The Texans' defense has been severely hurt by injuries this season, including the losses of difference-makers such as end J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus for the season. Instead of the dominant unit many expected, Houston's D has struggled, ranking 20th in yards allowed and 28th in yards per play and points allowed per game.
Through all of that, one defender has had his best season and has continued to emerge as one of the most dominant players in the league: linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney entered Sunday's game with nine sacks on the season, a career high, including six in the past seven games. Those numbers don't fully do justice to the impact Clowney has had.
"He’s very unique," left tackle Joe Staley said. "Real slippery guy, taller guy, kind of built like Aldon [Smith] was when he was here. He’s really good at using his hands and getting skinny through blocks, and he’s super powerful as well. There’s a reason why he was drafted No. 1 overall. It’s because he’s a super talented guy, and he lines up all over the place, too. He won’t just line up over me or over Trent. He’ll line up inside, he’ll sometimes line up as a linebacker, off the ball. They do a lot of things with him."
With right tackle Trent Brown inactive because of a shoulder injury and Zane Beadles in his place, the Texans did exactly what you'd expect: They moved Clowney to that side and let him attack. Although Clowney didn't register a sack, he created plenty of havoc. In unofficial press box statistics, Clowney finished with six tackles, two for loss, and four quarterback hits. He was disruptive enough to throw the Niners' offense off but not enough to wreck their game plan completely, which is about all the Niners could have hoped, given the situation.
Growing with Garoppolo
The Niners had an unmistakable bounce in their step this week after QB Jimmy Garoppolo's strong performance in a win over Chicago last week. The hope for this matchup was that Garoppolo and the offense could take another step forward. What would that step entail? Well, some touchdowns, for starters.
San Francisco was 0-for-5 on red zone trips against the Bears, settling for a field goal each time. Much of the blame for that fell on penalties that made manageable situations more difficult. Cutting down on those infractions figured to give Garoppolo & Co. a much better chance to get past the goal line.
Against a Houston defense that was 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed (235.8), 29th in passing yards allowed per attempt (7.37) and 25th in opponent passer rating (96.9), Garoppolo looked to have opportunities to improve upon his first start, and that's exactly what he did.
In his second start, Garoppolo finished 20-of-33 for a career-high 334 yards with one touchdown and an interception for a passer rating of 92.2. Along the way, he set a franchise record for passing yards by a quarterback in his first two starts with the team. Most importantly, he got the Niners into the end zone twice on their way to a second consecutive win.
Much like Clowney serves as the focal point of Houston's defense, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is the key to the offense. Heading into Sunday, Hopkins needed just one touchdown to reach his second season with 1,000 receiving yards and 10 scores. He was already the only Texans player to do that in a season.
Of course, Hopkins' job has been made more difficult by the injury to quarterback DeShaun Watson. Tom Savage has struggled in Watson's stead, and he and Hopkins have had difficulty getting on the same page. Hopkins and Watson connected on 62 percent of Hopkins' targets. That number has dropped to 50 percent with Savage under center.
Still, Hopkins entered this game second in the NFL in receiving yards (1,084), tied for fourth in receptions (77) and tied for first in touchdown catches (nine). The Niners, meanwhile, have had their share of trouble defending the pass this season. They're yielding 7.49 yards per pass attempt, which is 26th in the NFL.
Even with all that knowledge, the Niners had no answer for Hopkins, who finished with 11 catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns. Things got so bad that the Niners benched cornerback Dontae Johnson for Greg Mabin and began openly shading free safety Adrian Colbert to Hopkins' side of the field, a ploy that actually helped slow him down.
For all the damage Hopkins did, the Niners forced him into a huge mistake when it mattered most. On a late fourth-quarter bubble screen, Colbert hit Hopkins square, forcing a fumble that teammate Aaron Lynch recovered to set up the field goal that put the game away. It was tough sledding against one of the game's best wideouts, but the 49ers did just enough to secure the victory.