SAN FRANCISCO - A hit on quarterback Alex Smith late in the second quarter Saturday resulted in both something common in recent seasons, an interception, and something hardly seen from Smith in six previous seasons, anger and emotion.
"Just frustrated," Smith said after the game. "At that point, it was just tough getting the ball off. But that's just what happens in a game. It's an emotional game." The hit was one of five Smith absorbed in a 30-7 loss to the Houston Texans, and it was a sign that the 49ers offense - and in particular its pass protection - had not progressed as much as it thought it had from a drubbing in New Orleans in the exhibition opener.
The statistics were just as gruesome as they were in the loss to the Saints. While Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, like most NFL starters, played through the first half and left the game with 180 passing yards, Smith split the first half with rookie Colin Kaepernick and finished the game with 17 yards. Houston had 417 yards of offense and 28 first downs; San Francisco only could manage 105 yards and six first downs.
"I think if you're looking to find something positive to say offensively, it's not easy tonight," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I'm not going to single anybody out. The players will hear it from us. They don't need to read about it as well."
Most NFL teams use the third preseason game as a warm-up for the regular season. Harbaugh took a longer-view approach, evaluating key back ups and giving players who are battling for positions more opportunities to prove their worth. That approach seemed to trade early-season readiness for long-term stability, but Harbaugh promised his team would be ready for the Sept. 11 season opener. "Because we have to," he said. "It's not an option not to."
The 49ers played without starting tailback Frank Gore, who wants a contract extension before the regular season begins. Gore said he would have played the game if asked, but Harbaugh told him earlier in the week that he wanted to see which backup, Anthony Dixon or rookie Kendall Hunter, should be the No. 2 runner.
Dixon started the game but Hunter had a far better average, running for 40 yards on eight carries while Dixon ran for 15 yards also on eight carries. Gore has said he was frustrated over the lack of progress in contract talks, and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, will meet with 49ers officials in Santa Clara for the second time this month. Still, Gore reiterated that he plans to play this season for the 49ers. "If (an extension) doesn't happen, I still have to be here for my teammates and stick it out," said Gore, who is unlikely to play in Thursday's preseason finale.
The 49ers opened the game with a bang - an interception and touchdown return by linebacker Ahmad Brooks that gave San Francisco a 7-0 lead just nine seconds into the game. Brooks said he sniffed out a screen attempt by the Texans when their offensive linemen started moving down field.
"He told me I was supposed to rush the passer on that play," Brooks said of Schaub, a teammate of his at the University of Virginia. But Schaub quickly recovered from his opening-play flub, carving up both the 49ers' first- and second-string defenses and connecting on a 12-yard touchdown with tight end Owen Daniels in the second quarter.
Smith and Kaepernick, meanwhile, never found rhythms.
Kaepernick entered the game for the 49ers' third offensive series. He hit tight end Delanie Walker for 15 yards, but his next two attempts were incomplete and the one after that, intended for receiver Braylon Edwards, was intercepted and returned 73 yards for a touchdown.
Kaepernick finished the game with a passer rating of 20.8. Smith's was even worse - 2.8.
Smith said in a normal year he would have liked to play for a longer stretch. But he said Harbaugh's practices were so long that they were tantamount to getting game experience. He said he agreed with Harbaugh's approach.
"In years past, we put a lot of stock in the preseason and put up really good numbers and won a lot of games," Smith said. "And two weeks into the season, no one really cares. So coach is taking a little bit different approach, and I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing."
-- Matt Barrows