After a victorious first preseason runout against the Cowboys, the 49ers continue the Texan theme to their 2018 preseason with a trip to Houston, a trip that included two joint practice sessions in addition to tonight’s match. As with every preseason game, performance and execution will be the buzzwords, not to mention the avoidance of the volume of injuries that hit the 49ers last week against Dallas. The team and the fans will once again get an opportunity to see the entire healthy contingent of the roster in action, providing a window into the unfolding roster competitions and plans about player usage as we head ever closer to the regular season. 

Here are several areas of interest for fans to look out for tonight:

  • Much like they did last week, the 49ers’ defense will be coming up against at least one quarterback with above average mobility within and without the pocket. In this instance, there is a decent possibility they play two, with both Deshaun Watson and Joe Webb on the Texans’ quarterback depth chart. Not only will they have to contend with the enhanced threat of play action bootlegs and roll outs, but they will have to remain cognisant of each quarterback’s ability to extend and make plays with their legs off schedule. Discipline when rushing the passer is a must, and it will be interesting to see how often the 49ers use a quarterback spy or whether they just trust the soundness of their pass rushers to contain Watson and Webb. The lessons of tonight will be useful as the 49ers once again face the prospect of Russell Wilson on two occasions this season, as well as Aaron Rodgers.
  • Whilst we touch the subject of the 49ers’ pass rush, the Texans’ offensive line is probably their weakest position group, and there are enough new faces on the line to suggest cohesiveness might also be lacking. With the emphasis the 49ers appear to be placing on defensive line stunts as well as Robert Saleh’s willingness to send an extra rusher or two, the 49ers’ new pass rushing identity could be set for an early preseason showcase.
  • Conversely, any position group that contains DeAndre Hopkins is one to be wary of, even if the Texans’ superstar wide receiver only appears for a few early series. Those could be enough to show the 49ers’ corners that there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before they can think about consistently competing with the best. Furthermore, the likes of Will Fuller, Bruce Ellington, Keke Coutee and even Sammie Coates have the sort of devastating speed (and in some cases RAC skills) that ensures they must also be respected. Today is likely to be a real test of the 49ers’ coverage, especially if the Texans’ quarterbacks are afforded time in the pocket to let routes develop downfield.
  • On the other side of the ball, the 49ers will likely be treated to a heavy dose of cover 4 as well as man coverage on later downs. With the versatility and downfield receiving ability of many of the 49ers’ receiving options (the Niners possess running backs, a full back, tight ends and receivers who can all threaten a defense deep) look for Shanahan to dial up the cover 4 beaters early and often, as well as stress the Texans’ man coverage. The Mills concept (a deep post and a deep dig to the same side of the field) could be particularly deadly against cover 4, as both Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis in particular seem to have the ability to make cuts at close to full speed. If the safety bites on the dig, the receiver running the post will likely be streaking away from the corner. If the post is bracketed, the dig will likely be wide open with potentially only linebackers in the vicinity. That’s a recipe for some serious RAC. Deep curls and deep outs could also be very effective.
  • Both cover 4 and man to man coverage can place hefty demands on a team’s linebackers. The Texans have a pair of rangey starters, but behind them there are more question marks. Not only can the 49ers potentially attack the Texans deep, but the underneath stuff could also be effective, especially as the game develops. One man to keep an eye on in the limited snaps he will be on the field however is Tyrann Mathieu. Capable of playing deep or closer to the LOS, Jimmy Garoppolo should avoid the Honey Badger.
  • However, protection is crucial to the effectiveness of the passing game, and the Texans showed last week that even if their leading rushers Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt are not on the field, they can still get to the quarterback. If the aforementioned trio do get a run out, we will get a real early look at how effective the reconstructed 49ers’ offensive line is. Later on, we will get the chance to see how good our backups really are, as well as a first look at the right guard battle with both Josh Garnett and Jonathan Cooper set to play. Both players are better run blockers than pass blockers, and Garnett in particular will have to show that he has improved as a pass blocker to earn the starting gig.
  • Speaking of position battles, with Matt Breida and Jerick McKinnon both out, the fight for the third running back spot on the 49ers’ roster will be under the microscope. A slimmed down Jeremy McNichols looked good last week and reportedly has a shot at being the first horse out of the gate tonight. Behind him, Joe Williams and Raheem Mostert possess similar explosiveness though both have been held back by fumbling issues. All three are generally unknown quantities, but possess the same sort of versatility as Breida and McKinnon that helps make Kyle Shanahan’s offense so unpredictable. Newly signed Alfred Morris on the other hand is much more a known quantity. His reliability and knowledge of the scheme are huge positives, but he lacks the threat as a receiver that his peers possess. His usage tonight will be interesting  – but my feelings are that he makes the 49ers’ unpredictable scheme that causes defenses all kinds of headaches just a little more predictable. The sort of conflicts teams are put in with the likes of McKinnon and Breida (ie do you cover them with a linebacker or a safety, or even a slot corner?) simply do not exist for Morris.

 

Mike Andrews’ 3 Key Matchups to Watch

1. 49ers’ Offensive Line vs Texans Defensive Line: Between DJ Reader, Chris Covington, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and JJ Watt the Texans are prepared to hit you in the mouth pretty hard. Last week the team struggled to open holes for the running backs and they also struggled in pass protection. This week will be a stiffer test. 

It may ultimately come down to who is smarter – encapsulated well by Mike McGlinchey this week (video below). His first rep against JJ Watt was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. The second rep, Watt went to the same move – McGlinchey changed his stance and used his body to shift the weight of Watt and made it clear that “you will not beat me with the same move twice!” Then there was the tie breaker; Watt decided to use a different technique but it to no avail. It appeared that the rookie was well prepared for it, and he held his own. We will see if the same theme holds true tonight.

 

 

2. 49ers’ DBs vs Texans WRs: The Texans have the best wideout in the entire NFL (in my opinion) in DeAndre Hopkins (aka NUK). The likelihood is that with Richard Sherman sidelined, second year corner James Ahkello Witherspoon (aka AK) will be locked on Hopkins. This will be the best test for the young up and comer and I will have my popcorn ready. 

Additionally, dealing with a speed demon will be important in this game. In week 3 the 49ers will face the Chiefs at Arrowhead stadium and they have plenty of speed to spare! Seeing how the 49ers shift coverage over to the likes of Fuller will be telling as to what the plan might be at Arrowhead.

3. 49ers’ WRs vs Texans’ DBs: The Texans don’t get enough credit for the quality of the secondary they have put together. A test is on hand for the 49ers’ receivers and this will let us know how we can fare against other teams with strong secondaries (Rams, Vikings, Packers, and Giants). I know that Shanahan has said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t like to use “good” plays in preseason because they won’t likely work in the regular season, but we still need to see the ability of ALL the receivers (a very deep group this season) to beat man coverage and how they dissect zone coverage.

 

First video of McGlinchey vs Watt courtesy of Cam Inman. The second is courtesy of Eric Branch. Image courtesy of 49ers.com.