COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers collected a much-needed win in St. Louis last week, improving to 2-2 on the young season. While the Red and Gold showed some marked improvement in their win over the Rams, they'll need to stay on track and carry that high-quality performance into Sunday night.
For the third time in four weeks, the 49ers will play in front of a national audience, as they host the 2-2 Houston Texans. Expectations are sky-high for both organizations, and each team is desperate to secure this win. San Francisco is two games behind in the divisional standings to the Seattle Seahawks, and the Texans suffered a gut-wrenching defeat to the Seahawks a week ago.
This game marks one of the premier matchups of Week 5, so here are five things to watch for:
The 49ers' Commitment to the Run Game
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman made it an emphasis to utilize his star running back in Frank Gore. Against the Rams, Gore ran for 153 yards, including a 34-yard rushing touchdown that broke the game open. Collectively, the 49ers ran 40 times. Much of those carries came in garbage time, but San Francisco got back to its' roots of being physical on the offensive side of the ball.
The Texans are ranked just 23rd in stopping the run. That's a steep fall from where there were last season, as they had the league's seventh-best rush defense. With the diversity that Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Colin Kaepernick bring to the table, the 49ers can dictate the flow of a game on the ground. Even though Houston has premier players in J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, they've been vulnerable in defending opposing rushers. San Francisco needs to exploit that weakness and turn it into their favor.
Jon Baldwin to see Increased Workload?
The former Kansas City Chief may see some significant action this week. With Quinton Patton nursing a broken foot and Vernon Davis battling a hamstring injury, Baldwin could be called upon to shoulder some of the load on offense.
Standing tall at 6'4'', 230 pounds, Baldwin presents Colin Kaepernick with a big target to throw to. His size can especially come in handy in the red zone, where he could utilize his strength and leaping ability to his advantage.
Baldwin made his regular season debut last week, hauling in two receptions for 19 yards. Aside from Anquan Boldin, the 49ers need someone to become a threat in the passing game. Will Baldwin take advantage of this golden opportunity?
Defending J.J. Watt
Watt is arguably the league's best defensive player. He's a sure tackler, can chase down opposing quarterbacks and bat down passes at the line of scrimmage. His non-stop motor makes him an elite defender. Through four games, Watt leads all linemen with 17 tackles in addition to his four sacks.
Fortunately for Kaepernick, he has the luxury of playing behind an elite offensive line. From left tackle Joe Staley to right tackle Anthony Davis, the line will be busy on every snap to identify the defensive playmaker.
Containing Arian Foster and Ben Tate
The Texans have proven to be one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. Over the past three seasons, Houston has finished in the top 10 in that category. Three-time All-Pro Arian Foster is the backbone of the Texans offense. Despite a slow start to the season, he is still capable of making tacklers miss with his combination of strength and quickness. Foster has battled a back injury entering the 2013 campaign, but appears to be getting healthy. Last week against the Seahawks, he accumulated 171 total yards and one touchdown on 33 touches.
Backup Ben Tate is also a threat in the backfield. Through four games, the fourth-year running back has averaged 6.7 yards per carry, serving as an exceptional complement to Foster.
On the other end, San Francisco's run defense looked more like their 2011 selves against the Rams, holding them to only 18 yards on 19 carries. That's a dramatic improvement on their season average entering that game (139.67 rushing yards allowed per game).
Due to a groin injury, Patrick Willis was not able to suit up against St. Louis. A week-and-a-half later, his status remains in question. However, the 49ers still have NaVorro Bowman, who leads the team in tackles and is arguably their best linebacker. He'll need to bring out another stand-up performance if Willis cannot go.
49ers' Pass Rush
The 49ers' pass rush was impressive last week, as they got to Sam Bradford five times. What's remarkable is that they accomplished this feat without Willis and Aldon Smith.
So far this season, the Texans' offensive line has allowed 11 sacks and 32 quarterback hits. Generating pressure on Matt Schaub should be high on the priority list. Through four games, he has already thrown six interceptions, including three pick-sixes over the past three weeks. Even without Smith, the 49ers still have enough talent to pressure Schaub.
Travis Chan is a native of the Bay Area and a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers.
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