49ers vs. Texans: What we learned

Five things we learned about the 49ers during their 24-21 loss to the Houston Texans that dropped San Francisco to the .500 level and out of first place in the NFC West for the first time this season: Time to go airborne; Crabtree's the real deal; punt returning a Battle; O-line problems ominipresent; and post-bye week blues continue.

That approach works great if you can run the football. Take away two long touchdown sprints by Frank Gore in Week 2, and the 49ers haven't been able to do that with any kind of regularity at all. Gore is a fantastic running back, but look what else the 49ers have at the skill positions: A tight end that's becoming one of the best receiving threats in the game at his position. A newcomer in Michael Crabtree that has legitimate No. 1-receiver potential. A youngster in Josh Morgan and old-timer in Isaac Bruce that both can be productive and explosive in their own right. A deep threat in Brandon Jones who has thus far not been utilized. A fine receiver out of the backfield in Gore. And, last but not least, a quarterback in Alex Smith who can get the ball to those targets down the field. The 49ers can still work on being the power rushing team they intend to be, but when opposing defenses are stacking the box with eight and nine defenders and playing bump coverage on the edges, the Niners need to start spreading out their offense and going to the air on a regular basis to take advantage and get more production out of what they have offensively.

Did you see the way he effortlessly plucked the ball out of the air? The way he ran smooth and precise routes? The way he was able to use his strength and body to shield defenders and get open? And that was just the first game of his professional career, coming after just a couple weeks of practice with the team to get up to speed after missing the first 71 days since summer practice began back in August. Whenever Crabtree gets isolated in man coverage, that's going to be matchup he can win – against anybody. The impact he will have on the entire offense could be just the thing the 49ers need to get it going on that side of the ball. Some questioned the 49ers for pushing Crabtree past other receivers and onto the field so quickly after the time he missed and the dubious nature of his contract impasse, but he obviously deserves to be there and already is a guy who can make a difference.

This guy used to be a reliable and productive performer when he held the full-time role as the team's punt returner in 2004, when he finished the season sixth among the NFC leaders in that category. But Battle has had problems even fielding the ball since taking over the role from Allen Rossum, who was mysteriously released before the team's bye week and was quickly snatched up by the Dallas Cowboys. His fumble on a muffed punt gave the Texans a gift touchdown that proved to be the difference in the game, and that just cannot happen if the 49ers expect to be winners. Besides his problems fielding the ball, Battle has done absolutely nothing on his return opportunities. Since he's down another rung on the ladder at receiver now that Crabtree has arrived, Battle needs to spend more time focusing on circling under punts in practice, or the 49ers need to find someone else to handle the role.

It was another wretched performance by the unsettled offensive line until there was some dramatic improvement in pass blocking in the second half. Still, the line continues to be a huge problem area where the 49ers have got to find some answers. The loss of Tony Pashos, just when he had taken over as the starting right tackle, certainly is not going to help matters. The 49ers will have to put Adam Snyder back at that position, where he has been so-so at best and really needs to pick it up. Chilo Rachal, while talented, still plays too aggressive at right guard and needs to settle down to be effective. He played poorly again against the Texans and the 49ers need to think about moving steady veteran Tony Wragge back into that spot while Rachal gets things sorted out. The other linemen aren't exactly playing at their best either, but the 49ers don't have a lot of options there now after the loss of Pashos. Whatever it is that the Niners can do to start getting more out of their line, they need to start doing it. Not that they already haven't been trying, of course.

You'd think, with two weeks to prepare, the 49ers would have come out more prepared against the Texans than what they showed during a first-half debacle that saw them down 21-0 at halftime. Look how prepared Atlanta was for the 49ers during the Falcons' 45-10 rout in San Francisco coming off their bye week. Sadly, the 49ers did not appear to make any progress with the extra week to prepare for the Texans. That seems to be the standard for the 49ers, who have now lost six consecutive games coming off their bye week.

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