What is generally regarded as the most important preseason game is just 'round the corner. With the NFL Lockout and abbreviated offseason, games one and two held more significance than they generally do - but game three will still be the primary evaluation period for presumed starters on both sides of the ball. Teams usually try and carry their starters into the third period of play, occasionally mixing in some backups when they need to see how they perform against other team's starters.
In short, game three is where you want to shine.
The 49ers have a lot of position battles ongoing, while they have some starters who simply don't need that many snaps. Jim Harbaugh has said that he wants to play some of the second string against the Texans first string when the team's meet at Candlestick Park on Saturday, while Gary Kubiak has echoed the sentiments in Houston. That probably means we'll see a lot of Alex Smith and the number one receivers, but he'll give way to Colin Kaepernick early on - only to come back out to take on the starters again after a series or two of the second-round draft choice.
What this means is that the second quarter will be a mess of "starters" who aren't actually starters, and it's still up in the air how much someone like Frank Gore will actually play, with the backup running back battle waging on behind him, Greg Roman and Harbaugh would like to see Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon take the lion's share of the snaps against the starters. Both backs figure to get touches this season, but game three might just determine who the immediate backup to Gore is.
On defense, expect rookie Aldon Smith to get some work in against Houston's starting offense, but for the most part, the front seven will be largely the same through three quarters. The cornerback battle continues in the secondary, and Carlos Rogers is expected to start alongside Tarell Brown, but the depth chart in that regard is hardly set at this point. Next to the backup job at running back, the second cornerback spot remains the most interesting and hard to gauge.
For Houston, they're installing a new defense under Wade Phillips, adjusting to his 3-4 alignment, and looking to get free agent signee Johnathan Joseph on the field for the first time this preseason. Joseph was one of the bigger free agents on the market, and missed the first two preseason games with a groin injury. Joseph will look to solidify a somewhat underachieving pass defense and give the Texans some time to focus on another aspect: stopping the run.
They weren't able to contain either the Jets or the Saints, and you can bet they'll get a heavy dose of Gore, Hunter and Dixon, plus a good bit of Moran Norris and Bruce Miller battling for the fullback job. San Francisco will be running the ball a lot more than they'll be passing, because at this point in their power running offensive attack, establishing the running back hierarchy is the most important thing. On the other side of that, the Texans need to show that they can deal with a strong rushing attack, and aside from the assimilation of Joseph into the defense, that will be the most important thing for Phillips and the new defense.
There's position battles going on everywhere for both teams, and there will be more on that in the story stream. The game is set for 5:00 p.m. on Saturday.