Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak insists his players haven't changed much since an embarrassing start. Mike Singletary has to hope some alterations will help the San Francisco 49ers end their slump.
The Texans and their much-improved defense look to stop a 49ers team that will have Frank Gore back and Michael Crabtree finally on the field Sunday.
Houston's defense has rebounded after a terrible start, particularly against the run. The Texans (3-3) have limited opponents to 135 rushing yards over their last three games after giving up 615 in their first three.
Not even Cedric Benson, who entered last week's games as the NFL's leading rusher, was able to get on track against Houston. The Texans held Benson to a season-low 44 yards in a 28-17 win at Cincinnati last Sunday.
It was Houston's second win during its defense's best three-game stretch against the run in team history.
"We have come a long way," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.
Kubiak said the players haven't done much differently; they're just handling the basics better.
"I think we've eliminated some mistakes and assignment issues and just been more sound in what we're doing and it's adding up to more plays," he said.
Now Houston has to find a way to slow down Gore, who is set to return after missing two games while recovering from a sprained right ankle. Quarterback Shaun Hill was San Francisco's leading rusher in a 45-10 loss to Atlanta on Oct. 11, gaining 53 yards.
Gore was outstanding in his last full game, running for 207 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-10 win over Seattle on Sept. 20.
"We just have to be ourselves and just go out there and play and try to keep the chains moving and get points," Gore said of facing an improved Texans defense. "If we do that, we should have a great chance of winning. That's all we have to do."
Gore spent some of the 49ers' bye week working out with Crabtree. The rookie receiver, selected 10th overall, finally signed a six-year contract Oct. 7, and there's a chance the former Texas Tech star will start Sunday.
Crabtree will make his debut in his home state of Texas.
"There are some things that you can prepare him for, but there are other things that he just has to go through and I think that this is one of them," Singletary said of Crabtree's first game. "You have to let those guys line up against him and put their hands on you and see some of the complexities of the defense and how they are setting you up.
"You come to the sideline with your head on a swivel a little bit, but I don't think that it's going to be too big for him. To me, even though he's come in late, he looks like he's ready."
Hill is in desperate need of a big-play threat at wide receiver. He has been held under 200 yards passing in four straight games.
Hill completed 15 of 38 passes for 198 yards while throwing an interception against the Falcons. His favorite target has been tight end Vernon Davis, who has 22 catches for 262 yards and three TDs.
Matt Schaub, meanwhile, continues to lead a potent Houston offense. He matched a career high with four TD passes and threw for 392 yards against the Bengals.
In his last two games, Schaub has gone 63 of 90 for 763 yards with six TDs and a passer rating of 108.7. He's done an excellent job of utilizing Andre Johnson, one of the NFL's most dangerous receivers.
Johnson has 16 receptions for 236 yards and two TDs in his last two games. He's second in the NFL with 572 yards, averaging 15.9 per reception.
With safeties cheating toward Johnson, tight end Owen Daniels has had an easier time finding room to work over the middle. He had seven catches for 78 yards and two TDs against Cincinnati.
Houston was held to 196 yards passing in a 20-17 overtime loss at San Francisco on Jan. 1, 2006, the teams' only meeting. Gore rushed for 108 yards in that game.
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