ReFo: 49ers @ Titans, Week 7
As Ben Stockwell writes, the 49ers used this game against the Titans to continue a steady climb toward their best football.
ReFo: 49ers @ Titans, Week 7
As with their victory over Arizona last Sunday, this was another win that saw the San Francisco 49ers building back toward top form, but still falling short of their brutally sublime best. As the 49ers launch on their transatlantic voyage to face the Jaguars at Wembley Stadium this Sunday, they do so on the strength of a four-game winning streak, gradually rebuilding and rediscovering their identity after those two devastating defeats earlier in the season.
On offense, the ground game continued to show fits and starts of life with some effective power running, as well as Colin Kaepernick showing his ability on both designed and improvised running plays. The defense was a story more of solidity than their stifling best as well, with their performance not quite tallying with the points total surrendered up until Chris Johnson’s moment of brilliance that brought the game back to life in the fourth quarter.
On the opposite side, the Titans played some solid football but nothing more than that, and the biggest positive to draw from this game is that Jake Locker showed signs of the form he displayed earlier in the season prior to his injury, though he fell away from that later in the game and struggled to finish drives until the Titans were chasing the scoreboard.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Kaepernick Bounces Back
The 49ers’ opening drive of the second quarter proved very well the old adage that it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s that you pick yourself up after the fall. A drive that was capped with an untouched 20-yard touchdown run by Kaepernick could so easily have ended with a turnover on two occasions. On the opening play of the drive Kaepernick failed to read Jason McCourty dropping to double-cover a corner route by Vernon Davis, a pass which McCourty almost intercepted to halt Kaepernick’s scoring drive before it even got underway — only denied by a hit from Michael Griffin (also too close for comfort) that cannoned Davis into McCourty as he tried to claim the ball. Then, inside Titans’ territory, came an actual turnover as Kaepernick overthrew an out-and-up by Davis and was intercepted up the left sideline by Bernard Pollard –however, overturned by low hit on Kaepernick by Akeem Ayers.
Was Kaepernick flustered by these two errors? No, after two short gains on the first and second downs that followed he weaved his way off on a read option around left end and up through the left side of the Titans’ defense for a 20-yard score, sprung to the end zone by a block from his own tailback, Frank Gore, to establish a 10-point lead, a double-digit margin the 49ers would never surrender. As with the rest of the 49ers team, this was more a performance of glimpses than a complete game from Kaepernick. There was some tremendous passing, some devastating running, some errant passes, and a few fortunate not to be punished with more than incompletions. When are these signs the 49ers are showing going to be built into that complete performance we know they are capable of?
Lemonier Continues to Ratchet Up the Pressure
When you lose a pass rusher like Aldon Smith you need to find the pressure from various places to replace that individual contribution, and Corey Lemonier (+1.8 pass rush) again played his part in filling that sizable void. With the game situation again playing favorably to his snap distribution (43 snaps, 36 as a pass rusher), Lemonier was able to pin his ears back and notch a season high six pressures (all hurries), predominantly against David Stewart at right tackle, but also working inside a couple of times against his former SEC rival Chance Warmack at right guard. The volume of pressure is an encouraging sign for Lemonier and the 49ers as he continues to be productive. The next stage in his development (with the 49ers likely to keep him as a devoted pass rusher for the foreseeable future), and in replacing Smith’s productivity, is finishing those pressures and closing more frequently to the quarterback than he has — only one sack (admittedly a quick one that drew a safety against the Cardinals last Sunday) and two hits in those 17 pressures, a conversion rate of just 17.6%.
