San Francisco 49ers vs. Houston Texans: 49ers' Preseason Week 3 Game Preview
The 49ers are coming off their first preseason victory versus the San Diego Chargers, which was also their first win at the team's new home—Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.
San Francisco's first-team offense had their fair share of struggles during that particular game before second- and third-team units took over and helped lead the 49ers to a 21-7 victory over their Southern California rivals.
While some questions and concerns will certainly follow the team through this final week of the regular season, San Francisco vs. Houston will probably not look like anything resembling an NFL regular-season game.
The 49ers have already trimmed their roster from 90 to 75 players. Additionally, we can expect that almost all of the starters have been penciled in for Week 1. We cannot entirely determine how much the starters will play Thursday, but we can be certain that backups and reserves will once again carry the majority of the workload.
We might remember the last time these two teams met back on October 6, 2013. San Francisco trounced Houston 34-3.
49ers dominate Texans in 34-3 win. Houston turns ball over 5 times (3 Int by Matt Schaub) in loss.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 7, 2013
That's nice for bragging rights, but little more considering the context of the preseason.
Still, this game does prompt evaluation. The vast majority of starters have been determined and a number of backup battles are coming into focus. This will be the final week that many of these bubble-watch players have to try and remain on the roster.
Let's take a look at this last preseason matchup as San Francisco looks to finish strong before the regular season commences on September 7.
49ers Preseason Week 3 Recap
San Francisco had plenty of positives and negatives from last week's 21-7 victory over the visiting San Diego Chargers.
On one hand—the obvious—the 49ers secured their first touchdown, first home score and first win of the preseason.
The 49ers starters saw a little more playing time compared to what they had seen during the first two weeks of the preseason. Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News breaks down the snap counts, which points to San Francisco's focus on giving the starters some momentum moving forward.
The team also benefited from outstanding play from some of the deeper cast of characters vying for roster spots. Rookie linebackers Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch stood out in particular. Borland led the team with seven tackles and Lynch tipped two passes at the line, one of which went for an interception.
Borland and Lynch each added a sack during the game.
Chris Borland with a leaping sack.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 24, 2014
These two rookies contributing throughout the course of the game is a good sign, considering both may be relied upon heavily during the regular season. Both Borland and Lynch figure to add valuable depth in San Francisco's linebacker corps with the pending absences of NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith during the regular season.
Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert also showed some progression after two miserable preseason performances prior. Gabbert, who has been under scrutiny during his San Francisco tenure, finally put together some nice drives against San Diego.
He completed seven passes out of 11 attempts for 66 total yards and also threw the 49ers' only passing touchdown—a six-yard pass to tight end Vance McDonald.
Backup running back Glenn Winston tacked on a 27-yard rushing touchdown and the 49ers' ground attack generated a total of 129 yards during the game.
Kicker Phil Dawson also netted his first field goals at Levi's Stadium after missing two attempts a week prior against the Denver Broncos.
But perhaps the biggest story out of the game—and possibly the biggest concern—was the ineptitude of the 49ers first-team offense.
Out of this concern, the focus should be directed to San Francisco's offensive line. The right side of the O-line is an obvious question. Right tackle Anthony Davis (shoulder) remains sidelined until the regular season and right guard Alex Boone continues to hold out.
This leaves Jonathan Martin and Joe Looney in at tackle and guard, respectively. Both have struggled at times per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
However it was the left side of the O-line that bore the brunt of struggles against San Diego. In particular, guard Mike Iupati had an awful game. He consistently struggled against Chargers lineman Corey Liuget, who got to quarterback Colin Kaepernick and forced a fumble in the process per Janie McCauley of The Associated Press (h/t CBS Sports).
Iupati has since reiterated via Paul Gutierrez of ESPN that his struggles are an easy fix:
You just watch film. Sometimes you lose some, you win some. It's mainly technique. But I'm not worried about it. It's something that's an easy fix.
