8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: 49ers -3, Over/Under: 44.5
Week Sixteen kicks off with the last Thursday Night affair of the season as the surging San Francisco 49ers hit the road to battle the fading Tennessee Titans tonight from Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. After getting off to a disappointing 3-5 start, the 49ers (8-6, 3rd in NFC West) have forced their way into the postseason race, winning five of their last six outings and as a result find themselves holding the second Wild Card in the NFC. So, what’s changed for San Francisco, you ask? Well, they’ve become arguably the most efficient team in the National Football League during this recent stretch, particularly in terms of turnover differential; through their first eight games they routinely shot themselves in the foot in committing FOURTEEN turnovers parlaying to a negative margin of minus-9, but during these last six contests have completely flipped the script with just five giveaways and TWELVE takeaways, equating to a positive plus-7 differential. (Veteran Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo (67.4%, 3,172 YDS, 7.57 NY/A, 18 TD, 8 INT, 54.3 QBR) has played some of the best football of his career of late, completing a stellar 70.1% of his passes for an average of 236.3 yards on a healthy 8.32 net yards per attempt with ten touchdowns and just three interceptions. Furthermore, his 7.57 net yards per attempt currently leads the NFL and his 107.6 passer rating since Week Eight is second only (reigning MVP) Aaron Rodgers. Indeed, the 30-year-old was firmly on the hot seat coming into this season (Head Coach) Kyle Shanahan and (General Manager) John Lynch traded up to select Trey Lance (52.1%, 354 YDS, 6.80 NY/A, 3 TD, 1 INT, 38.2 QBR) third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft but has managed to fend off the advances of the Rookie Quarterback (at least for this season). With that said, there are two major proponents to his success at this point, with his health being the first. Throughout his tenure with the Niners, Jimmy G has struggled to stay on the gridiron; Garoppolo has missed twenty-four games since being arriving midway through the 2017 campaign, including ten last season due to numerous lower leg injuries. The other factor has been the emergence of playmakers around him. By now we’re all acquainted with (All-Pro Tight End) George Kittle (63 REC, 850 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 6 TD), who recently selected to his third Pro-Bowl earlier this week, but (third-year Receiver) Deebo Samuel (61 REC, 1,088 YDS, 17.8 Y/R, 5 TD) has developed into a full-blown star not necessarily as a pass-catcher, but as a runner. With the 49ers’ Backfield decimated with a litany of injuries, Shanahan has utilized Samuel frequently as a Tailback to great success, for since Week Ten the 25-year-old has rushed for 247 yards on a blistering 7.48 yards per attempt with his six touchdowns during that span second only to (NFL rushing leader) Jonathan Taylor. Coupled with a career-high 1,088 yards and five catches on a league-high 17.8 yards per reception, Samuel has posted 1,357 yards from scrimmage thus far and twelve total touchdowns, which has earned hm his first Pro-Bowl nod. With (Rookie Tailback) Elijah Mitchell (165 CAR, 759 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 5 TD) set to miss his third consecutive game with an ailing knee, expect Samuel to continue getting the majority of the reps in the running game. It should come as no surprise that whomever Shanahan has lined up in the Backfield has had success, for there are few coaches in the NFL that are better at scheming the ground game than the 42-year-old, for going back to his days as an Offensive Coordinator for his father in Washington, Shanahan’s offense has ranked in the top-ten on five occasions, including this season where they sit at seventh (126.6 Y/G). Furthermore, San Francisco has churned out an average of 144.7 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per carry during this six-game run, including 162 yards in last weekend’s 31-13 drubbing of the Atlanta Falcons. After a slow first quarter, the 49ers got going with four consecutive touchdown drives, with three of them traveling at least seventy-five yards, the first ending with a six-yard run courtesy of (Pro-Bowl Fullback) Kyle Juszczyk (25 REC, 242 YDS, 9.7 Y/R, 1 TD) and the next with a ten-yard scamper from the aforementioned Samuel. In the end, the visitors amassed 397 total yards as Garoppolo calmly completed 18-of-23 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown, while Samuel rushed for twenty-nine yards and that score on six carries, with (veteran Tailback) Jeff Wilson (65 CAR, 249 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 1 TD) adding a season-high 110 yards and another touchdown on twenty-one attempts. With all that said, the Niners’ defense was the biggest takeaway from Sunday’s affair as they relegated the hosts to a paltry 275 total yards on just thirteen first downs, including a scant sixty-two rushing yards on twenty-three attempts. (Falcons’ Quarterback) Matt Ryan was pressured on thirteen occasions by nine different players leading to ten hits and three sacks, as Atlanta could muster a dismal combined 5-of-16 on third and fourth down. Though there was initially some skepticism as to how this unit would perform following the departure of (former Defensive Coordinator) Robert Salah, this unit has really found it’s groove under his successor, DeMeco Ryans, yielding 18.6 points on 300.0 total yards, including 77.8 against the run, and logging a whopping eighteen sacks and fourteen takeaways. After missing all but two games last season with a torn ACL, (Pro-Bowl Edge Rusher) Nick Bosa (43 TKL, 18 TFL, 29 QBH, 15.0 SK, 4 FF, 1 PD) has returned with a vengeance in 2021, accumulating forty-five pressures en route to career-highs in both sacks (15.0) and tackles for loss (18), with that latter number leading the league. Eight of those sacks have come in the last five games, which have also seen the emergence of his teammates along the Defensive Line, with Arden Key (19 TKL, 4 TFL, 9 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 PD), Samson Ebukam (30 TL, 3 TFL, 8 QBH, 2.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD), and Arik Armstead (45 TKL, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 3.0 SK) each getting in on the action. The 49ers are 2-2 on Thursday nights since Shanahan took over back in 2017 and will be facing the Titans for the first time since his inaugural campaign as their Head Coach, winning a tightly contested 25-23 affair that was dominated by the Kickers with a combined NINE field goals, including six from Robbie Gould, who kicked the 45-yard game-winner as time expired. It was also Garoppolo’s fourth start with the franchise after being acquired via trade from the New England Patriots, completing 31-of-43 passes for a season-high 381 yards and a touchdown. Two games behind the Los Angeles Rams for the fifth seed and one game ahead of a host of other teams meandering at 7-7, San Francisco will face the lowly Houston Texans next weekend before heading to the City of Angels for a crucial rematch with the Rams.
