The San Francisco 49ers return home this week, riding high on a 2 game winning streak. They’ll square off in their Week 15 match-up against the 8-5 Tennessee Titans. The Niners will look for continued overall improvement, will try to build additional confidence, and hope to play spoiler to an aspiring playoff team.
All is not as well as it might seem with the Titans. Despite their record, they have not played particularly well lately. Their record is owed, in part, to having beaten a handful of bottom-to-mid tier teams. They lack optimal balance on offense, and Marcus Mariota is turning the ball over at a troubling rate. Four out of the Titans’ five losses this year have also come on the road.
The 49ers will look to exploit some significant weaknesses in this contest, and if they stick to the following keys to victory, they will get their 3rd win in a row on Sunday:
Beat the blitz
This is one of the biggest keys to victory for the 49ers. The Titans wreaked havoc on the Cardinals’ offensive line last week, sacking quarterback Blaine Gabbert 8 times. The team has 37 sacks this year, which is good for 5th best in the league. The 49ers, meanwhile, have allowed 39 sacks (24th in the NFL) and 107 quarterback hits (last in the NFL)
One of the primary reasons for the Titans’ success in getting to the the quarterback is frequent blitzing, as they bring pressure on 36% of their defensive snaps. Twenty of their sacks this year have come as a result of the blitz. The 49ers have a quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo who does well against the blitz, and in his two starts this season, he has been sacked 4 times. Contrast this with teammate C.J Beathard, who took 19 sacks during action in 6 games this year. This stark difference is not all on the offensive line. Garoppolo is both a quick processor of information and a quick decision maker. He stands in the pocket well and has a quick release. The 49ers should install a healthy package of blitz beaters this week’s in this game plan. They’ll find success if they identify weaknesses exposed by the Titans’ blitzes and exploit those weaknesses quickly.
Get better in the Redzone
The Niners must start converting drives to touchdowns in the redzone. The team has been marching up and down the field with relative ease the last two weeks, but have consistently found a way to stall out inside the 20 yard line. The Titans are fighting to secure a playoff spot this weekend, and something tells me that 4 or 5 field goals won’t get it done.
Expose the Titans on 3rd down:
Trent Taylor leads all rookies in 3rd down catches (22 receptions). He makes his living in the slot, and the Titans make their living blitzing to get to the quarterback. There should be plenty of opportunity to take advantage in the middle of the field if the Titans bring the heat on third down. Celek Time, anyone?
Clean up the penalties
Seriously. At this point it’s pretty ridiculous. The 49ers have won the last two games despite the continuation of an apparent affection for moving backwards more than half a football field each game. These penalties often seem to come in critical situations like the beginning of drives, or in the redzone. This is professional football. They need to minimize penalties, especially simple concentration errors such as false starts.
Get them one dimensional, and get interceptions!
Throwing interceptions is one of Marcus Mariota’s favorite pastimes this year. He ranks second in the league with 14 balls served up to the opposing defense (against only 10 touchdowns), ranking behind only DeShone Keizer. Part of the reason for Mariota’s struggles is a lack of consistent support in the run game. Though Derrick Henry’s stats look decent on paper, (649 yards and 4.9 yards/carry), the Titans have only fielded a 100 yard rusher 3 times this year. In each of those games, it took a long run of 50+ yards by a Titans’ runner in order to accomplish that feat.
Though from a season perspective the 49ers are mediocre against the rush in total yards allowed (25th in the NFL), they do well from a yards allowed per carry perspective (3.9 yards). Additionally, the last two weeks they have been very good against the run, bottling up both the Bears’ Jordan Howard and the Texans’ Lamar Miller, respectively.
If the 49ers can continue this upward trend and limit the Titans on the ground, it will force the Titans into the same style of play that has led to so many interceptions thus far.
Don’t let the Titans receivers run wild
Although the 49ers faced (and mostly failed against) an insanely tough challenge last week against the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins, I feel like the Titans’ pass catchers are even more dangerous to the 49ers’ prospects. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon is banged-up, and the 49ers are playing cornerback musical chairs opposite Witherspoon, depending on how badly Dontae Johnson is getting torched on any particular drive.
The Titans have enough talent here that it will spread the 49ers’ weak secondary thin. They have 3 receivers with 50+ catches and 400+ yards, and rookie Corey Davis sits just behind them with 49 grabs. Of course a focus for 49ers fans will be on the return of former 49er Delanie Walker, affectionately known during his time in San Francisco as the “Swiss Army Knife.” He is a devastating weapon, a wide receiver/tight end combo who is fast and a great blocker. He leads all Titans’ players in receptions and receiving yards. Though San Francisco ranks near the top of the NFL in yards allowed to opposing tight ends (441), they have allowed 6 TDs to tight ends, which ranks them in the bottom third of the league.
Eric Decker is exactly the type of receiver to cause the 49ers fits – tall, fast, and technically sound with great hands. Rishard Matthews is no slouch, having hauled in 73 catches for 645 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, the Titans’ myriad receiving threats can still be mitigated if the 49ers stick to my aforementioned keys to victory.
If the 49ers can jump out to a quick lead, control the clock and limit the Titans’ ground attack, it will be a long afternoon in Santa Clara for the boys from Nashville. If they fail to do so, this could be a get-right game for the Titans, and get them one step closer to punching that coveted ticket to the post-season.
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- Ahkello Witherspoon vs Jason Verrett at right cornerback
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