SANTA CLARA It was one of the biggest questions of the offseason: Would defenses be able to counter the wave of young, athletic quarterbacks like the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick who used the read option so effectively against them in 2012?
In Kaepernick's case, the answer through four games has been yes.
Last year the 49ers called 49 read-option plays during the regular season and averaged 4.5 yards a carry, according to statistics from Pro Football Focus. That included plays in which Kaepernick kept the ball and handed off to a running back.
It was even more potent in the playoffs. When Kaepernick sliced through the Packers for 181 yards on the ground in the divisional round, more than half came on read-option runs.
So far this year, however, the 49ers are averaging just 1.1 yards per read-option play, and 13 teams have been more productive. That includes the Raiders, who have a new quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, capable of running out of the read option, and the Chiefs, who hired former Nevada coach and pistol formation inventor Chris Ault in the offseason to help them diversify their offense.
One reason for the discrepancy may be that the 49ers are more reluctant to put Kaepernick in harm's way this season compared to last year, when he had a trusted backup, Alex Smith. The team is averaging only four read-option plays a game.
Another is that defensive coordinators spent the offseason preparing for read-option packages. It's simply no longer a surprise.
A case in point is today's opponent.
The Texans have one of the least mobile starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but they installed the read option into their offense during the spring and summer.
It wasn't because they wanted to give Matt Schaub an opportunity to carry the ball, coach Gary Kubiak explained. It's because the Texans looked at their schedule and saw two opponents with read-option capabilities, Seattle and San Francisco, looming back to back and wanted to give their defense as much practice against it as possible.
"I just think it's something that's going on right now and something you have to work on," Kubiak said.
Center Jonathan Goodwin said the 49ers have noticed a difference in how opponents defend Kaepernick. Some, like the Packers, have spread their outside linebackers wide in order to take away any outside runs. Others have called blitzes to the side where they suspect the 49ers will run the ball.
"When you see the success it had last year, you don't want to be the coach that gets burnt by it again," Goodwin said.
Tony Dungy, an NBC analyst and former coach of the Colts, said he expects the Texans' defense to approach the 49ers in a similar manner by spreading their linebackers and defensive ends wide at the line of scrimmage.
"I think people are very concerned with Kaepernick running the ball," Dungy said. "They don't want to let him get out on the edge."
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said that when defenses overload certain areas, they create soft spots elsewhere. The trick, he said, is to take advantage of those weaker areas.
In Week 1, the Packers crowded the line of scrimmage to take away San Francisco's running game, allowing Kaepernick easy targets downfield. He threw for a career-best 412 yards. Against the Rams, the outside lanes were clogged, but Frank Gore was able to run inside for 153 yards.
"I definitely think from time to time we're seeing people that are game planning in order to box you in," Roman said. "I think people have definitely tried to change what they've done and robbed Peter to pay Paul, so to speak."
That's what makes tonight's game interesting, Dungy said.
The Texans have excellent players on the interior of their defense, namely lineman J.J. Watt and inside linebacker Brian Cushing. Dungy said they might feel secure enough to skew some of their other defenders to the outside.
"Now, you don't want Frank Gore gaining 150 yards on you, either," Dungy said. " But defenses are guarding against the big play. They don't want Kaepernick to get to the outside."
Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.