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Breaking Down Titans vs. 49ers

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What to Expect from San Fran on Sunday

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Titans’ faithful. I’m excited to begin contributing to MCM as a writer. Times have been interesting around here, to say the least, with our team remaining an endless enigma. For the most part, you’re going to see me stay away from those topics which have been debated ad nauseam, at least until the season is over (we’ve said all that can be said). Instead, I’m going to try and provide in-depth reviews on individual players, uncover statistical trends, wax poetically (and unpoetically) from time to time, and as is the case here: preview upcoming opponents via film analysis.

Each week, I’ll go ahead and watch the five most recent games our opponent has played, in order to get a feel for their strengths/weaknesses, tendencies, and how well they’ve been playing leading up to their game against the Titans. I’ll break my findings down into four sections: When the Titans Run, When the Titans Pass, When the Opponents Run, and When the Opponents Pass. I’ll also list 4 players (2 offense, 2 defense) from each team that I believe could swing the final outcome based on their play.

Let’s get it in.

San Francisco 49ers

The Niners come into week 15 with a 3-10 overall record, though all of their wins have come in the last four weeks, meaning they’re as “hot” as a team with a .300 winning percentage can be. They’re guided by first-year HC Kyle Shanahan, who brought his West Coast-ish offense over from recent stops as OC in Atlanta and Washington (he was also OC for the Texans from 2008-2009, during the Matt Schaub/Gary Kubiak years). By far, the biggest storyline for Frisco this season has been their recent acquisition of former Patriots’ backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo (in exchange for a 2018 2nd-rounder), who has single-handedly sparked immense optimism for the future amongst their fan base.

When the Titans Run

On tape, the 49ers appear a tad undersized upfront. They seem to prefer athleticism and versatility along their defensive line, though they compensate to a degree with downhill thumpers at all three linebacker spots. In watching them face different styles of running backs and rushing schemes, I noticed them be most susceptible to quick, decisive handoffs. If the exchange between the QB and the HB happens immediately after the ball is snapped, and the HB has one directional read to make, it is possible to regularly take advantage of the Niners’ lack of size and somewhat inconsistent individual tackling. However, if the run calls get too cute, and require slightly delayed handoffs, pulling offensive lineman, etc., their front seven does a good job of getting off blocks and closing as a group.

I really don’t want to see Josh Kline moving laterally this week; the less pulling and movement from blockers the better. In regards to our backs, I’ve been mostly happy with DeMarco Murray’s decisiveness when hitting the hole these last two games, and I think he can be successful on inside runs this week if he keeps that up. Derrick Henry has driven me nuts all year with his lack of conviction when running inside, so I’d rather see him utilized on fast-moving stretches where he can get to the edge, pronto, and use his trademark stiff arm—the Giants’ Orleans Darkwa had a few good stretch runs against the Niners which reminded of DH. It will be interesting to see if Luke Stocker is active for the first time as a Titan. Jonnu Smith, as Mike has pointed out in some of his All-22 reviews, has been flaky at the point of attack too often. We need a “hat on a hat” mentality this week, and can’t afford the domino effect that comes from not sealing the edge.

When the Titans Pass

The 49ers come into this game down (due to injury) two of their more important contributors in the secondary, safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmy Ward. They also traded one of their initial starters this season, 2nd-year CB Rashard Robinson, to the Jets in late October. Outside of SS Eric Reid, they are relying on a group of unproven players, including two rookies, CB Ahkello Witherspoon and FS Adrian Colbert.

If there’s a team the Titans should be able to move the ball through the air on, it’s these Niners, and their weaknesses actually coincide with the Titans’ currently-limited strengths in the passing game. The Niners’ secondary and linebackers do a consistently good job of controlling action in front of them. Screens, dump-offs, flats, curls, etc. are well played, resulting in minimal gains for the offense. Likely due to inexperience, though, they are vulnerable to “manufactured” routes and deliberate manipulation. We troll Mike Mularkey’s offense for its “two-route” passing concepts all the time, but that’s actually what has worked best against San Fran this year. Routes up the seam and towards the intermediate outside frequently catch them out of position, especially when the rest of a passing concept is drawing their attention elsewhere.

