Texans 20, 49ers 9.
Yes, preseason games mean nothing.
But once you try to put that cliche aside for a moment and look back at what the Texans had done this game against a team that went 13-3 last season and was potentially one dropped punt away from a trip to the Super Bowl, it really meant something.
Let’s start with the defense:
– Coaches tend not to waste their best schemes or plays on meaningless preseason snaps; and an experienced one like Wade Phillips would undoubtedly prefer to save his exotic blitzes till at least September 9. Even so, the pressure generated by the Texans’ starting front seven really made 49ers’ coaches feel bad about throwing Alex Smith out there tonight. In the first quarter alone, Smith was taken down four times, two of them sacks; and was forced to throw on the run virtually every passing play. Individually, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin were as close as it gets to being unstoppable as the two just blew by their match-ups with relative ease. Smith made Mike Iupati look foolish with an impeccable swim move and immediately got his hands on the 49ers’ Smith, only to get flagged for roughing the passer.
– There was one play made by the first-team defense that stood out to me this game and showed how this Houston defense has grown under Wade Phillips’ tutelage. It was 3rd-and-7 on the Houston 26. The 49ers went shotgun with a three-receiver set. The Texans responded with a nickel and (what seemed like) press man coverage. When the ball is snapped, the two outside linebackers faked the rush and immediately dropped back to coverage. The tackles on the 49ers’ O-line thus were left looking for work, and with Antonio Smith being double-teamed by the 49ers’ C and RG, all of a sudden the B-gap on the right side was wide open. The inside linebacker (Cushing) and defensive back (Quin) began to rush. The tackle was quick enough to recover and picked up Quin, but with the RG having to slide over to cover the B-gap and helped contain Cushing, Antonio Smith was left with single coverage and unsurprisingly wasted no time overpowering the C on his way to a split-sack with Tim Jamison. This perfectly-executed blitz demonstrated how tough it is for opposing offense to contain the pressure generated by the Texans’ pass rush. They just have so many different weapons.
– Imagine how scary this pass rush can be when J.J. Watt comes back…
– While good pressure up front is undoubtedly invaluable, a lock-down defense needs more than that. And the Texans’ first team brought the full package tonight. Their secondary did a wonderful job blanketing 49ers’ receivers to complement the front seven. During the first quarter-and-a-half of play, when both teams’ starting units were on the field, Alex Smith completed two passes that resulted in five or more yards gain. TWO! Let that number sink in for a moment, folks. That’s pass defense at its finest!
– The only blemish of the starting unit was Bradie James. He was slow recognizing plays and was taken out of the plays too often, resulting in one big gain after another for the 49ers’ running backs. In fact, the running game and David Akers’ legs were the only reasons why San Francisco could muster nine points today. If this keeps up, Tim Dobbins will certainly give James a run for his money.
– On the reserves, the standouts were Tim Dobbins and Brandon Harris. Dobbins does not bring much else to the table other than his run-stopping ability; but he’s really good at what he does. He combined with Quin on a 4th-and-1 stop, had a solo tackle for no gain on a 3rd-and-2, and added another tackle that limited a run to just a one-yard gain. As previously mentioned, Dobbins’ impressive play could end up earning him the starting ILB gig over the incumbent James. About Harris, he is finally showing signs of the shutdown CB the Texans were looking for when they drafted him in the second round last year. He looked good playing in the slot, managed to keep his assignments within his sight and had a pass defended to his credit. Small steps, yes. But any improvement out of Harris is always welcomed.
Over to the offense:
– Matt Schaub was flatout dominant tonight. His statline (11/14, 128, 1 TD) was indicative of his performance. He looked comfortable both in the pocket and on his signature rollouts. If there were still doubts of Schaub returning to his old form before his Lisfranc injury, tonight’s showing should put them to bed.
– In case you forgot, Andre Johnson was back in action tonight. And a breakdown of this particular play will give you a glimpse of how awesome this offense is when the key players are on the field together. 1st-and-10 on the Houston 20, Strong Close, 2-WR set on the right side. As soon as the ball was snapped, the entire offensive line flawlessly motioned to the left side. Schaub faked the handoff to Foster and completely fooled the entire 49ers’ defense. Once they realized the ball was in Schaub’s hands, Andre Johnson was running across the field untouched. With all the time in the world, Schaub looked downfield and without any hesitation threw a deep bomb at No.80’s direction. The right CB Tramaine Brock was able to track the throw and dropped back to defend, but ‘Dre quickly reminded everyone that despite injury problems, he’s still the best WR in football, by jumping up and make the reception for a 43-yard gain. It was anything but a routine catch, but Johnson made it look so easy.
– There will certainly be mixed opinions regarding the offensive line’s performance in tonight’s game. Overall, pass protection was excellent, but run blocking left a lot to be desired. Derek Newton started at RT and had mixed results. His physicality served him well in protecting the QB, but he was a liability in the running game. Newton’s lack of agility was on full display tonight, and that could really make Houston fans miss Eric Winston even more. With more snaps under his belt, Newton should be quicker off the line of scrimmage and execute blocks, but it’s hard to envision him anywhere close to being as nimble as the former Texans’ RT in this zone-blocking scheme. For now, though, Newton is doing a good job protecting the QB.
– At this point, the WR competition seems to be down to just two candidates: Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean. The two received snaps with the starting unit and played well. Jean had a touchdown to go along with 42 yards on four receptions; while Martin recorded a solid 3/36. I was impressed by Martin again tonight. On the very first drive of the game, he burned Carlos Rogers in the slot on his way to a 22-yard reception. Lining up outside, he outrun Mike Thomas for another catch. Martin has always been known for his speed. But the NFL has seen plenty of burners failing to make any impact. So the fact that Martin is capable of utilizing his wheels to his advantage and making it work at the NFL level is extremely promising.
Speaking of speed, how about that Trindon Holliday guy? Another TD return made it back-to-back for the former LSU Tiger. Granted, it was some really horrible special teams play by the 49ers. But regardless, Holliday is really making his case for a spot on the 53-man roster as the return specialist with excellent performance on back-to-back weeks. He won’t cut it as a WR due to his lack of size, but to me his impact on the return game is definitely worth a roster spot.
Sure, it was just another preseason game. But that’s not an excuse for overlooking what happened during the course of it. Because the statement that the Texans just sent to the entire NFL through this supposedly meaningless contest really meant something.
They are a heck of a football team.