The San Francisco 49ers (8-7) will look to secure a spot in the NFC playoffs when they face the Houston Texans (4-11) at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. A win over Houston, coupled with a New Orleans Saints loss to the Carolina Panthers. would put San Francisco into the playoffs for the first time since 2019.
All signs point to the 49ers being without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo suffered a third-degree sprain to the ulnar collateral ligament of his right thumb late in the first half of San Francisco’s 20-17 loss to Tennessee last Thursday.
If Garoppolo does not play, San Francisco will turn to rookie quarterback Trey Lance for the second time this season. Lance would be making his second start of 2021, having started a week five loss at the Arizona Cardinals.
Here are five questions to watch for on Sunday.
- Will Kyle Shanahan adjust the gameplan he used with Trey Lance against Arizona?
It will be interesting to see whether Kyle Shanahan keeps using the offensive formula that has been successful for the 49ers during the stretch that has seen them come out on top in six of their last nine. Or, does he go back to what he did the last time Lance started?
Quite frankly, Shanahan treated Trey Lance like he was a running back when he made his first career start against Arizona.
Lance would carry the ball 16 times for 89 yards, with 12 of those being designed quarterback runs.
This plan was not very effective for a 49ers offense that struggled throughout the game with penalties and was unable to convert four times on fourth down. Lance also suffered a knee injury that kept him out of action the following week against Indianapolis.
The San Francisco offense has changed a great deal since that week five contest. Deebo Samuel has become more active in the running game, Jeff Wilson Jr, JaMycal Hasty, Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell give the 49ers a healthy stable of running backs and George Kittle has been at the top of his game since returning week nine from injury.
Facing a Texans defense, which has allowed the fourth most net yards per pass in the NFL this season, Lance should find success through the air on Sunday if he plays within the 49ers system.
- Will the 49ers commit to running the football?
Following a 3-5 start to the season, the 49ers needed to get things turned around, and they did so by focusing on running the ball.
Prior to an upset victory over the Los Angeles Rams, Kyle Shanahan made it a goal for his team to run the ball at least 40 times. The 49ers ran the ball 42 times against the Rams, followed that up with 42 carries the following week at Jacksonville and then 39 times against Minnesota.
This is the type of game in which San Francisco needs to get back to that team goal.
Houston has struggled against the run all season, allowing the sixth most yards per rush in the NFL and holding only three opponents under 100 yards in 15 games.
- Can San Francisco keep the Texans running game under wraps?
While the Houston defense has struggled to stop teams from running the ball, the Texans offense has been unable to get its own run game going. As a team, Houston has gone over 100 yards only three times this season, and their average of 3.4 yards per attempt is the second worst in the league.
Rex Burkhead leads the Texans in rushing with 356 yards on 94 attempts, 149 of those yards coming last week in an upset of the Los Angeles Chargers. No other back on the Texans roster has averaged over 3.5 yards per attempt in 2021. In fact, things became so dire for Houston that cornerback Tremon Smith was called upon to run the ball last week against the Chargers.
After a shaky start to the season, San Francisco’s run defense has been solid. This unit will be without linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, but they were able to shut down Atlanta two weeks ago with Al-Shaair sidelined.
- Will the 49ers pass defense get to Davis Mills?
If the 49ers defense can shut down the run, moving the Texans offense will fall onto the shoulders of rookie Davis Mills.
Houston selected the former Stanford quarterback in the third round, but San Francisco had looked at him as well before trading up to the third pick.
“We evaluated him a good amount, especially being a local guy. And we were very impressed with him,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “Very good football player, can throw the ball well. I knew he had battled number of injuries coming out, gotten his opportunity this year and he looks the part. He’s done a hell of a job for them.”
Mills comes into Sunday’s contest on a hot streak, throwing for 794 yards, five touchdowns and only one interception while completing 67 percent of his passes over the last three weeks.
One reason for Mills’ recent success is the lack of pressure he has been under. Over the last three weeks opposing defenses have been able to record four sacks, among the best in the league.
For the 49ers to shut down the Texans passing attack, they will need Nick Bosa and the rest of the defensive line to step up after struggling to reach Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill a week ago in Tennessee.
- Can the 49ers hold onto the ball?
There has been a lot of talk about Houston’s recent surge, which has included wins over top teams such as Tennessee and the Los Angeles Chargers. The Texans other two victories this season came against Jacksonville.
In their victories over Tennessee and Los Angeles, Houston has recorded six interceptions and forced two fumbles.
It will be incumbent upon Trey Lance to play within the structure of the offense and not turn the ball over. If he is able to do that, San Francisco should win this game by 10 or more points.
49ers 26 Texans 16