If I were Mulbiskie, I’d use Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews, and Eric Decker in tandem to play a continual game of decoy vs. primary target. I’d then supplement that with Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Jonnu Smith as my secondary reads on the backsides of plays. Mariota’s job this week ought to be simple: Assess the first read. If it’s there, take it. If it’s not, turn quickly and hit the secondary read or get rid of the ball. The Niners’ pass rush only gets home reliably when the opposing passer is cycling through full-field reads or waiting on a slow-developing deep route. Keep those concepts off of this week’s play sheet, and we should see the passing game finally get into a rhythm.

When the 49ers Run

The 49er rushing attack is all about HB Carlos Hyde. Their offense actually ranks third-lowest in percentage of runs, at 37.3%, but defenses still seemingly get a healthy dose of the former Buckeye pounding the rock. Shanahan’s run calls are consistent and straightforward: inside zone, outside zone, and quick pitches. It also bears mentioning that FB Kyle Juszczyk is featured on 31.9% of offensive snaps, most amongst NFL lead blockers. While Hyde isn’t Superman, he possesses good speed and agility for his size and eats arm tackles for breakfast. We will need our inexperienced, now-starting interior defensive linemen to step up in a big way. No matter how they perform, though, the rest of the front seven will have to devote itself to gang-tackling.

Theoretically, that’s the idea: Shanahan wants defenses to get pulled in by “real” runs, so that he can punish them with leaks and dump-offs to Hyde and Juszczyk. While they’re technically passing completions, these attempts to get the ball to backs quickly and in space actually constitute the “rest” of the Niners’ run game. Wesley Woodyard and Jayon Brown, especially, will have their hands full trying to decipher what’s unfolding in front of them on each snap.

Rookie HB Matt Breida backs up Hyde, and rotates in for about a quarter of offensive snaps. I didn’t witness enough from him as a “creator” to feel overly concerned, but he is definitely the faster of SF’s two ballcarriers.

When the 49ers Pass

This went from an area of opportunity to an area of concern when Jimmy Garoppolo entered the starting lineup two weeks ago. When now-backup C.J. Beathard was running the show, there was always a slight sense of chaos as passing plays were unfolding. Now, the ball gets out quickly and, for the most part, accurately. As Jimmy (our Jimmy) and others have mentioned, if you’re not listening to Greg Cosell every Wednesday on The Midday 180, you’re simply missing out on some of the best Titans analysis available. This week, he noted Garoppolo’s efficient, compact release, and, to me, that’s by far the fourth-year pro’s best trait; he can operate in a phone-booth-sized passing pocket with ease. Off of the run game concepts discussed above, he’s given lots of play-action and boot-action opportunities, with the intent being for him to square and fire immediately.

The 49ers’ receiving options are perhaps our only saving grace in this matchup. WR Marquise Goodwin, a fifth-year pro and former USA Track & Field Olympian, is an exciting but inconsistent speedster. Rookie slot receiver Trent Taylor is an improving work-in-progress, and plays in the mold of a Danny Amendola, Sterling Shepard, etc. Outside of those two, the Niners deploy an arsenal of “possession” threats at TE, WR, and, as mentioned, HB and FB.

I’m hoping Dick LeBeau decides to back off the blitzing this week. I simply don’t think we are going to get to Garoppolo quickly enough to make it count. Instead, our linebackers and safeties should be tasked with taking away as many short routes as possible, and we should be able get away with Byard as a single-high safety in most situations (if there’s a weakness to Jimmy G’s game, it may be his deep accuracy, which could mean more chances at picks for KB31). Adoree Jackson is our best match up against Marquise Goodwin (Could we see his first true “assignment”?). Using AJax as Goodwin’s shadow would allow Logan Ryan to cover Taylor out of the slot, and give him chances to jump underneath stuff on lesser receivers when outside.

8 Players to Watch

Titans

TE Delanie Walker, WR Rishard Matthews, LB Jayon Brown, CB Logan Ryan

49ers

QB Jimmy Garoppolo, HB Carlos Hyde, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, SS Eric Reid