance to anoint him the crème of the linebacking crop here.
The numbers in that game were staggering, as the 49ers allowed only 18 yards on the ground on just 0.9 yards per carry. Bowman had a whole lot to do with that, and he’ll have a whole lot to do with stopping the Texans in this game.
Bowman has proven to head coach Jim Harbaugh that he can handle a larger load of the defense; he’s not just a tackling machine. Bowman was able to terrorize Sam Bradford repeatedly last week, sacking him two times in that game, while at the same time completely neutralizing the running game.
He’ll have to do that again this week. Matt Schaub has proven that while he can be a deadly passer at times, when pressured he is also liable to make crucial mistakes, such as throwing a pick-six to Richard Sherman in the video shown above.
With Aldon Smith set to miss another game, Bowman must continue to expand his game and put pressure on Schaub. If he can do that, the entire defense benefits, and the likelihood of the 49ers winning increases immeasurably.
Still, the 49ers must score if they want to win, and they’ll need big things out of…
Vernon Davis must find the end zone again in this game.
While Davis was able to manage a touchdown grab against the Rams last week, he only had two catches for 18 yards overall. That’s not going to cut it against the Texans.
Davis came into the season with promises of big things in store, and so far we have yet to seen them. With the 49ers' receiving corps rating as shaky at best, Davis must be the one to pick up the slack.
Although a lingering hamstring has slowed him down as of late, this is the NFL, and stars are expected to produce when on the field. With reports coming in that Davis is expected to play this week, via Michael Gallagher of SB Nation, Davis must do his part to open up the running game.
Without the threat of a passing game, the Texans will focus their attention on stopping the 49ers up front. Davis is the key to ensuring that doesn’t happen. He has the ability to stretch the field and is a matchup nightmare for anyone who covers him. He must become an integral part of the offense for it to succeed at all.
Of course, Davis can’t do much if this next guy isn’t finding him.
Can Kaepernick be more than just a game manager?
I said earlier that Davis was receiving a lot of hype coming into the season. That hype was the equivalent of a whisper compared to the amount of praise Colin Kaepernick was generating.
With the 49ers sitting at 2-2 and second in the division, it’s fair to say that the hype hasn’t been met quite yet. After exploding into the season with a 412-yard, three-touchdown performance against Green Bay, Kaepernick has just barely doubled the yardage and touchdown total since then.
For all of the talk about him silencing his critics in Week 4, the fact remains that Kaepernick functioned as a game manager of sorts, as Brett Kollmann of SB Nation shows here, putting on his best Alex Smith performance to the tune of 167 yards and two touchdowns. The win did more to silence the critics than the performance itself.
Against teams like the Rams, being a game manager is enough. But against a team with Super Bowl aspirations like the Texans, more will be required from Kaepernick. He has two stud options in Anquan Boldin and Davis, and he must use those studs to add more dimensions to the offense.
Kaepernick is just too prolific and explosive to resort to simply managing games. He must take over them. Only then will everything come together on offense. When Kaepernick throws, the 49ers run. That is the formula to winning, and it is a formula that the 49ers must once again find a way to replicate.