The Houston Texans look to snap a two-game losing streak Sunday night on the road against the San Francisco 49ers.
It will be difficult for Houston to move past a crushing defeat last week to another NFC West foe, the Seattle Seahawks. The Texans held a 17-point lead in the second half within the friendly confines of Reliant Stadium yet couldn't close it out.
Meanwhile, the Niners rallied back from two consecutive losses with a resounding 35-11 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Week 4's Thursday game. The extra rest and time to prepare should serve San Francisco well on Sunday.
There are several key contributors in particular who must step up for each team to have the best chance to win, so let's take a look at each side's most vital cogs in this prime-time matchup.
Matt Schaub, QB, Houston Texans
The Texans' hopes this season hinge largely on Schaub's quarterback play. The veteran signal-caller has the benefit of a great defense and stellar running game at his disposal, yet he still makes crushing mistakes.
Schaub's pick-six in Week 4 to Seahawks star Richard Sherman sparked Seattle's rally to an eventual overtime win, officially putting the Texans on the ropes.
Locals are even fed up with Schaub and his errors:
The wide receiver tandem of Andre Johnson and rookie first-rounder DeAndre Hopkins hasn't disappointed and is one of the most dynamic and dangerous in the league.
Schaub won't have many excuses, because Niners cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha are questionable, according to the team's injury report.
It will take a big performance from Schaub to lift the Texans to victory on the road. Otherwise, critics will continue being relentless, and it may cost him his starting job at the end of the season—or sooner.
Kyle Williams, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Coverage will be bracketed Anquan Boldin's way, making it critical for Williams to get separation and do a great job beating press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will likely send a lot of exotic blitzes at San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick, making Williams an ideal option in the short passing game out of the slot.
Jon Baldwin can't yet be counted on as a significant contributor given his status as a possible first-round bust, so it's up to Williams to utilize his knowledge of the system to his advantage.
Williams is the second-most targeted receiver through four weeks, per Chad Parsons of Footballguys.com:
That means Kaepernick will be relying on Williams to step up. Frank Gore can run the ball effectively for San Francisco, but his job would be far easier if running lanes could be opened up a little bit.
It's Williams or bust for the 49ers.
It helps that Williams is the punt returner, too, where he could give San Francisco a spark in that phase of the game.
Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans
With Brian Cushing coming off a concussion, second-year stud Whitney Mercilus must be at his best.
Mercilus is 6'4", 258 pounds and has the rare athleticism to stick with athletic quarterbacks, but he let Seahawks QB Russell Wilson get loose a few too many times in the Texans' Week 4 loss.
He can't let that happen against Kaepernick, who is even more explosive and faster in the open field. It is worth noting, though, that Kaepernick isn't running as often as he was when he burst onto the NFL scene last season, accumulating just 140 yards in four games to date.
Still, in terms of playing the run in general, Mercilus is vital to the Texans' success on defense.
Cushing may be cleared, but he may not be the brute force he typically is, while the majority of the Niners' focus will be on blocking reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
That will leave Mercilus in many one-on-one situations where he should be favored. If he can gain leverage on those, he should be in for a big night on the big stage.
Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers
General manager Trent Baalke traded up in this year's draft to select Reid and have him fill in for departed free agent All-Pro Dashon Goldson.
Reid has looked stellar in his first four NFL starts, but with the aforementioned setbacks to the secondary, he will have to play at a very high level against the caliber of offense the Texans present.
The ball skills Hopkins possesses and the deep threat that he is should create problems, and it is key for Reid to take advantage of any opportunity he has to help out over the top. Tight ends Garrett Graham and Owen Daniels are also threats to go up the seam and stretch the field vertically.
Any help Reid can provide in run support against Arian Foster and Ben Tate will also be huge.
The LSU product has looked up to the test in the pros thus far, but this crossroads regular-season game will be a true measuring stick for one of the game's more promising young defensive backs.
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