This is going to be as close to a regular season game as it gets in the preseason.
Week 3 has always been the game in which starters get to play a majority of the snaps, making it the biggest test of the preseason. The 49ers will have their most accurate measuring stick this week against the Houston Texans.
There are still a few questions marks—quite a few in fact. But some are bigger than others.
I am watching a history of the 49ers as I write this, and it is amazing how many similarities there are between Bill Walsh's early days and Jim Harbaugh's—borderline eerie, to be frank.
It was a rough road for the first season or so for Walsh. However, he then built the team from the ground up. The Niners of present are built for success because of that.
So this weekend will be very telling as to where they are in the installation of the new playbooks on both sides of the ball.
The battle begins in the trenches.
The Texans have a new defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips. Phillips may not have had the best track record as a head coach, but he does have some good history as a coordinator.
From 1981 to 2000, Phillips was considered to be one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL. Then he tried something outside his comfort zone when he became the head coach of the Denver Broncos. That lasted a few seasons, until he was canned.
He then inherited the ice-cold Buffalo Bills just to find out for sure that he was not cut from the same cloth as a successful head coach.
Phillips, like the 49ers coaching staff, is new—to the Texans, anyway.
And he has installed a new 3-4 defense.
Mario Williams is the key to whether or not that defense will be successful. Can he make the transition from defensive end to standing up at 6'6" and weighing 290? He is the largest outside linebacker in history and will be an easy player to spot, but he still is a force.
The biggest question mark is whether or not the momentum can continue into this week against a Wade Phillips front seven.
The Texans recently added Danieal Manning and Johnathan Joseph to their secondary. Both have had solid careers up to this point.
The Raiders have been known to have a good secondary in recent years, and Alex Smith did relatively well against them. He will most likely be going for about two or three quarters against an improved Texans defensive backfield.
The game-planning will be similar to that of a real game. Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick could seal their fate in terms of who will start Week 1 against Seattle in this game.
Last week Braylon Edwards made a phenomenal catch against Raiders defensive back Stanford Routt.
The receivers in some sense go hand in hand with the last slide. But it is just as important for the wide receivers to beat defensive backs in all of their one-on-one match-ups. I assume that the Texans will match their best cornerback against the 49ers best receiver.
With that said, we should see a lot of Edwards vs. Joseph.
However, the other match-ups throughout will be equally important. It will be a good test as to who—Smith or Kaepernick—has the most chemistry with the 49ers wideouts.
Obviously the team with the least mistakes will win.
That said, it is going to take a team effort. On offense, ball security will be key in this game as in any other. On defense, creating turnovers will be imperative.
If the 49ers can hang on to the ball and win the turnover battle, it will be a huge sign of improvement from previous years in which the Niners frequently gave the other team the ball in crucial situations...or gave up monumental games to the other team for that matter.
Alex Smith will be the key to the offense; Patrick Willis to the defense.
Smith will need to get his pre-snap reads down pat; he has struggled with this in the past. If he can make the right calls at the line beforehand, half the battle is won. Should he show signs of improvement in this game, then there is hope—true hope for a quarterback who by most standards has been labeled a "bust."
It's never too late to turn things around.
Patrick Willis will have to be the vocal leader of the defense. It's something he has not fully adopted to this point. But he is the leader and he will need to be vocal about it. Ray Lewis, someone who Willis is consistently compared to, makes everyone around him better and has done so for years.
If Willis wants to be great, he can continue down the path he is on. If he wants to be a legend, he will need to have more of a voice and be a coach to the guys around him on the field.
Gary Kubiak vs. Jim Harbaugh
Greg Roman vs. Wade Phillips
Rick Dennison vs. Vic Fangio
These are the three main match-ups in regard to the coaches. There are several positional and assistant coaches that will contribute in some way, shape or form, but those three will be the main battles.
It seems that Harbaugh has the least to lose. As a rookie coach, winning is expected but not totally mandatory.
Gary Kubiak, on the other hand, is in his in his sixth year and has yet to produce any substantial progress. It seems as though they always fall short of making the playoffs in a relatively competitive division. He's got to do it this year, or he could wind up as canned goods.
This is the NFL—every game is as important as the next. For these two coaches, the focus will be on taking home the "W' regardless of if it counts or not. Even in Week 3 of the preseason, everyone knows that this game does count, even if it doesn't.
This is the final test before going toe-to-toe with division rival Seattle Seahawks in Week 1. I firmly believe that Harbaugh really does not care for archenemy Pete Carroll. The feeling is probably mutual.
The preparation for this game could be vital for future success.