Sssssssshhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaa, the scent of the chilling October wind is starting to creep and float through the air with the second stage of the NFL season. The first four games are merely a time for reacquainting with an old friend or someone you haven't seen in a year. It's filled with numerous conversations like,"How's school been? - Good", "How did you like going to Tech? - It was awesome. I loved it" and "What have you been up to lately? - Eh, not much just trying to find a job and move out of my mother's basement." Once all the small, inane talk is over, the real fun can be had.
In the NFL the first four weeks are a trial period of enjoying newness and trying to figure out if these teams are any good or not. In Weeks Five through Eight, these trends become realities, the on-field play greatly improves, and the matchups become incredible. On Sunday, we get to watch New Orleans / Chicago, Kansas City / Tennessee, New England / Cincinnati, Detroit / Green Bay, Baltimore / Miami, Denver / Dallas, and then San Francisco / Houston will blow a kiss to a beautiful day of football. This might be the greatest Redzone day of all time. I am shaking like the cup of water from Jurassic Park.
Both Houston and San Francisco are teams with Super Bowl aspirations who have seen their season take a turn down a strange road they never could have imagined. Houston has played three one possession games that quickly stole our youth. The city and its fan base found the perfect scapegoat to blame their poor season on, quarterback Matt Schaub. It's gotten to the point where people actually believed a tweet that entailed them trading Schaub to Cleveland for Josh Gordon and a third round pick. Not only was that a comical trade oozing with nonsense, but even 3-2 Cleveland fans with Brandon Weeden as their quarterback were pissed when they heard about the trade. When Cleveland doesn't want you to play quarterback, you've hit a realm lower than rock bottom. Schaub's season has been reminiscent of Carrie going from prom queen to using pig's blood for shampoo. Additionally, they each also have the power of telekinesis, except Schaub can use his mind to move the ball into defenders' hands.
A quick side note: Do we really need to remake Carrie? I beg the American people to revolt against these remakes that don't need to occur by simply NOT GOING to see them. Pretty soon studios will be remaking remakes when the money should be going to original productions. Creativity is being stifled to make way for overproduced trash.
Now, back to football, Bob. The 49ers have been erratic and have played four games in two different ways. They've won 34-28 and 35-11 while losing games 3-29 and 7-27. The defense hasn't been as stout as it has been in the past and teams are starting to understand the 49ers with Colin Kaepernick (I'm going with Kap the rest of this article because that name is too damn long) at the helm.
It's grotesque to say a game is a must-win in Week Five, but Sunday night's matchup is about as close as it can to warrant saying it. The 49ers are already falling behind Seattle, who is 4-0 and won't lose a game at home this year. This means if they want to go to the playoffs, they will have to battle with the 3-1 Bears, 3-1 Lions, 1-2 Packers, and 1-2 Panthers for two spots (the Falcons are going 7-9 and regressing to the mean).
The Texans probably need this win even more because the AFC, not the NFC, is the better conference this year. The Colts are for real and the Titans can be if Jake Locker gets healthy and improves. The 3-1 Dolphins, 2-2 Bengals,
3-2 Browns (Brian Hoyer is good enough behind that defense), 2-2 Ravens, 2-2 Chargers, and the 3-1 Titans will all be in a Royal Rumble for one wild card spot. The Chiefs have an easy schedule and are a lock to get in. This game is H-U-G-E for both teams. So let's delve into the numbers and analyze what might happen tonight.
5 vs. 7
The best part about Sunday night will not be Kap scampering around the field, Schaub throwing 12-yard passes to Andre Johnson, or Arian Foster cutting through the defense like a ninja slicing off heads with a katana. It will actually be observing the five behemoths on the offensive line tossing defensive linemen aside (I can't wait to write this week's GATA). Both teams depend on the run game to set the tone and the pass. This can be seen by how the 49ers are a completely different team when they run the ball successfully.
The difference between the two is astonishing. This year the 49ers have run the ball at the same efficiency in wins and losses, but for some reason, there are games where they don't run as much as they should. It's not like they succumb to a large lead and have to throw the ball like Houston has had to this year. In their losses this season, they have been down 0-5 and 7-10 at the half. That's not some insurmountable deficit to have to overcome. Last season, they ran the ball much better in wins than compared to losses and ran the ball much more often.