Back and Forth Battle for Iupati
As is customary, the 49ers used pulling linemen a lot in this game and Mike Iupati found himself on the move a great deal as a result. Used both pulling from play side and back side, Iupati found himself up against a variety of defensive linemen and linebackers, and got the better of the likes of Akeem Ayers, Ropati Pitoitua and Lavar Edwards early in the game — the more interesting battle came later when the 49ers were trying to run the game out in the fourth quarter. Though far from their best, the 49ers showed last week an ability to grind the game out with a punishing and lengthy fourth quarter drive, but not so this week. The 49ers like to go with power late in the game, pulling Iupati in particular around rushes off the right side to bring some added muscle to clear defenders for Frank Gore to close the game out. The Titans countered the 49ers’ one-wide formations with a five-man defensive line featuring Karl Klug at defensive left end (his first snaps there this season) who was able to stone Iupati on a couple of his pull blocks to disrupt San Francisco’s attempts to grind out the fourth quarter. For the most part Iupati had a strong game on the move (+2.2 run block), but Klug and the Titans came up with something to counter late on.
Tennessee – Three Performances of Note
Mixed Comeback for Locker
Facing off with the San Francisco 49ers, even when their defense is not playing to its potential, isn’t the easiest way to come back from a two-week injury layoff, but Locker showed enough to offer encouragement that the momentum built in the first month has not been completely lost by that layoff. Locker was crisp early, particularly on an out route to former 49er Delanie Walker with around 4 minutes remaining for a 21-yard gain. However, once he underthrew Nate Washington deep down the right side for an interception in the second quarter things got a little more inconsistent. From there he had miscues as a passer (with more overthrows than underthrows) as well as misplacing a pitch to Chris Johnson that blew off the timing of a third-down run play in the third quarter resulting in a stop. Sprinkled in were positives, like the scoring strike to Walker late in the fourth quarter, but that consistency he showed prior to the interception was never repeated. Now that he’s had this game to knock the rust off let’s see if he can recover his form in St Louis after the Titans’ bye week.
A New Year, a New Jurrell Casey
This time last year, Jurrell Casey was one of the best space-eating, block-shedding defensive tackles in the league as a run defender. A year later, with a redeployment to play the 3-technique in the Titans’ defense, Casey is showcasing his all-around ability as a defensive tackle by turning in a stellar season as a penetrating pass rusher. This was the first time this season that penetration has shown itself, as, though there was some disappointing run defense (-2.1), he more than made up for that as a pass rusher (+3.3, 1 Sk, 3 Hu). At the start of the fourth quarter, Casey shed blocks by Anthony Davis on consecutive snaps, but finished the plays in different style. On the first he side-stepped an ineffective attempt at a cut by Davis to grab Frank Gore at the line of scrimmage, but was dragged en route to a 6-yard gain. On the following play he again side-stepped Davis quickly to get immediately into the face of Kaepernick as he turned out of a play-action fake. Kaepernick attempted to escape into the left flat but Casey wasn’t to be denied two plays in a row, chasing him and dragging him down with the aid of his jersey for a sack. Casey has now recorded at least three pressures in five of his past eight games stretching back to Week 17 last season.
A glimpse of Chris Johnson’s Electrifying Speed
We don’t get to see it very often, with teams so desperate to starve him of space, that when we get to see Johnson really turn on the jets it is that much more special. After Kendall Wright had picked up 20 yards on a screen to start the Titans’ first touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter, Johnson capped it off by finding space (making use of some excellent open field blocking by his linemen, with Andy Levitre picking up two defenders in quick succession) and staying in space to work upfield before turning on the jets to prevent Carlos Rogers closing off a gap as Damian Williams kept it open on the other side. Putting in a solid outing on limited carries as a runner, the only blot on Johnson’s performance was a block in the back penalty as he attempted to spring Wright up the sideline on the Titans’ next touchdown drive.
– Rookie defensive lineman Quinton Dial registered his first seven snaps of the season, all as an interior pass rusher for the 49ers.
– Shonn Greene registered his first offensive snaps (two of them) since the Titans’ Week 1 victory in Pittsburgh.
– In a busy day, Akeem Ayers (+3.9 run defense) led both defenses with six stops, a career high.
PFF Game Ball
Unmentioned, until now, Frank Gore put in a lot of hard work, and good work at that, in multiple phases of the game, and his +2.3 grade tells the story of a complete performance that his yards per carry average never could.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.