It’s been a busy and eventful nine days for the 49ers.
First, they broke the only two-game losing streak of Jim Harbaugh’s pro coaching career by thumping the Rams in St. Louis, 35-11, on Thursday, Sept. 26. Since then, safety Donte Whitner has legally changed his last name to Hitner, the Seahawks signed quarterback B.J. Daniels away when the Niners tried to move him onto their practice squad and ex-Cardinals quarterback John Skelton was added to the roster, likely to challenge Colt McCoy for the No. 2 job.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are trying to build on the victory over St. Louis – fashioned by a return to their strong rushing attack of the past two seasons – by getting ready for the Houston Texans, a talented but troubled bunch that has the same 2-2 record as San Francisco.
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers seven-point favorites over the Texans, who managed to turn a 20-6 halftime lead over the Seahawks into a loss in overtime last week.
Despite the ugly loss, the Texans have some of the most talented players in the league with running back Arian Foster, wideout Andre Johnson, linebacker Brian Cushing and defensive end J.J. Watt.
The Texans rank first in the NFL in total defense and pass defense – giving up just 141 yards per game through the air – and on offense can move the ball, ranking seventh in rushing (134.3 yards per game) and ninth in passing (276).
One of the Texans’ problems has been inconsistency, however. Quarterback Matt Schaub has almost thrown as many interceptions (six) as TD passes (8), and his pick-six interception in the loss to the Seahawks tied the score at 20-all and sent the game to overtime.
And, the Texans and 49ers have both been hurt by too many turnovers on offense and too few takeaways on defense. Both are minus-four in that category, near the bottom of the NFL. The Texans have given the ball up seven times and taken it away only three; the 49ers have given it up nine times (five fumbles, four picks) and taken it away five times.
So, heading into Sunday night’s nationally televised game, both teams need to put together a string of victories to turn the corner on a frustrating start to the 2013 season.
“We’re not where we want to be, but there’s a long, long way to go,” Texans head coach Gary Kubiak told reporters this week. “We’re a very capable football team, but we’ve got to be a more consistent football team.”
The Texans defense played good enough to win vs. the Seahawks, holding Seattle to 16 points and creating three turnovers. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson completed just 12-of-23 passes for 91 yards.
“They’ve been impressive,” Kubiak said of his defense. “I think we’re a dang good defense and we have a chance to be great. I think we’re working toward that.”
At the heart of the Texans defense is All-Pro Watt, who can get to the quarterback and also knock down passes with his long arms and anticipation. In 2012, Watt had 20½ sacks and 23 tackles for loss.
“He can ruin a game,” said Harbaugh. “He can ruin a game for his opponent. J.J. Watt is one of the top players in this league. Strong, great ability to rush the passer, gets past blocks and then on the quarterback almost immediately.”
Last season, Watt, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, batted down 16 passes.
Niners Quarterback Colin Kaepernick knows he’ll have to account for Watt when he goes back to pass.
“If he doesn’t feel like he’s going to get to the quarterback, he’s going to jump up and try to block a pass, try to make a play any way he can,” Kaepernick said this week.
One of the keys to the game might be how right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis can handle Watt. Davis has been bothered by a shoulder injury this week but is expected to play.
Scoring points on the Texans won’t be easy. At times, the 49ers passing game has been stuck in the doldrums. But if the Niners can run the ball as they did vs. the Rams last week, their whole offense might fall into place. Kubiak, for one, is wary of them, saying his team must be disciplined and contain Kaepernick’s running options.
Kaepernick, however, says the 49ers offensive line is the No. 1 factor in the game's outcome.
If it’s physical and effective, the 49ers will move the ball.
“Our offensive line is really going to have to be geared in this week and really handle business up front,” said Kaepernick.