Monday, October 7, 2013

Take It Away!

I guess many around the NFL figured this glitzy, glamorous Sunday Night matchup between the 49ers and Houston Texans was perhaps a Super Bowl preview, since both of these teams figured to be right around the top of their respective divisions. So far, this season hadn't brought overwhelming success to either team; both stood at 2-2 after two solid victories and two perplexing defeats. The Texans were actually sort of reeling, after getting socked in the mouth at home by the wonderful Seahawks, while the 49ers sort of righted their ship 10 days ago in St. Louis. But if the Texans have any sort of championship aspirations, that certainly wasn't on display last night as the 49ers whipped them into submission in a 34-3 rout.

This wasn't exactly a pretty game by the 49ers standards. They struggled on offense for a majority of the game, only sort of establishing a running game with Frank Gore, who finished with 81 yards rushing on the night, and Colin Kaepernick was barely on track, finishing with 6 completions in 15 attempts for only 113 yards. The game was won by the Defense. For the second straight week, NaVorro Bowman stepped up in the absence of Patrick Willis and played out of his mind, and the rest of the unit rallied around him, intercepting 3 passes from the hapless Matt Schaub—one of which was run back for a score—and forcing a 4th turnover on a fumble, creating several short fields for the offense and basically allowing Kaepernick and Company to do the minimum amount necessary to win.

The tone was set 3 plays into the game. Schaub, who's been on a nightmarish streak of throwing interceptions and having them run back for Touchdowns, was victimized on his first pass of the game. His 3rd down out route pass was intended for Andre Johnson, but Tramaine Brock jumped the route, intercepted the pass and walked into the End Zone. From there, the 49ers never looked back as things just spiraled out of control for the Texans. Houston was able to move the ball smartly on their ensuing drive, converting a pair of 3rd downs, but when the drive stalled, their kicker Rich Dullwasp pulled the Field Goal attempt wide left. This was pretty much the story of the Texans night. Either their drives were cut off by turnovers, or their sustained drives ultimately ended short of where they needed to be.

Following the missed Field Goal, the 49ers had one of what was really only two long drives they were able to put together on the night. Behind Gore and Kaepernick spreading the ball around to Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, San Francisco moved efficiently down the field, eventually scoring on a short run by Gore to extend their lead to 14-0. After that, things mostly stalled out for Kaepernick. It gets lost in the grand scheme of things, particularly since the 49ers were on cruise control even in the 2nd quarter, but he's really been a shell of the player we saw last year and in Week 1 this season. The quality of his passes was generally erratic; though he looked good when he was completing passes, he only managed 6 of them, and his incompletions were overthrown or forced, rather than dropped. That being said, because the defense was on such a roll, Kaepernick simply wasn't forced to make any kind of a big play, and the case was pretty similar last week. Still, even when the 49ers raced ahead by miles, you still want to see Kaepernick put forth a little better performance. His best pass of the day was probably his last, after going the entire 2nd and 3rd quarters without a completion, Kaepernick opened the 4th Quarter completing a short pass to Bruce Miller and followed that with a beautiful rainbow to Vernon Davis, who, despite still recovering from a hamstring injury, managed to outrun Ed Reed to the End Zone for a game-icing 64-yard Touchdown.  So, at least he left some kind of a positive taste on what was generally a blah night for him.

If I hadn't mentioned it already, the rest of the game belonged to the Defense. Brock got his 2nd interception on a similar play to his first, jumping in front of a pass intended for Johnson, batting it in the air to himself and running it back deep into Houston territory to set up an Anthony Dixon TD that made it 21-0. Schaub's 3rd interception was equally horrible; after a good-looking drive had gotten the Texans inside the 49ers 30 yard line and Al Michaels talking about the Texans' ability to come back, Schaub tossed a short pass without bothering to account for the presence of lightly-used backup Defensive Tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie, who lived the lineman's dream by dropping back into coverage as a decoy and surprisingly ending up with a football in his hands. This set up Kaepernick's TD to Davis. The 4th turnover was a Fumble late in the 4th Quarter, when, just to rub salt in the wound, Eric Reid held up Ben Tate at the end of the run just long enough for Donte Whitner to come in, pop Tate and strip the ball that was ultimately recovered by Tarell Brock to set up the final 49ers Field Goal.

After a pair of really bad-looking losses, the 49ers clearly appear to have righted their ship. But I don't think it's quite as much "righting the ship" as much as they're not making mistakes and varying their offense more. The Defense, which was just worn down in the two losses, hasn't really been the problem. Kaepernick, after a pair of truly terrible games, hasn't been outstanding in the two wins, he's only done the minimum necessary. Frank Gore has really stepped up, which has been a big boost. But the key is that the 49ers, who had ended up -4 in Turnovers after week 3, are now even. The Defense, which has been such a huge factor in the team's success over the past two seasons, has been forcing turnovers again and generally been stifling, keeping their opponents off the scoreboard and giving the Offense short fields to work with. Houston outgained the 49ers last night 313 yards to 284 and won the time of possession battle, and yet the 49ers ran away with a 31-point victory. That's what forcing turnovers can do. That's what has made the 49ers so successful.

So, after a difficult first 5 weeks that saw the 49ers go 3-2, they now enter what on paper is an easy stretch on the schedule, with games coming up at home against Arizona, and then on the road in Tennessee and in London against the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars. Of course, they still have to go out and play hard and win, but after rolling over the Texans last night, there's a little swagger back in the 49ers step. Now they just have to keep the momentum going.

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