1. The 49ers seems to have found their stride in the last 3 weeks. What has been the difference?
There have been two noticeable differences. The first is the turnovers. The 49ers were struggling to force turnovers, and over the last three games, the defense has forced ten turnovers (including eight over the last two games). Jim Harbaugh described forcing turnovers as an olive jar. It is hard getting that first one out, but then once it comes out, they come out in chunks. Don't ask.
The second difference is the renewed emphasis on the run game. The first two weeks the ground game was struggling, and Week 3 saw the team running in the first half, and then abandon the run in the second half. The last three weeks, while the passing game has made big plays, it has really been about the run game and the physical offensive line in particular establishing themselves with authority.
Turnovers and a strong run game seems like a very basic formula, but that has really been the key.
2. Colin Kaepernick got a lot of praise in the offseason. His numbers haven't been as good this season as they were last. How would you asses his play so far this season?
Inconsistent is probably the best word to use. He has made some huge plays. We saw him destroy the Green Bay Packers secondary through the air. Since then, he has made some big plays, particularly to Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin (well, almost exclusively, really). The big change is that we are not seeing him quite as willing to scramble with the ball. The team has cut back on designed runs, but even when he has a chance to tuck and run, Kap seems hesitant for some reason. One theory is that the coaching staff is trying to keep him from running too often. Another is that he is simply getting too many details, and it leads to overthinking. It's hard to tell. He still can make incredible throws, and show great athleticism, but it's just lacking consistency.
3. The 49ers defense ranks just 20th against the run this season. How have teams been able to move the ball on the ground against them?
Injuries really frame this question almost exclusively around last week's game against the Arizona Cardinals. In that game, Arizona rushed 21 times for 109 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. The key for them was nose tackle Glenn Dorsey departing the game in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. Dorsey is likely going to be listed as questionable for Sunday's game, and odds seem fairly long that he plays. Dorsey replaced Ian Williams as the starting nose tackle when Williams broke his ankle in Week 2. Now, it looks like third string nose tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie is likely to get the start. I anticipate the Titans running hard and heavy at the middle of the 49ers defensive front. They would be foolish not to.
The 49ers are also missing outside linebacker Aldon Smith, with Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta replacing him. Both have been very solid in the pass rush, but they still have some question marks surrounding their play in the run game. If the Titans do cut toward the outside on runs, I imagine they will make their way toward either of them.
4. Where is the biggest weakness on the 49ers defense that the Titans could be able to take advantage of?
Answer: The Titans best option on offense is going to be attacking the 49ers defensive line, or at least two-thirds of it. Justin Smith remains a stalwart at defensive end. However, the other defensive end, Ray McDonald, is dealing with a partially torn biceps tendon. He is playing through it, but he played fewer snaps than normal last week, and I suspect that will continue to be the case. The Titans will need to go middle and right against the weakened front. They still have to deal with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman behind them, but if that's happening two, three or four yards down the field, that's a step in the right direction.
The 49ers secondary has its weaknesses, but they are a group built on confidence. They can struggle, but when they start getting turnovers and pass break-ups, the group becomes as confident as any group out there. Fitzpatrick will need to attack them and see how they are performing. There can be some inconsistencies at times, with the occasional blown coverage.
5. Write the headline in Sunday's Tennessean.
Fitzpatrick, Titans overwhelmed by Eric Reid & Co. (and that is why I don't write newspaper headlines!)
Although I think both teams need to focus on their run games in this game, I think the 49ers recent run of forcing turnovers continues. Assuming Fitzpatrick is the one playing, at some point he will have to make some plays through the air. When that moment comes, I see the 49ers defense pouncing.