Niners fade to feeble finish after fast start

The 49ers couldn't have gotten off to a better start Saturday against the Houston Texans. But, wow, what a horrible fade to the finish. After Ahmad Brooks' interception return for a touchdown on the game's first play from scrimmage put them ahead, the Niners couldn't have been much worse the rest of the way, getting drilled 30-7 in an awful exhibition that seemingly puts them back at square one.

After taking a promising step forward during last week's victory against Oakland, San Francisco took two or three steps backward in a dreadful performance before befuddled and booing home fans that filled only about one-third of the seats at Candlestick Park.

This was about as close as you can get to humiliation during the preseason, and coach Jim Harbaugh didn't mince words afterward.

"It's a bitter pill to swallow, when you're beaten that thoroughly in pretty much all phases," Harbaugh said. "The thorough nature of it is something we're going to have to address."

How thorough of a whipping was it?

Let us count the ways:

--- The 49ers were out-gained in total yardage 417-105.

--- Houston held a 28-6 advantage in first downs.

--- The Texans had a 40:36-19:24 advantage in time of possession and held a 78-41 edge in plays from scrimmage.

And so on and so on. In this game, the numbers really did tell the story.

And to think it all started so well for the 49ers.

With the Texans starting the game on offense from their own 19-yard line, Brooks broke through the line from his left outside linebacker spot and immediately sniffed out the screen pass that was in progress.

Quarterback Matt Schaub, looking off the defense to set up the play, turned to his right and fired the ball right into the hands of Brooks, who caught it at the 13 and strolled untouched into the end zone.

Just like that, the 49ers had a stunning 7-0 lead just nine seconds into the game, before many fans had even settled into their seats, and before some had even entered the stadium.

"I got to the play kind of early, recognized it was a screen and just really reacted to it," said Brooks, who continued his standout play this summer.

It also continued outstanding play from San Francisco's first-team defense, which hadn't been scored upon in the Niners' first two preseason games. It appeared that defense was once again setting the tone against a Houston team that ranked third in the NFL in total offense last season.

But instead, it was all downhill for the 49ers from there.

Downhill, as in a landslide.

Schaub and Houston's high-octane offense quickly regrouped after the early miscue, assembling long scoring drives on their next three possessions, each of which lasted 10 plays or more.

Then it was time for the opportunistic Houston defense to get into the act. Safety Troy Nolan stepped in front of Colin Kaepernick's third pass of the game late in the second quarter and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown as the Texans assumed total command on their way to a 24-7 halftime lead.

Nolan's interception was merely a culminating blow for a Houston defense that roughed up the 49ers throughout the first half, after which the Texans held a 257-60 advantage in total yards in addition to their lopsided edge on the scoreboard.

Niners quarterback Alex Smith completed his first two passes, but that was not an indication of things to come as he was hit hard and sacked on each of San Francisco's first two possessions, each of which ended without the 49ers making much forward progress.

Smith gave way to Kaepernick on San Francisco's third series, and the result was Nolan's long interception return. Smith returned for San Francisco's final two series of the first half, but he was booed off the field after getting rocked hard by two Houston defenders as he threw a deep interception in the final minute before halftime.

Yes, it was that kind of night for the 49ers.

"Obviously, we took our lumps tonight," Smith said. "It was rough for all of us. We have to find a way to get something going and get it right."

Smith never got it right, finishing with an unsightly 2.8 passer rating. Kaepernick, who had an amazingly bad 0.0 passer rating at halftime, improved his rating to 20.8 by the end of the game, which still looks almost as bad.

"I think everything we did today, we did to ourselves," Kaepernick said. "You can learn a lot from a game like this. As much as you hate to have them, sometimes you can learn more from games like this."

The 49ers can only hope so. They have five days to regroup before their preseason finale at San Diego, their last chance to get it right before the regular season begins.

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