Vic Fangio today said his inside linebackers have the toughest task Sunday against a Houston Texans offense that is committed to the run, loves play action and isn't shy about going down-field - sometimes deep down field - to their tight ends.
Adding to the challenge is that Fangio isn't sure which of his inside linebackers will play. Patrick Willis is making progress from the groin injury that kept him out of last week's game in St. Louis. But Willis spent the beginning of Thursday's practice rehabilitating on a side field and is iffy for Sunday's game.
"I think Pat's getting a lot better, making great progress," Fangio said. "I think the chances are better than 50-50 (that Willis plays), but we don't know for sure yet."
If the 49ers remain cautious with Willis, Michael Wilhoite would make his second straight start next to NaVorro Bowman. Wilhoite today said he would prepare this week as if he was the starter, and he agreed with Fangio that the balanced Texans offense presents a tall challenge.
Wilhoite noted that the Texans looks for tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham not only in the short and intermediate passing game but also for big plays as well. Both Daniels and Graham average more than 10 yards and catch and they have six touchdowns between them.
"They're almost like receivers with blocking capabilities," Wilhoite said. "Which is tough because, since the beginning of time, that's always been known as a mismatch - a receiver on a linebacker. It's something you don't want, and that's what they present. ... We just have to match it. We have to prepare for it, work on it and maybe adjust a couple of things. Then go out there and play football and see who's the best man."
Fangio said Wilhoite had "a tough assignment."
"The ILBs have a harder test in deciphering run or pass against this play-action game and being sound in their coverage but yet being good playing the run also," he said.
More Fangio ...
* He said that Tramaine Brock would spend at least another week as the 49ers' no. 3 cornerback as Nnamdi Asomugha continues to come back from a knee injury.
"He did a nice job," Fangio said of Brock's game against the Rams. "He probably had the biggest play of the game in breaking up that pass that Donte (Whitner) intercepted in the end zone. That was a 3rd-and-1, deep into the second quarter. They were in field goal range and I think the score was only 7-3 at the time. So, that was a very critical play at that time and he made that. And he made some other good plays."
* Fangio suggested that it shouldn't only be defensive players who get fined for big hits on receivers. "I've always said when they're fining these people for these hits, they should be fining the quarterback for throwing these guys into those big hit," he said.
* Speaking of big hits, Fangio was asked about Whitner's quest to change his name to "Hitner." Said the dry-witted defensive coordinator: "He did not consult me before he made that decision."
-- Matt Barrows