Trey Lance making some splashy plays during his home debut will be the headline of this week, but the most impressive performance of the day came on the other side of the ball. The 49ers' defense held a red-hot Houston offense that was coming off of back-to-back 35+ point performances to just 7 points and 222 yards, 57 of which came in garbage time in the final minute and twelve seconds when the game was far out of reach.
Aside from a 14 play, 80-yard drive in the 2nd quarter, and a couple of pass interference penalties in the second half, the 49ers' defense was essentially flawless, stifling the Texans' rushing attack while also regularly getting pressure on rookie quarterback Davis Mills. As a result, they held the Texans' offense to just 3.6 yards play after they had averaged 5.9 over their last two games.
The run defense, in particular, was outstanding, as they held the Texans to 2.9 yards per carry, just a week after they went for 5.3 against the Chargers. Texans running back Rex Burkhead only recorded 41 yards on 16 carries, coming off a game where he went for 149 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. In addition, with Azeez Al-Shaair and Dre Greenlaw out due to injuries, the 49ers depleted linebacking corps stepped up in a big way.
It’s been incredible to watch the 49ers rush defense’s transformation over the course of the season, as they have gone from an objective area of concern to now becoming one of the team's biggest strengths. The 49ers allowed opposing teams to rush for 100+ yards seven times in their first eight games. Over their last eight games, only one team has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground against the 49ers (Seattle had 146 in week 13), and 73 of those yards came on a direct snap to Travis Homer on a fake punt.
That is an absolutely remarkable midseason turnaround and speaks volumes to the contributions of players like Al-Shaair and DJ Jones, whose contributions have propelled the 49ers defense into position to be yet another top 5 unit for the third year in a row.
But the run defense wasn’t the only area this unit excelled in against the Texans, as the 49ers' ferocious pass rush wreaked havoc in the Texans' backfield throughout this game. Arden Key continued his breakout season, as he led the team with seven pressures while also recording a sack. Key’s greatest impact, however, wasn’t the sack. Instead, the pressure he recorded led to Mills throwing an interception to Marcell Harris.
This interception led to a 49ers touchdown drive, which also gave them their first lead of the game at 10-7. It is yet another prime example of a pass rusher's impact that won't be reflected in a traditional statistic like sacks. Key has been a game-wrecking force since the 49ers made a concerted effort to utilize him from the interior, recording 21 pressures and four sacks over his last four games.
However, Key wasn’t alone as Samson Ebukam continued his late-season surge by adding six pressures and contributing to a pair of sacks, including one that pushed the Texans back and forced a more challenging field goal attempt that Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn ultimately missed. I wrote last week about Ebukam’s red hot play down the stretch, and when you factor this game into the mix, Ebukam now has 19 pressures and 4.5 sacks over the last four games.
Consistency has been there as well, as Ebukam has contributed to at least one sack in each of those four games. Arik Armstead was also fantastic in this game, destroying the Texans' interior offensive line on multiple occasions and combined with Ebukam on a pivotal sack in the second quarter, which helped the 49ers get the ball back and put some points on the board before the break.
Fred Warner played an outstanding game as well, with his only blemish being a touchdown he allowed while covering one of the better wideouts in the league in Brandin Cooks. Warner finished the day with 10 tackles and multiple run stops that saw him stonewall plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. As of late, Warner looks like his all-pro self, playing at a level that sends a firm reminder about why he is regarded among the best players in the league at his position.
After this tremendous performance, the 49ers now boast a top 10 passing and rushing defense and are top 5 in total yards allowed. This elite level of play is even more remarkable when you consider the revolving door they have had at the cornerback position and how depleted the linebacking corps has been.
First-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans deserves a heaping amount of praise and recognition for the job he has done with this unit, which now focuses its attention towards a high octane Rams offense they will be tasked with slowing down for a second time this season, as the 49ers head to Los Angeles for the season finale, with a chance to punch their ticket to the playoffs with a sixth consecutive victory over their division rival.