3TFO: 49ers @ Titans, Week 7
Two stout defenses collide in Nashville in a game between the 49ers and the Titans. Jeff Deeney breaks it all down.
3TFO: 49ers @ Titans, Week 7
The 49ers are coming off a 32-20 home victory over the Arizona Cardinals, while the Titans fought gamely for three quarters at CenturyLink Field before falling to the Seattle Seahawks 20-13.
With the 0-6 Jacksonville Jaguars looming next week at Wembley Stadium, the 49ers know a win in Tennessee could likely springboard them to a 6-2 finish to the first half. The Titans are looking for a victory to get back above .500 and keep pace with the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South.
With each team facing injury questions heading into Sunday, here are three things to focus on for this interconference matchup.
49ers Wide Receivers vs. Titans Cornerbacks
On paper, this looks like a mismatch in favor of the Titans, who boast two of the top four cornerbacks in our rankings, with Alterraun Verner (+11.7, first) and Jason McCourty (+8.3, fourth). Verner has had an outstanding start to his 2013 campaign. His 15.4 QB rating when targeted is best among all cornerbacks, he’s allowed a miserly 34.4% catch rate (11 reception in 32 targets), and currently is tied for the league lead with eight passes defensed. The duo of Verner and McCourty have allowed only one touchdown pass in coverage so far this season.
The 49ers counter with a wide receiving corps that includes Anquan Boldin and…well…Anquan Boldin. While Boldin has averaged an impressive 2.30 Yards Per Route Run this season, as well as a 102.9 QB rating when targeted, the rest of the 49ers’ wide receivers have averaged a pedestrian 0.55 Yards Per Route Run and just a 32.7 QB rating when targeted. Kyle Williams has seen most of the time alongside Boldin as the No. 2 wide receiver, and he has a catch rate of 47.6% coming in, and only a 22.2 QB rating when he is the intended receiver. Suffice it to say the 49ers are counting the days until Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree can return to the lineup. Manningham is eligible to come off of the PUP list and has started practicing this week, but is not yet ready for game action.
With the exception of the Week 2 game against Houston where Jason McCourty shadowed Andre Johnson, McCourty has essentially stayed on the left side and Verner on the right, so both of them will likely get a chance to matchup against Boldin. Each may also get a small dose of Vernon Davis, as Davis has run 12.9% of his pass routes this season while lined up outside.
Titans Running Game
Tennessee’s rushing attack has been a disappointment so far this season, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Chris Johnson is averaging only 3.1 yards per carry, and his 1.4 yards per carry after contact currently ranks second-to-last among halfbacks, ahead of only Bryce Brown (1.2). Johnson has forced only five missed tackles in 106 carries this year, and currently ranks 47th among 51 running backs in our Elusive Rating. The offensive line hasn’t opened up a lot of holes either for Johnson, especially on the right half of the line. Johnson’s average falls to 2.0 yards per carry on runs to the right of center, and Jackie Battle’s 3.6 yard average plummets to only 1.6 yards per rush to the right. Right tackle David Stewart’s -4.9 run blocking grade currently ranks 64th among 74 tackles, and only one other center in the league has a worse grade run blocking than center Robert Turner (-6.6).
Turner will be replaced in the lineup this week by rookie Brian Schwenke who will be making his regular-season debut. While Schwenke should be an upgrade protecting the passer, his -5.8 run blocking grade in the presesason was the lowest among all centers, so its dubious at best that he fares significantly better than Turner in the run game.
While the 49ers have consistently been one of the best run-stopping defenses in football, they head into Sunday with a beat-up defensive line. Ray McDonald is trying to play through a torn bicep tendon, and his first full game last week after the injury he struggled to an -0.7 overall grade with no stops and only one pressure. Glenn Dorsey is likely out for Sunday after suffering a hamstring injury last week versus Arizona. Inserted as the starting nose tackle after Ian Williams was the lost for the season in Week 2, Dorsey has earned a +9.0 overall grade, and is currently sixth among defensive tackles with a 10.3 Run Stop Percentage.
Dorsey’s absence would leave the 49ers without a pure nose tackle on the active roster. It’s possible either rookie Quinton Dial, who is currently on the non-football injury list, or practice squad member Mike Purcell is activated for Sunday’s game.
Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jake Locker vs. 49ers Defense
One of the primary reasons for the Titans’ 3-1 start was quarterback Jake Locker. Locker tossed six touchdowns without an interception on his way to a 99.0 passer rating and (+7.6) grade before getting injured in Week 4. Ryan Fitzpatrick came in for Locker and finished their blowout of the New York Jets, but the Titans have lost both of his starts since. Fitzpatrick’s passer rating is just 61.2, he’s thrown four interceptions in 78 attempts, and his 52.6% completion rate is nearly 10 points below Locker’s 62.2%. It looked like Fitzpatrick was going to get a third straight start, but Jake Locker has suddenly appeared on the practice field on a limited basis both Wednesday and Thursday, and hasn’t been officially ruled out yet for Sunday. Locker, when healthy, is obviously the better option for Tennessee, but his mobility is what makes him effective, and if he tries to go when he is not close to 100% it may end up causing the Titans more harm than good.
Despite not having Aldon Smith the past three games, the 49ers’ pass rush hasn’t missed a beat. Rookie Corey Lemonier has stepped in at outside linebacker on passing downs and has racked up 11 QB pressures in just 78 pass rushes, including a sack for a safety last week against Arizona. Justin Smith has kept up his game, and is currently ranked fourth among 3-4 defensive ends in our Pass Rush Productivity rating.
Another weapon in the pass rush to watch is Navorro Bowman who currently leads our Pass Rush Productivity rating for inside linebackers. Bowman has amassed 13 pressures in just 33 pass rushes this season, getting pressure on the quarterback on an impressive 39.4% of his blitzes.
The pass rush has made life easier on the secondary, where all five members of the nickel package (Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Tramaine Brock, Eric Reid, and Donte Whitner) have overall grades of +3.4 or higher.
The biggest surprise in the secondary may be safety Donte Whitner whose coverage numbers have improved dramatically compared to last season. Whitner allowed eight touchdowns in coverage in the 2012 regular season (and four more in the postseason) and a 128.5 QB rating when targeted. He has yet to allow a touchdown in all of 2013 and is only allowing a 44.5 rating when targeted.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @PFF_Jeff