It's preseason, but it's football. You're going against someone else so you're competitive and you don't want to have that happen. Especially a sack or a QB hit. But you know, it's an easy fix. That's what it is.
Let's hope Iupati is right, given his role along a depleted offensive line.
News and Notes
The 49ers have been bitten by the injury bug once more.
The O-line lost some amicable depth when rookie center Marcus Martin went down with an injury in the fourth quarter of Sunday's victory.
Source: #49ers rookie C Marcus Martin is expected to be sidelined eight weeks (kneecap).— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) August 25, 2014
Three-year veteran Daniel Kilgore figures to be the starting center having essentially won the competition over Martin. But the USC protege has plenty of promise, and the 49ers are obviously hoping Martin's injury only affects short-term plans.
Fullback Will Tukuafu and safety Bubba Ventrone also left the game with injuries.
All Things Sod
Levi's Stadium's turf continued to be an ongoing topic of discussion as the 49ers preseason game drew to a close.
The sod revealed itself as problematic during San Francisco's matchup versus Denver, eventually requiring a removal and reinstallation of new turf for the game against San Diego.
That particular sod has since been torn out with new sod being put into place per Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports.
According to Katzowitz, the new turf is expected to be ready for the Levi's Stadium regular-season debut against the Chicago Bears in Week 2.
San Francisco's coaching staff has started the arduous process of trimming the 49ers roster from 90 down to 53.
The first wave of cuts brings the roster down to 75. These decisions are obviously based on training camp and in-game performances during the preseason. Many of the cuts are pretty straight forward. The second wave of cuts will be much more difficult.
Wide receivers David Reed and Devon Wylie, quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, running back Jewel Hampton, safety D.J. Campbell, tight end Kevin Greene, punter Colton Schmidt and linebacker Kion Wilson were among those cut per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
Additionally, the 49ers released linebacker Blake Costanzo from the injured reserve list.
Tight end Garrett Celek (back) and nose tackle Kaleb Ramsey (undisclosed) have been moved to the reserve/physically unable to perform (PUP) list along with linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Rookies Trey Millard, Keith Reaser and Brandon Thomas join Marcus Lattimore on the non-football injury (NFI) list.
Some of these injury-related moves may help open up some roster spots at the beginning of the season, so let's keep an eye on that development.
Marcus Lattimore, RB—NFI
Antoine Bethea, SS—Questionable
Glenn Dorsey, DT—Out
LaMichael James, RB—Questionable
Trey Millard, FB—NFI
Keith Reaser, CB—NFI
All injury statuses courtesy of CBS Sports.
The actual number of 49ers players physically injured is obviously much longer than the injury report officially posted via CBS Sports.
But we'll let the official record stand as it is and evaluate some of the other areas where San Francisco is trying to get healthy.
Marcus Lattimore, Trey Millard and Keith Reaser remain listed on the reserve/NFI list as they were a week ago. Guard Brandon Thomas is there, too, as described on the previous slide.
LaMichael James made his 2014 preseason debut against San Diego and returned one kick for 11 yards. He also rushed seven times gaining nine yards in the process. Signs point to him being recovered from the dislocated elbow that sidelined him for San Francisco's first two preseason games.
The 49ers are taking their time with Antoine Bethea per Tyler Emerick of 49ers.com in the wake of his concussion suffered against Denver. It is feasible that we won't see him until Week 1 of the regular season at the earliest.
Perhaps the biggest blow was that to rookie center Marcus Martin, whose dislocated kneecap will likely keep him out for eight weeks per Eric Branch of SFGate.com.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
As stated, the final preseason matchup between the 49ers and Texans will look nothing like a regular-season NFL game.
Many teams, erring on the side of caution, do not even bother playing their starters in this final tune-up. Rather, it is an opportunity for the remaining cast of bubble players to try and showcase reasons why they should be added to the team's roster.
