3TFO: Texans @ 49ers, Week 5
The Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers were both favored to repeat as champions of their respective divisions heading into the season, but some early hiccups have them each at .500 and looking up at another leader after September. After snatching defeat away from the jaws of victory against the Seattle Seahawks, the Texans’ two comebacks to start the season seem like a distant memory. The 49ers got back on track with a convincing win over the St. Louis Rams, but this season is already turning out to be bumpier than Jim Harbaugh’s first two campaigns. It’s hard to believe that one of these contenders will end this Sunday night at 2-3, but that’s the reality facing them. Who will step up in prime-time? Here are the three matchups we’ll be focused on.
Under The Spotlight
Now that Josh Freeman has been cast aside, the heat of the NFL quarterback spotlight has turned to a new beleaguered soul: Matt Schaub. Fans are burning his jersey in parking lots. Restaurants are naming menu items after his interceptions. And for good reason, as Schaub’s spate of pick-sixes are much to blame for the Texans’ last two losses. After an impressive performance in a Week 1 comeback win in San Diego, Schaub has earned a negative grade in his past three games. And yet, it’s important to remember that Schaub is a good NFL quarterback. He often ends each season with a Top 10 passing grade, and has never finished worse than 13th at his position. He currently ranks Top 10 in not just total Accuracy Percentage, but also accuracy on Deep Passes and accuracy when under pressure. And he hasn’t gotten much help from his offensive line, as only three quarterbacks have been pressured at a higher rate this season. Facing a dangerous San Francisco pass rush in prime-time, it’s critical that Schaub avoids the big mistakes that pockmark his otherwise solid play.
While Schaub continues to be peppered from all angles, he’s not the quarterback in this game who has the second-worst grade of any passer this season. That (dis)honor goes to Colin Kaepernick, who looks like a shell of the signal-caller who captivated us in January. After having a Top 10 Accuracy % last season, he’s currently 23rd in the league in that metric. His accuracy on Deep Passes has plummeted from a league-leading 60.6% last season to 31.3% in 2013 — and only Mike Glennon currently has a worse accuracy rate under pressure than the 49ers’ young passer. Kaepernick shined on the stat sheet last week, completing 65.2% of his passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions, but the film showed him forcing passes into traffic over the deep middle, and missing his targets badly at times. If he doesn’t turn things around this Sunday night, Kaepernick might soon find himself in Schaub’s shoes.
Andre & DeAndre vs. 49ers Cornerbacks
Working in Schaub’s favor this week is that he has one of the league’s best receiving tandems to target. Other wideouts compiled more stats, but there was no better receiver in the league last year than Andre Johnson. He’s once again near the top of our grades at his position, and his 2.44 Yards Per Route Run is Top 10 among all receivers with double-digit targets. On the other side, it appears that Houston has finally found the complementary threat they’ve been missing for years. With Johnson drawing extra attention, rookie DeAndre Hopkins is on pace for the most yards on Deep Passes by any Texans receiver since Johnson himself in 2009. Together, this pair has seen 54 combined catchable targets and has yet to drop a single one.
The 49ers front seven continues to be as good as advertised this season. NaVorro Bowman is coming off a career-high PFF grade versus the Rams, and Glenn Dorsey has added a powerful run-stopping presence on the interior. San Francisco has not been as strong in the secondary though, and Johnson and Hopkins can find some success against the 49ers’ struggling corners. Tarrell Brown, Carlos Rogers, and Nnamdi Asomugha all have a negative coverage grade in 2013. They had a bit of a reprieve against the inaccurate Sam Bradford, but the prior week they were exposed by the Indianapolis Colts as Rogers surrendered 67 yards in coverage, while Brown was flagged for three penalties. Against this group, Schaub should find plenty of options for redemption.
49ers Offensive Line vs. J.J. Watt and co.
There was no more impressive unit in the league last year than the 49ers’ offensive line, but they’ve fallen short of their high standards so far this season. After combining for an absurd +88.8 run block grade in 2012, they totaled a mere +1.3 in September. In the 49ers’ last prime-time appearance, the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line bullied all five San Francisco starters into a negative grade. Left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati regained their old form against the Rams, with a +7.2 run block grade as San Francisco rushed for 219 yards. It may not be long until the right side rebounds as well, but they have a very tall order this week.
It seems like you can find mention of J.J. Watt in nearly every other article we write, but he is playing so well that he simply deserves every word of praise we give him. There are plenty of ways to describe how he lives in the opponent’s backfield and wreaks havoc on a play-to-play basis, so let’s go with this — his combined 38 defensive stops, QB hits, and QB hurries this season are the most of any defender, at any position, in the league. Furthermore, he opens up opportunities for the rest of the Texans’ front seven, as fellow defensive end Antonio Smith has recorded a sack in each of his games this season, and Whitney Mercilus earned a career-high +4.1 grade last week with nine quarterback pressures. After smashing PFF records with his incredible 2012 season, Watt is on pace to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year in a landslide. He’ll give San Francisco’s line their greatest test yet.
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