SAN FRANCISCO — Apparently, the 49ers were simply victims of identity theft in their back-to-back defeats last month. Then came a prime-time victory in St. Louis, and now the 49ers believe they're back to their old selves.
"It seemed like we got our identity back a little bit: stopping the run (defensively) and running the ball (offensively)," defensive tackle Justin Smith said.The 49ers will try to keep the good times rolling Sunday night against the Houston Texans. Both clubs are off to 2-2 starts — underwhelming for such Super Bowl contenders — but they enter with contrasting mindsets.
The 49ers already have rebounded from their two-game losing streak, courtesy of that 35-11 rout of the Rams on Sept. 26. The Texans, meanwhile, are mourning a two-game skid and last Sunday's collapse against the Seattle Seahawks.
"We've got two colliding wills and two different plans colliding on Sunday night," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It should make for a very exciting game."It should make for a defense-dominated game. Here's how the 49ers will need to prevail under the successful identities mentioned earlier by Smith: Stopping the run, put aside the 49ers' historically strong run defense and look at the Texans' alternative if they can't run the ball. They'd have to rely on quarterback Matt Schaub, who's Public Enemy No. 1 among Texans fans after having a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown in a third straight game.
True, Schaub produced 355 passing yards against the Seahawks' heralded secondary. But he also had a fourth-quarter pass picked off and returned 58 yards for the tying touchdown by Richard Sherman (Public Enemy No. 1 among 49ers fans).
Instead of putting their fate in Schaub's hands again, the Texans will look to run with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The 49ers come in confident, having allowed only 18 yards on 19 carries to the Rams.
But the 49ers are wary of the Texans' zone-blocking scheme, one similar to the Seahawks' that shredded the 49ers for 172 yards three weeks ago on "Sunday Night Football." "They post guys up, so the backside guy can cut them," Smith said of the Texans. "You watch tape, and there's a lot of guys on the ground. It's going to be important for us up front to stay on our blocks, keep our feet out of that stuff, stay up so there's no cut-back lanes, and tackle these two running backs." Patrick Willis might miss a second consecutive game with a groin injury, and Aldon Smith remains on indefinite leave for substance-abuse treatment. But the 49ers don't radically alter their scheme with replacement linebackers Michael Wilhoite, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier, the later usually replacing Skuta on passing downs.
Wilhoite and fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman will play critical roles in another element of the Texans' attack: their play-action passing game that is set up by the run. "Nobody does as good a job as the Texans do at simulating the play-action pass and making it look exactly like the run, making the bootlegs look like the run," Harbaugh said.
Running the ball Last game, the 49ers blasted the Rams for 219 rushing yards and returned to their Harbaugh-era power-running roots.
"We got back to being us: running the ball and just having fun," said Frank Gore, who accounted for 153 of those rushing yards.