But Jim Harbaugh hinted the team may do something different here. During his regular appearance on the Murph and Mac show, the 49ers flagship radio station KNBR 680, the head coach stated quarterback Colin Kaepernick and some of the starters will indeed play on Thursday.
Jim Harbaugh on @KNBR reiterates that Colin Kaepernick will play Thursday in Houston. "That's the way we've always done it ..." coach says.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 26, 2014
Exactly how many snaps San Francisco's first teamers will get remains undetermined, but it is likely they will see very little action considering the 49ers do not want to risk any further injury.
Thus, the primary focus will remain upon bubble-watch players as they try to earn valuable roster spots.
Kenneth Acker vs. Texans Receiving Corps
Rookie cornerback Kenneth Acker had an impressive game versus Denver back on August 17. He posted a defended pass, drew an offensive pass-interference call and almost had an interception had it not been for an offsides call.
Acker had four tackles against San Diego the subsequent week and remains a player to watch as he struggles to make the roster.
In spite of his impressive play, Acker has a tough hill to climb in terms of securing one of the spots on San Francisco's 53-man roster. Veterans Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are locks to make the team, as is rookie Jimmie Ward.
Rookie Dontae Johnson and corners Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris have also displayed plenty of promise in the competition.
Acker's best chances to crack the roster will likely come from his ability to contribute on special teams—an aspect so vital in determining the final spots. One last showing against Houston may be the last and best chance Acker has before the final wave of 49ers cuts.
Brandon Lloyd vs. Texans Secondary
This matchup is entirely based on whether or not Lloyd suits up, given that he was out of uniform last week per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
But the 33-year-old veteran may still not be a lock to make the roster when San Francisco formulates its final wave of cuts following the game versus Houston.
According to Trevor Woods of Niners Nation, Lloyd has a pretty good chance of making the roster in spite of the fact he offers nothing on special teams. Lloyd's addition would likely mean the team parts ways with veteran special teams ace Kassim Osgood per Woods.
Sounds like #49ers WR Brandon Lloyd has a real good chance to make the team. He’s fitting in, which is just as good news. Bonded with Boldin— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 20, 2014
With the 49ers likely looking to give veterans Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree light, if any, duties on Thursday, Lloyd could be next in line to go up against a Texans defense that ranked No. 3 in the NFL last season in passing yards allowed (3,123).
First-Team O-Line vs. Texans Front Seven
Again, this is almost entirely contingent upon how many snaps San Francisco's starters receive against Houston.
We saw the 49ers offensive line struggle at the start of the game versus the Chargers last Sunday, and that will obviously be a cause for concern until redressed.
Barring any changes in the Alex Boone holdout saga, Joe Looney will get the start at right guard with Jonathan Martin playing right tackle. Should Joe Staley and Mike Iupati get starts on the left, the pressure will be on for this unit to try and protect quarterback Colin Kaepernick for as long as they remain together on the field.
The lack of depth behind center Daniel Kilgore could also be an issue here in the wake of Marcus Martin's injury.
If we only see the starters for a few snaps, however, this point may very well be moot until the start of the regular season.
Chris Borland vs. Texans O-Line
As stated during last week's recap, rookie linebacker Chris Borland was all over the field. He played with the same sort of aggression and physicality that made him such an intriguing prospect out of Wisconsin.
Borland logged a team-high seven tackles against San Diego on Sunday, including one sack. The rookie is currently battling it out with veteran linebacker Michael Wilhoite as the primary step-in for All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman at the start of the season.
Chris Borland is like a missile out there, making some strong tackles. But Wilhoite played just as well. More confidence in WIlhoite.— James Brady (@JamesBradySBN) August 24, 2014
The competition has been "very even" according to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio via Barrows, but the edge likely goes to Wilhoite given his experience along with having filled in such a role previously—starting in place for Patrick Willis for a period of time a season ago.
