Jimmy Garoppolo got the true experience of playing quarterback for the 49ers on Sunday.
With starting right tackle Trent Brown out, Garoppolo felt pressure on 44 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He was sacked twice and hit more times than anyone in the front office should feel comfortable with.
But he stood in there and kept the Niners in it. More importantly, he once again kept the offense on the field, allowing the defense to stay fresh and make plays late.
Garoppolo improved to 2-0 as a starter for the franchise with the 26-16 victory.
Again, it wasn’t a perfect outing. The Texans are a team without a quarterback — remember that feeling, Faithful? — and it showed as they were outgained by 115 yards. The 49ers also couldn’t solve their penalty problems, committing 11 infractions for 87 yards — furthering their issues in the red zone.
But, when they have Garoppolo, they’ve been able to hold onto the ball — mostly because of how quickly he gets rid of it.
Instead of taking several sacks and more hits like C.J. Beathard did when he was under center, Garoppolo was regularly able to get the ball out of his hand before he took the hit. Oftentimes, he was on target.
There was an early interception on a ball intended for Trent Taylor that sailed directly into the Texans’ arms. But, the defense ensured that miscue wouldn’t cost and the 49ers were able to go into halftime with a lead.
And that encapsulates where the 49ers are right now: They’ll make errors that’ll hurt more against good teams, but they have more than enough talent and comfortability in Kyle Shanahan’s system to overcome them against bad ones.
That’s a newish spot to be in. Well, at least since Nov. 2014 — the last time the Niners won two in a row.
They have the Juice now
Before Week 14, Kyle Juszczyk was having a rough time on the 49ers. The veteran had been struggling with fumble issues, injuries and dropped passes.
Then he went out in Houston and totally redeemed himself.
Juszczyk made two plays with the score tied 3-3 that led to Garoppolo’s first touchdown drive as a starter. The first catch was good for 29 yards, the second for 31 — setting up Carlos Hyde for his 18th career touchdown.
“When you have a guy like Jimmy who is making some impressive throws, and has been doing it on the practice field and is carrying it to the game, I think guys always know they have a chance and they’ve lived up to it,” Shanahan explained to reporters.
Juszczyk set a new career high and looked to be the player the 49ers braintrust was selling during training camp: A dynamic receiver who can help on offense whether it be a run, pass or play-action.
He came to Santa Clara because he liked how Shanahan can draw up plays to get the most from his players. As one of the longest tenured players on the team, Garrett Celek was already here and didn’t have much of a choice. But he also benefited from Shanahan’s gameplanning on Sunday.
On a 3rd-and-6 in the third quarter, Shanahan called a play that exposed Houston’s weak defense in between the hash marks. It led to a completion to Celek who rumbled for a 61-yard gain. Celek eventually caught his third TD of the season on a play that had him running a route from the backfield.
That led to “Celek Time” as both Garoppolo and Goodwin referred to it after the game.
“When it’s Celek time, it’s time to go,” Goodwin explained.
The phenomenon is described as a good time in the locker room, and now that the 49ers are actually winning games, they can talk about stuff like that openly.
Midgame adjustment secures win
The Niners defense was again better than expected. But there was one point of weakness the Texans picked on over and over again: The No. 2 cornerback.
Dontae Johnson struggled to contain DeAndre Hopkins — which, to his credit, most players do. When Hopkins lined up against Johnson, he was able to grab nine passes on 10 targets for 140 yards, according to PFF.
And when Hopkins wasn’t making the play, Johnson was making it easier for the Texans by committing three penalties in coverage.
That led the Shanahan benching Johnson in the third quarter after Hopkins caught his second touchdown. The Texans wouldn’t score from that point forward.
After the game, Shanahan praised Greg Mabin — Johnson’s replacement — but it’s clear that adding another player who can play cornerback at a high level will be a priority this offseason.
And that’s been the beauty of this streak: The 49ers are learning how to win games while figuring out where their weak spots are.
It isn’t “everywhere” anymore and there are young anchors at each level of the defense. DeForest Buckner pressured the Houston quarterback seven times while logging a sack that put the game away. Reuben Foster was firing all over the field and leading the team with eight tackles. Adrian Colbert yet again proved he belongs as a starter in the NFL by breaking up passes and saving plays from becoming disasters with his recovery skills. Ahkello Witherspoon even shored up his tackling to be a contributor in run-stopping plays.
The foundation of a great, young defense is there, the Niners just have to fill in the space around them.
The 2017-18 San Francisco 49ers: From Despair to Almost There.
Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.