Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Texans

In their season finale against the Houston Texans, the 49ers need to run the ball like they did last week against St. Louis to take pressure off quarterback Alex Smith, who was sacked five times by the Rams and will see constant heat from Houston linebackers Shantee Orr and Antwan Peek, who both are sniffing a franchise record for sacks.

49ERS GAME PLAN: The 49ers found a good recipe for success in their penultimate game of the season last week against the Rams. Behind an improved offensive line and the running of Maurice Hicks and Frank Gore, the 49ers dominated the game on the ground. Hicks and Gore each carried the ball 10 times, combining for 177 yards and three touchdowns. Hicks had a 73-yard scoring run the first time he touched the ball, finishing with 109 yards rushing, while Gore had 68 yards rushing, including the game-winning, 30-yard scoring scamper late in the game. The 49ers need to continue to run the ball well to take the heat off rookie quarterback Alex Smith, who enjoyed his best game in the NFL. Smith has slowly started to show signs of the player the 49ers expect him to become. His passer rating has risen to 35.0. He has thrown 10 interceptions and has yet to throw his first touchdown pass in 136 attempts. The offensive line, which struggled most of the season, is finally rounding into form. The unit rarely practiced together because center Jeremy Newberry, who played 10 games this season, nursed a knee injury that prevented him from stepping onto the practice field. He went on injured reserve last month. Also, the team moved rookies Adam Snyder and David Baas into the starting lineup. Snyder plays left tackle, while Baas plays right guard. Defensively, the 49ers will go with another makeshift secondary. Because of injuries to cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer, Derrick Johnson and Bruce Thornton, it is too early to tell who will start Sunday's game. The 49ers need to do a better job of putting pressure on the quarterback, and this might be the perfect week. The Texans have not done a good job of protecting quarterback David Carr, who has been sacked a league-high 68 times this season. The 49ers would like to see more production from outside linebackers Andre Carter and Julian Peterson, both of whom are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Carter has 4.5 sacks this season, while Peterson has recorded just three sacks.

TEXANS GAME PLAN: The Texans will try to run the ball first. With Jonathan Wells likely to play through a hip injury in place of leading rusher Domanick Davis, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this week with a knee injury, Houston will try to establish something on the ground and hopefully it will open up the Texans' passing game. Last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars played a lot of man-on-man against the Texans' receivers and the Texans were able to throw downfield on a number of occasions. Carr's two touchdown passes were 50 yards or longer. The defense must rebound from a poor performance against the Jaguars. The secondary had its worst performance of the season, giving up a number of big plays including a critical touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and two rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Kris Brown has been so consistent for the Texans the past four seasons, but has faltered lately. He has missed four field-goal attempts in the last three games. He missed only three in the team's first 12 games.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--- 49ers FB Chris Hetherington, who has unseated former Pro Bowl player Fred Beasley as the starter and will play a key role in the 49ers' ability to run the ball, vs. Texans MLB Morlon Greenwood, who leads the Texans with 130 tackles.

--- 49ers RT Kwame Harris, who has performed well as a run-blocker but still is susceptible as a pass-blocker, vs. Texans LOLB Shantee Orr, who leads the Texans with seven sacks and has 13 quarterback pressures.

--- 49ers WR Arnaz Battle, who is finally healthy and is the team's best receiver, vs. Texans LCB Dunta Robinson, a second-year player who has started all 15 games for the club this season.

--- 49ers pass defense, which is banged up with so many injuries in the secondary that the club does not know who will be healthy enough to play Sunday, vs. Texans WRs Andre Johnson and Jabar Gaffney, who have combined for 116 catches for 1,169 yards and four touchdowns this season. Johnson is coming off his best game of the season with seven catches for 119 yards. It's his only 100-yard outing of the year. Johnson and QB David Carr got in a great rhythm last week when the Jaguars decided to match up with them one-on-one. If the 49ers give the Texans too much space, Johnson will make them pay.

--- 49ers kickoff coverage, which ranks third in the NFL in limiting returns to just 19.8 yards, vs. Texans KR Jerome Mathis, who is second in the NFL with a 29.1-yard average and a league-leading two touchdown returns.

--- Texans LBs Orr and Antwan Peek vs. 49ers QB Alex Smith. The Texans linebackers are making somewhat a competition out of the game. They each want to finish the season with the franchise-record for sacks in a season with nine. Peek needs four. Orr needs two. The St. Louis Rams sacked Smith five times last week. He averages just more than three sacks per game. Orr and Peek are first-year starters for the Texans, who have been two bright spots on the dismal season.

INJURY IMPACT

49ERS: RB Kevan Barlow (left knee) was placed on injured reserve. ... CB Derrick Johnson (neck) is doubtful for Sunday's game with a stinger that forced him out of the Rams game last Sunday. ... CB Bruce Thornton (right knee) has been downgraded to doubtful with an injury he sustained in the first half the game against the Rams last week. ... WR Rasheed Marshall (groin) and LB Saleem Rasheed (knee) are probable to play against the Texans. ... CB Ahmed Plummer (left ankle) will not play in the season finale. He played only three games this season before undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in late September. ... C Jeremy Newberry (right knee), FS Tony Parrish (left leg), LT Jonas Jennings (right shoulder), LB Jeff Ulbrich (left biceps), CB Mike Rumph (foot), TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WRs Derrick Hamilton (left knee) and Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve.

TEXANS: DE Travis Johnson (back) was held out of practice on Wednesday, but the Texans are hopeful he will be healthy enough to replace Walker in the season finale. The Texans will be careful with a back injury. They want him to play but will obviously not risk his future. LT Chester Pitts (back) was limited in practice Wednesday. He is expected to be OK to play on Sunday. He will not miss a start and will not be too limited in his mobility. … C Steve McKinney (hip contusion) was limited in practice. He is still expected to be well enough to play on Sunday without any problems. … RB Jonathan Wells (thigh contusion) was held out of practice earlier this week. The Texans are hopeful he will start in place of injured Domanick Davis. If he is able to play, he will not be 100 percent, but he will push himself and will show little dropoff.


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