After two weeks of waiting for the offense to show up, the beleaguered residents of 49erland were rewarded for their patience last Thursday night...but not right away. It took a quarter and a half, but once things got going, it was a sight to behold. Though any win on the road during a short week is sweet, the 49ers have some work to do before they become the team I think they can be...but we'll get to that later.
This week, we'll be looking back at how the 49ers were able to throttle the Rams, the highlights and lowlights through the first quarter of the 2013 season, and what we can expect to see against the Texans on Sunday night.
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River City Runway
Last week, I wrote that if the 49ers wanted to get back on track, that they would need to do it on the back of "Frank the Tank." On Thursday night, that is precisely what they did.
Before the night was over, Frank Gore ripped through the Rams defense for 153 yards on 20 carries, including a 34 yard TD jaunt on 4th and 1 that will likely be highlight material for all time. He may not be the fastest back. He may not be the strongest back. He may not be the shiftiest back. But he has the best combination of speed, strength, shiftiness and vision of any 49er running back...maybe ever. Add to that the fact that Bruce Miller just turned in what might have been his best run blocking game as a 49er, that Vernon Davis is back on the field and that Vance McDonald's blocking has improved week over week and you have a ground game that cannot be ignored.
The Rams are not the best defensive team in the NFL...but the absolute clinic that the 49ers put on last Thursday night was no fluke. This team can run the football. Well. Maybe better (but certainly with more creativity) than any team in the league right now. Their ability to run the same play in multiple ways out of multiple sets with multiple personnel groups makes the 49ers running game too valuable to ignore. By the end of last Thursday's game, the Rams defense looked completely lost...something that could not be said about them (against the 49ers at least) last season.
To reiterate my stance from last week: until the 49ers get where they need to be (read: healthy, especially at WR...which is likely mid-November) the run must remain the fulcrum of the offense if the 49ers plan on winning consistently.
One Quarter Down: Highs, Lows and Oh-Nos
There were some who surmised that the 49ers might be at 2-2 I've their first 4 games...but probably not like this. There have been highs, lows and some truly "smh" moments. To put it euphemistically, the season's first four games have been "mixed bag."
The High: This season's high could go one of two ways...but given the expectations piled upon the team in the offseason, I'll go with Colin Kaepernick's 412 yard explosion in Week 1. The two weeks that followed were patently underwhelming...but we know what this offense is capable of when it's hitting on all cylinders. It isn't there yet...but it can be.
The Low: There have been more than a few lows...but the biggest has to be the 49ers absolute bomb against the Colts in Week 3. Some will argue that the Week 2 loss in Seattle is this season's low...but many expected the 49ers to have trouble with the Seahawks at the Clink. The Colts, however...well, that is another matter entirely. The Colts are a second tier team...and player for player, they are not as talented as the 49ers. And that is what makes the Week 3 loss so troubling...it was the first time that I have seen a team coached by Jim Harbaugh look completely disinterested in playing football.
The Oh-no: Some of you are probably expecting to read about Aldon Smith here...but the loss of Michael Crabtree was far more devastating. While Aldon will be missed, it has become painfully evident that Michael Crabtree will be missed more...much more. The only wide receiver on this roster who who will get within sniffing distance of a 1,000 yard season is Anquan Boldin...and he's a guy that can be shut down under the right circumstances. The 49ers are still a talent packed, playoff caliber team...but Crabtree's loss makes them much less dangerous as it pertains to the passing game, and that was underscored in Weeks 2 and 3.
Here Comes Houston
The Texans are coming of of a heartbreaking (to many 49er fans, anyway) home loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They squandered a 20-3 halftime lead, thanks in part to the utter collapse of Matt Schaub in the clutch, and the absence of Brian Cushing, who was sidelined in the second half with a concussion. To put it plainly...this team is going to be pissed off when they hit the field on Sunday night. The Texans have big play threats on offense in Arian Foster and Andre Johnson...but the real nightmare on their roster is do-it-all defensive lineman JJ Watt. He can play anywhere along the defensive line and without question, he presents the 49ers with a host of match up issues. He excels at rising the passer both inside and outside, and is strong enough to stand up at the point of attack against the run.