I'm 90% sure the 49ers have finally realized for them to win games this year, they need to feed Frank Gore until he pops like Violet Beauregarde. Against the Rams last week, they ran the ball 40 times for 219 yards and three touchdowns while Kap only tossed the ball 23 times. On top of that, they had seven runs greater than ten yards against the Rams. For 49ers fans' sanity, they need to keep pounding the run behind the mammoths they employ on the offensive line. Their starting offensive line is:
- LT Joe Staley: 6'5" 315 lbs.
- LG Mike Iupati: 6'5" 331 lbs.
- C Jonathan Goodwin: 6'3" 318 lbs.
- RG Alex Boone: 6'8" 300 lbs.
- RT Anthony Davis: 6'5" 323 lbs.
This group started every game for the 49ers last year and thus far this year. It's incredible to have the continuity that they have had on the offensive line in our modern version of the NFL. They utilize a man scheme and they love to pull these monstrosities of men in the trap and counter game to demolish unsuspecting defensive linemen. Despite their size, they will have a difficult time against Houston running the football. The Texans decimated an offensive line who runs the same sort of scheme and has played at a similar level once this year when they played the Titans. They held the Titans to 3.6 yards a carry and stuffed their runs for two yards or less 19 times.
Additionally, Houston has the second-best adjusted line yards (2.82) when the opponent runs the ball up the middle. This can be attributed to Brian Cushing having the best season of his career and J.J. Watt coming out of nowhere to anchor the defensive line. Add this to the fact that the 49ers have run the ball up the middle (LG, C, RG) 51 times for 204 yards, which accounts for 43.5% of their rushing attempts and 38.9% of their rushing yards. The key for Houston is to shut down this middle run game and force the 49ers into vacating the run. As a result, seeing Watt going against Iupati and the ginormous Alex Boone is going to be the highlight and should be the focus in the first half. The 49ers should run the ball over and over again because it's tantamount for them to win, but I don't think they will be able to get anything going against Houston's front seven.
On the other sideline, the Houston Texans are going to run, run, run as well. This week big, bad Duane Brown will start, but they have lost Brandon Brooks to a toe injury. Houston either needs to get new cleats for their offensive linemen or Bob Mcnair should splurge and take the boys to the spa once a week for foot massages. He could probably even get it on the house if he gives Quentin Tarantino a call. This injury is a haymaker-sized blow to the Texans. The 49ers run a 3-4 so their defense alignment will be have their defensive ends at either a "5" or "4i" and their nose tackle at a "0" or "1". This means Wade Smith and Ben Jones will be uncovered for most of the game. This is crucial when it comes to how they run the zone. For example, if they run a zone play to the right and the defensive end is playing as a "five," he will be too wide for Jones and Newton to deuce block (double team between the guard and tackle). What he will have to do is take his zone step and go up the second level where NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis will most likely be waiting for him. This is an incredibly difficult block for anyone in the game and will be even tougher for Jones, who hasn't played much this year, and Smith, who can't play at all.
Also, Greg Jones will get some action blocking those two when they run their zone/lead hybrid. I have confidence the offensive line will drive the 49ers' defensive line back, but the problem is having two subpar guards blocking two All-Pros. Houston should run numerous tosses and stretch plays behind Duane Brown and Arian Foster needs to have his eyes shifting side to side looking for the cutback. Just like San Francisco, Houston's run game should have trouble as well.
The problems in the run game will lead to both teams having to win this game through the air. As Brett documented in his extended piece about Kap a couple of days ago, he's had trouble making reads past the first receiver and takes off before he needs to. However, I don't think the problem is him being jumpy or a "game manager". The deep-rooted problem is that he has no one to throw the ball to. All quarterbacks have a clock ticking inside their head like a bomb about to explode. He knows on this play he should have X amount of time to get the ball out and once it hits zero, he knows he has to do something before he gets squished and squirted like a zit. Since no one can get open by the time his mental clock reaches the end of its countdown, he takes off to try and turn a negative play into a positive one. Below is a chart of San Francisco's receiving leaders.
Kap has only two players he can trust to consistently beat coverage and that is Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis and as a result the majority of his targets get spent on them. He spends too much time watching Boldin because he's the only one who can get open. He has the Matt Schaub syndrome where you only look for one wide receiver because he's all you got. In Schaub's defense Andre Johnson is open every single play. The 49ers will have problems in the passing game because Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph have been adroit this year except for a few backbreaking penalties here and there. Boldin will have trouble getting open with Kareem Jackson or Johnathan Joseph on him, and Kap will need to find someone else. The problem is he has nobody on the outside. It will also to be interesting to see how they cover Vernon Davis. Houston has had problems with large athletic tight ends (cue up the Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski flashbacks from last year).
