The San Francisco 49ers lost 20-9 to the Houston Texans on Saturday night, on the strength of a Matt Schaub touchdown pass and an 87-yard punt return from Trindon Holliday. But it wasn’t the final score that mattered. If early reports on the injuries that the 49ers sustained are anywhere near true, they made away like bandits.

Running back depth takes a hit

The first casualty of the game was Brandon Jacobs, who galloped through the Texans’ defense for an 8-yard gain before being speared in the leg by Texans’ corner back Kareem Jackson. Then it was LaMichael James, whose rolled his ankle in a fourth quarter pile. Although both running backs were carried off the field and appeared to be in a lot of pain, it doesn’t sound like they’ll be out for too long.

“He’s going to miss a little time,” Jim Harbaugh said, referring to Jacobs and his knee injury. “I don’t think it’s anything … the ACL is good. The patella is good. It’ll be some time, but we’ll see. It’s not the you-don’t-come-back-from variety.”

This is good news. Jacobs is running better than he has in a few years, not only in relief of the starters but also in short yardage situations. Anthony Dixon was plugged in with the starters to convert twice after Jacobs went down – he converted one and got stuffed on the next. He’ll need to do better than that if he wants to solidify a roster spot after this preseason, especially if Jacobs will be back soon.

What about LaMichael James?

“Things look good, X-rays-wise, and it’s calming down for him,” Harbaugh said. James was even more confident about his return, and he said as much once the rookie hopped onto Twitter:

Just as this post was going live, Jacobs had some “good” news of his own. We think.

Kendall Hunter’s performance

Perhaps the most eye-opening performance of the night was that of second year running back Kendall Hunter, who is beginning to look like he could be the 49ers’ every-down back of the future. Hunter had 6 carries for 46 yards (7.7 AVG), including a 17-yard scamper on a 3rd-and-long in which he broke several tackles and nearly got the 49ers a first down.

Hunter has been mentioned by Harbaugh as one of the top performers in camp, and he looks ready make a major leap in production this year. Although his 5-7, 199 lb stature makes him “undersized” for a feature back, he hasn’t shied away from contact and rarely goes down after the first hit. He runs similarly to Frank Gore, except he has some quickness and cuts that I’m not sure I’ve seen from Gore – even in his prime. The way Hunter played tonight is reassuring; the depth remains at running back, but with Hunter, the 49ers may not end up needing it.

Note: Frank Gore only got 2 carries for 12 yards on the night, but he looked good in the process. Although his second carry was a loss of 2, his first carry was a 14 yard gain. He looked like the healthy Gore – the one that runs strong, has great field vision and picks up the blitz with the best in the game. He may not have much in the way of breakaway speed, but he should still be productive.

The defense – bend don’t break?

Just like the 49ers’ first preseason game against the Vikings, the first team defense allowed the Texans to march down the field at times, but never let them get into the end zone. The Texans only managed one field goal against the 49ers’ defensive starters. It wasn’t until there was less than a minute left in the second quarter that the Texans scored a touchdown, on a 9-yard pass from Schaub to Lestar Jean. At that point, though, San Francisco had plugged in their second string defense; Houston was still working with their offensive starters.

The defense doesn’t seem to have lost much of a step stopping the run. They held Arian Foster to 46 yards on 10 carries (24 yards came on one run against the backups). If you’re looking for cause for concern, that falls on the secondary.

Schaub finished his night 11-for-14 for 128 yards and a touchdown, and unlike Foster’s production, the Texans’ quarterback did a good deal of his damage against the 49ers’ ones.

It’s hard to judge the 49ers defense on these first two games, however. Justin Smith wasn’t playing against the Vikings, and now Aldon Smith will sit out the rest of preseason after his hip injury.  We’ll know more about this defense performs against the passing game when all of the starters are playing together.

About Alex Smith

This game was a mixed bag for Smith. He made some nice plays, he missed seeing some open receivers and, at times, he was a victim of some poor pass protection. He finished his outing – which lasted about 5 minutes into the second quarter – 5-for-9 for 49 yards. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad parts of his performance.

First drive

The good – Smith completed a pass to Randy Moss for a 5-yard gain. Later in the drive, Smith ran a designed play where he rolled right and hit a wide open Ted Ginn for a 24 yard gain on 3rd down.

The bad – Smith completed a screen pass to Kendall Hunter that only went for 3 yards. It could have gone for more, but Smith hit Hunter a little early, before the screen had fully developed. Hunter tripped on one of his lineman’s feet and fell for a short gain.

Smith tried to hit Vernon Davis on a short crossing route, but Davis dropped the pass. Although the ball ended up on Davis’ hands, it was a little high and behind him.

Smith was sacked twice in the first series. The first was because he failed to find an open receiver and tried to tuck the ball and run. The second sack resulted from a breakdown in his protection by guard Alex Boone and Kendall Hunter.

Second drive

The good: There wasn’t much good here. Smith only completed one pass on the drive – a 13-yard gain to Randy Moss on 3rd-and-long. The 49ers went for it on 4th-and-1, but Anthony Dixon got stuffed at the line.

The bad: Smith’s first pass of the series, intended for Mario Manningham, was well overthrown. Smith obviously expected Manningham to be at least 10 yards deeper than he was, but Manningham was blatantly held by the Texans corner (the refs called no penalty). The DB was all alone and dropped what should’ve been an easy interception.

Smith’s next pass fell incomplete, intended for Crabtree. Smith simply threw it too high.

His next throw also went for an incompletion, this time to Hunter. Smith tried to dump it off, but threw the ball extremely low because he had a defensive lineman bearing down on him who was called for roughing the passer on the play.

Smith’s next passing attempt was a throw out of bounds after the play broke down. Smith rolled out to his right, but remained under pressure and couldn’t find an open receiver.

That would be the last of the action for Smith. Colin Kaepernick came in afterwards, going 4-for-8 for 19 yards. Josh Johnson followed, going 4-for-6 for 64 yards, and Scott Tolzien finished the night 4-for-9 for 23 yards.