For the 49ers offense to achieve meaningful success against Watt and a very stout defense, they should employ the same strategy that they used against the Rams: run, run and run some more. While the Texans' defense features a host of talented athletes, they play a very aggressive gap pressure type scheme, and that can be used against them. By using traps, wham and power runs, the 49ers can use the Texans' aggressiveness against them, exploiting their tendency to over pursue.
Defensively, expect the 49ers to attempt to pressure Matt Schaub into mistakes. He's shown an increasing inability to cope with pressure, and he's been less than impressive and he has been less than impressive in the clutch this season. Though Vic Fangio is not a fan of dialing up blitzes )primarily because the 49ers have been so good at generating pressure with four rushers) don't be surprised if the 49ers send extra pressure more often than not to keep Schaub guessing.
*Donte Whitner was fined $21,000 for his hit on Chris Givens last week (though Givens went so far as to say the hit didn't "feel" illegal). His response? He's changing his name to Donte Hitner. There is no adequate verbal descriptor for how awesome that is.
*Texans linebacker Brian Cushing left last week's game with a concussion...if he can't go on Sunday, Houston's defense will have a tough time stopping the 49er running game.
*Last week, rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier played a very solid game in a platoon situation with Dan Skuta. Over the course of Aldon Smith's absence, look for his snap count to increase...and possibly for him to earn a start or two.
Week 5 Picks
Bills at Browns (-4.5)
The Browns were so taken aback by the national laugh track that sounded when they traded away their best player that they've managed to band together and string together a pair of wins. They won't make it three. BILLS.
Chiefs (-2.5) at Titans
Ryan Fitzpatrick is still in the NFL. Apparently, the Titans will be starting him at QB this weekend. That is an exceptionally bad idea. CHIEFS.
Eagles at Giants (-2.5)
If there is a game that the Giants can win, it's this one. The Eagles snatch defeat from the jaws of victory better than any team in the NFL. One more loss for the Chip Kelly Chuck n Duck Project. GIANTS.
Jaguars at Rams (-11.5)
I would be stunned if the Jaguars won a game this season. Especially on the road. Even in St. Louis. RAMS.
Lions at Packers (-6.5)
I watched the Lions absolutely light it up last week...but they're in Lambeau this week. PACKERS.
Patriots at Bengals (-1.5)
The Bengals are favorites at home against the now Wilfork-less Patriots. Uh, no. PATRIOTS.
Ravens at Dolphins (-3)
Ravens + road = loss. DOLPHINS.
Saints at Bears (pick 'em)
The Saints are insanely good at home and just good enough to win on the road. If this turns into a shoot out, I'm not sure the Bears have the firepower to keep up. SAINTS.
Seahawks (-2.5) at Colts
The Seahawks are nowhere near as good on the road as they are at home. They're better than the Colts, but not good enough to weather two early road starts in a row. COLTS.
Panthers (-2) at Cardinals
The Panthers defense might win this one by themselves. Carson Palmer might not stay upright long enough to make much of a difference in this game. PANTHERS.
Broncos (-7) at Cowboys
Do I really need to get into all of the reasons why this will be a blowout? The Broncos are one hit away from being just another team, but with Peyton Manning under center, the Cowboys just don't have the defense to slow them down or the firepower to match up with them on offense. BRONCOS.
Chargers (-4.5) at Raiders
Phillip Rivers has found his game...which means the Raiders will probably lose this one. CHARGERS.
Jets at Falcons (-9)
I'm not sure that the Falcons will win this game by two scores...but I am sure that the Jets are a bad bet on the road. FALCONS.
Texans at 49ers (-6.5)
JJ Watt is scary. Arian Foster is one of the league's best runners. Andre Johnson is one of the league's beat receivers. And Matt Schaub is one of the most average QBs in the league. The 49ers have their problems...but if they play their game (read: run the ball, control the clock and stay disciplined), this is a game they should win. 49ERS.
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