As with the Chiefs and the Seahawks the past two weeks, the Titans look at the 49ers and see a team they want to become.
While Tennessee has pledged to be run-centric and earn the tough yard, San Francisco’s been doing it.
Sunday at LP Field in Nashville, the 49ers will be looking for a fourth consecutive win, while the Titans will be trying to avoid a third consecutive loss.
The Titans are probably getting the 49ers at a bad time -- those bad showings at Seattle and against Indianapolis are an old memory already, as the Niners have scored an average of 34 points over the past three weeks.
Let’s check out some of what’s been going on.
Bill, we know the Niners struggled at Seattle and against Indianapolis. What's keyed their bounce back?
Bill Williamson: Paul, this was a team in crisis. The Niners lost to the Seahawks and the Colts by a combined score of 56-10. Star pass-rusher Aldon Smith went into an alcohol treatment center a day after the loss to the Colts. But on a short week, the 49ers went to St. Louis and saved their season. They focused on being the 49ers -- they went back to a power running game on offense and they rededicated to stopping the run on defense. The approach has worked beautifully. The 49ers have won three straight games and have outscored their opponents 101-34. Paul, does Tennessee have the means to stop the 49ers’ run and to run on the 49ers?
Paul Kuharsky: The Titans' defense is for real. They’ve made good game-to-game adjustments and have been really solid on third down. The new blood has taken a team that gave up a ton of points in 2012 and really settled things down. That starts with strong safety Bernard Pollard, but also includes Ropati Pitoitua, a run-stopping end who leads the team in sacks. Defensive assistant Gregg Williams’ fingerprints are all over disguised fronts, more frequent blitzes and regular man-to-man coverage. The biggest thing for slowing 49ers running back Frank Gore is getting a crowd to him and tackling well, and the Titans have been pretty good at both. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick running could be a bigger concern, as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson really hurt the Titans more than RB Marshawn Lynch did last week.
The Titans want to be a physical team that can run and stop the run. Kansas City and Seattle just showed them how it's done. How much does San Francisco fit that mold?
Williamson: Yes, as I mentioned above, that is the 49ers' mantra. In a passing league, the 49ers do their work on the ground -- by running on offense and by stopping the run on defense. The focus on the run breeds success in the passing game on offense and it allows the 49ers to tee off against the pass on defense. The 49ers miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, but Kaepernick gets it done in the passing game with tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Anquan Boldin. Davis had 180 yards receiving in Week 6. It was tied for the third-best receiving game by a tight end in the NFL in 20 years. In Week 1, Boldin had 13 catches and 208 receiving yards. Defensively, the 49ers have taken advantage of their success against the run by forcing 10 turnovers in the past three games against frustrated offenses.
Paul, do you think the Titans are capable of stopping that turnover trend?
Kuharsky: It would take a major shift. With Locker in charge through the bulk of four games, the Titans didn’t turn the ball over at all. In the past two games, they’ve given it away five times. And to go with his four interceptions, Fitzpatrick has put the ball on the ground three times but has gotten away with it. To play his best, Fitzpatrick probably needs to take some risks. But it’s got to be smart risk. If he overthrows guys or throws too far inside on a ball that has to be outside, as he did in Seattle, the Titans will have problems. The Niners are on a good takeaway streak and the Titans are on a bad giveaway streak. If that doesn’t change, the Titans will have no chance. And I see no reason from the Titans' side to think they can fix it against a tough opponent.
Bill, we see a lot of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh's news conference personality. What's his game-coaching personality? How do you rate him as a strategist and game manager?
Williamson: Yes, Paul, Harbaugh certainly has carved a persona for himself. But his success as a head coach cannot be denied. He built up programs at the college levels at the University of San Diego and at Stanford and then has made the 49ers an elite program again in less than three years as an NFL coach. The 49ers became an instant legitimate program when Harbaugh took over. He and his coaches are known as teachers and his game-day approach is aggressive on both sides of the ball. This team always seems prepared. It is a huge positive sign that Harbaugh’s team has responded with three straight wins after it lost back-to-back games under Harbaugh for the first time. Paul, how do you see the coaching matchup unfolding Sunday?
Kuharsky: Mike Munchak hasn’t proved that he’s an NFL coach with staying power yet. I give the check mark to the opponent in coaching any time it’s an established head coach and staff going against the Titans. Williams has helped transform the defense as a senior assistant. But the offense is still very much a work in progress. It’s a team that rebuilt that interior offensive line and said that would be the key to fixing things. And Chris Johnson is averaging 3.1 yards a carry and the Titans are making a change to Brian Schwenke at center for this game.