The other aspect you have to pay attention to when playing against Kap is his ability to run. Last week Houston held Russell "hustle, bustle, trestle, muscle" Wilson to 34 yards passing in the first half and 0 yards rushing. Then in the second half the Seahawks ran more boots and rolls to change his vantage point. This gave him a breath of fresh air in the pressure-packed cubicle he spent most of the game in. He also was able to escape pressure and get away from circles of death like this:
Wilson ran for 77 yards in the second half. There's a possibility Wade uses D.J. Swearinger to spy Kap, but I'm fairly certain Wade will keep using Whitney Mercilus in that role. Mercilus had success last week in this role with 2.5 sacks and limited Wilson's ability to scramble. When Kap has time to throw and chooses to take off, it will be tantamount that Merc stays with him and doesn't get caught in the web of the offensive line. Also, I'm intrigued to see if the 49ers whip out the read option on the bus this week since Wilson was able to break two long scampers. In the third quarter, he gave when he should have kept and a possible 30 yard play turned into a -2 yard run by Marshawn Lynch. After that play, the Seahawks ran it twice and were able to pick up big gains with Wilson keeping the football.
If there wasn't enough pressure on the quarterbacks this week, Kap has the following splits in wins and losses in the regular season:
What we see here is there is a sensational Kap and then there's a version of Kap that is Jake Locker-ish. In wins he's accurate, doesn't make mistakes, works off the run game, completes passes at an average of 14.1 yards, and throws seven less passes. When the 49ers lose, it's usually because Kap is having a difficult time and they aren't running the football enough. If the numbers seem weird, it's because his win stats are in a sample of 14 games, but he only took over the starting job in these seven starts. The 49ers are like Houston in the regard that they run to throw and not throw to run like most of the other teams in the league.
After scouring through the numbers and watching the 49ers twice this year, it seems like there are some games where San Francisco has it or they don't. Since last season, they've lost games by an average margin of 17 points and the average game score was 11.8-28.2. This can already be seen by the losses they have had this season when they fell to Seattle 29-3 and to Indy 27-7. There's just some games where the 49ers are a weird distant cousin of itself. If we look at wins, they score an average of 29.4 points, give up 15.6, and win by a margin of two touchdowns. San Francisco is more boom than bust, but they are erratic. One game they will be the king of the gridiron and the other they'll be a pinata torn to shreds by a horde of six year olds. Rarely are they somewhere in the middle. It will be fascinating to see which team comes shows up after everyone sings an anthem about an imaginary government.
Now we enter Week Two of the the roughest part of Houston's schedule. Houston's schedule until the bye brings me back to the days when I was a naive college lad studying for classes. Every time I had tests, they would roll in groups of two, three, and sometimes four in a week. I would spend the majority of my time living in the moment like Meursaultt and do whatever pleased me. Then BOOM! a big week of tests would poke me in the side and I would have to spend my hours with my nose sniffing the crack of a textbook. After that painful week was over, I would go back to living the dream.
Houston just finished their first test, a calculus IV exam against the Seattle Seahawks. They did great on the test, but they fell asleep halfway through because they stayed up till the waning crescent moon shone angelically in the sky. Not even Red Bull sloshed together with Mountian Dew could keep them awake for the entire test. The Texans got every question they answered correct, but the problem was that they automatically missed the other 40% of the questions because of their slumber. Now they're about to take test number two in American literature, a class where the professor is inconsistent with his tests. One will be a cinch about plot and details and the next will be about why a dandelion represents the loneliness and helplessness life truly is.
Before I did the research, I thought the 49ers would win a tough back and forth defensive battle. After rummaging through the numbers, my mind has been swayed. Neither team will run the ball very well against two of the best front sevens in the NFL. As a result, the quarterbacks are going to be the focal point of the game. Each with the spotlight on them and Cris Collinsworth staring directly into their soul. As far as quarterbacks go, I don't think Kap will be able to complete passes because his receivers will be covered. He will have to settle for numerous two yard scrambles. Schaub should have time to pick apart a defense that hasn't been great and DeAndre Hopkins will have a Tennessee Titans type of game as long as Schaub doesn't stare down Andre Johnson like Pennywise focusing on a child from a storm drain. It will be a messy, bloody affair, but I believe (gulps, sighs and can't believe I'm about to type this), Schaub will outplay Kap and lead Houston to a much needed victory.