Still, Borland has a chance to get plenty of reps against the Texans. He logged a total of 32 snaps against San Diego per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday, and we might expect that number to rise as the 49ers look to rest their starters this final week.
49ers X-Factor of the Week: LB Aaron Lynch
Fellow-rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch also put forth a commendable effort against the Chargers at Levi's Stadium last Sunday.
He may not have recorded the number of tackles put forth by his counterpart Borland, but Lynch was equally as effective at shutting down San Diego's second-team offense. During the game, Lynch recorded one sack and tipped two passes, one of which went for an interception.
Swatting balls at the line reminds us of another linebacker the 49ers may face Thursday—All-Pro J.J. Watt.
We know the story behind Lynch—he comes with a reputation. He has been known to take plays off and not always give 100 percent. When he does give maximum effort, however, the results can be downright scary.
No surprise: Aaron Lynch had the 49ers highest @PFF grade Sunday with a sack, two hurries and two passes batted down.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) August 25, 2014
"I enjoy being around him," Harbaugh said of Lynch via Eric Branch of SFGate.com. "I like the way he practices. He's continuing to learn how to be a professional football player."
So far, that reputation hasn't followed Lynch into the pros. The 49ers hope he keeps it that way. He has built a solid foundation for success in his brief tenure, so let's keep an eye on him as he looks for similar success against the Texans.
The last time these two teams met, the 49ers demolished the would-be 2-14 Texans by a score of 34-3. San Francisco produced 177 rushing yards and forced four turnovers during that game.
What does all that mean going into the final game of the preseason?
As stated previously, this final tune-up before the regular season will look nothing like a regular-season game. Rather, it will be a shot for the majority of San Francisco's backups to showcase their skills in order to stay on the team's roster.
In spite of what head coach Jim Harbaugh has stated about starting his first-team units, we should obviously expect the majority of backups to take over early on.
The focus of this game should rely heavily on the remainder of the 49ers' 75-man roster. Spots are still up for grabs, and San Francisco's coaching staff will have some difficult choices to make following the game as they prepare for Week 1 of the regular season.
On the positive side of things, the 49ers are riding a little wave of momentum following their victory over San Diego last Sunday.
Additionally, a large number of backups are potentially playing for their respective careers in San Francisco. We should expect some considerable effort from guys like cornerback Kenneth Acker, quarterback Josh Johnson, cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris along with special teamers like C.J. Spillman and Kassim Osgood.
Other players who are likely to be on the 53-man roster, but still are fighting for spots up the depth chart, may also play a role. Perhaps we see an increase in production from linemen like Cornellius "Tank" Carradine and Quinton Dial.
Dial may get an increase in reps after defensive coordinator Vic Fangio revealed Ian Williams suffered from some tightness after the victory over San Diego via 49ers.com.
Fangio said NT @IWilliams95, who experienced some "tightness" on Sunday, will play Thursday versus the Texans.— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 26, 2014
Motivation can be a key factor during the preseason. Which players want it more? That is a proverbial question here.
Houston's defense ranked No. 23 in the league last season against the run (1,958 yards allowed), so perhaps we see the 49ers offense stick to their "bread and butter" a bit by establishing the run early and often.
This might mean a lot of rookie Carlos Hyde, but it is also feasible San Francisco tries to work in depth runners like LaMichael James and Glenn Winston. If the 49ers can establish the run early, that will open up the game for San Francisco's revamped pass offense.
Perhaps depth receivers like Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington get involved here.
All of this, of course, will be contingent on how well the beleaguered offensive line holds up in the wake of their poor first-team performance against San Diego. If they can shore up their problems, the 49ers' ability to move the ball should be evident.
With the majority of snaps going to depth players, it is likely we will witness some ugly moments and potentially some standout play from guys on the roster bubble.
Predicting such an outcome is anyone's guess with these types of games, but personal hunch gives San Francisco an edge in this one.
Prediction: 49ers 17, Texans 13
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.
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