Meanwhile, as their opponent charges towards the postseason, the Titans (9-5, 1st in AFC South) are simply trying to maintain their tenuous hold on the division, which could have dire implications on their own playoff standing. Since racing out to a stellar 8-2 start in which they felled each of the participants in last January’s AFC Championship Game (the Bills and Chiefs) and swept the season series with the surging Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee has since dropped three of their last four outings and find themselves on the precipice of not only falling into a Wild Card but potentially out of the postseason picture altogether. How can this be, you ask? Well, (Head Coach) Mike Vrabel’s charges sit just one game ahead of those Colts, who have since won eight of eleven contests following an 0-3 start, and despite owning the tiebreaker could very well end up ceding the division with the combination of two losses and at least one Indianapolis victory. If that were to happen, then the Titans will be courting disaster for even at this advanced stage of the campaign there are remarkably NINE different teams within the AFC vying for the three Wild Cards. Simply put, they need to win at least TWO of these final three games to ensure their first repeat division title since they were in the AFL back in the early 1960s. So, what in the name of Warren Moon has happened in Nashville, you ask? Well, the obvious problem has been the absence of (two-time reigning Rushing Champion) Derrick Henry (219 CAR, 937 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 10 TD), who after steamrolling the opposition to the tune of 937 yards and ten touchdowns through the first eight games suffered a broken bone in his foot midway through a late October meeting with Indianapolis and has yet to see the field since. While there is hope that he may be able to return at some point in the playoffs, they will have to get there first, and their form has left a lot to be desired. Since Henry’s injury the Titans are a middling 3-3, and while they haven’t completely fallen off the proverbial rushing wagon without him (135.2 Y/G), they predictably haven’t been the same either; Tennessee has averaged just 18.3 points per game over the last six outings on 302.4 total yards, converting a miserable 38.5% of their third downs and committing an untenable THIRTEEN turnovers in the process. At the end of the day, this offense led by (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Ryan Tannehill (66.2%, 3,118 YDS, 5.74 NY/A, 14 TD, 14 INT, 51.4 QBR) is predicated on efficiently moving the football and taking shots downfield via play-action with everything really coming as a biproduct of Henry and the rushing attack. However, when you take Henry out of the equation and defenses can shift their focus to Tannehill this unit becomes something far less threatening, particularly when you consider that the Receiving Corps, which was supposed to be vastly improved following the addition of (All-Pro Wideout) Julio Jones (25 REC, 369 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 0 TD) has never quite materialized. By any metric, Jones has been a MASSIVE disappointment in 2021 in missing six games while battling a hamstring injury throughout the season, posting just twenty-five receptions for 369 yards and zero touchdowns thus far, with just one game with over sixty receiving yards. Fellow Pro-Bowler A.J. Brown (46 REC, 615 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 3 TD) has also been limited with an ailing knee, missing another four games to boot. Put it altogether and Tannehill hasn’t had anything close the supporting cast that Vrabel and (General Manager) Jon Robinson envisioned when they traded a 2022 second round pick for Jones last June, leading the league with FOURTEEN interceptions. Furthermore, injuries along the Offensive Line have led to forty-one sacks (up from twenty-four a year ago) and a steep decline in net yards per attempt from 7.22 in 2020 to a miserable 5.74 thus far. Twelve of those sacks have come in the last four games alone, including four in last weekend’s listless 19-13 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which the offense committed four turnovers, losing three of their five fumbles. Despite leading 13-3 at halftime, the visitors completely unraveled int he second half, punting on their first two drives post intermission before the final four ended with a fumble, an interception, a fumble, and a turnover on downs. Tannehill completed 23-of-32 passes for just 153 yards and a pair of turnovers, while the aforementioned Jones failed to register a single catch in the contest. (Tailback) D’Onta Foreman (77 CAR, 348 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 1 TD) was the lone bright spot in rushing for 108 yards on twenty-two carries, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the plethora of mistakes that Tennessee made. The dreadful performance from the offense spoiled another otherwise stellar showing from the defense which has really been their saving grace since Henry’s injury. The Titans held Pittsburgh to just 168 total yards on twelve first downs, including thirty-five rushing yards on seventeen attempts, and 2-of-11 on third down. (Steelers’ Quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger could muster just 148 yards on 16-of-25 passing, and was sacked on three occasions, with one coming courtesy of former teammate, Bud Dupree (9 TKL, 1 TFL, 7 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD). After ranking twenty-fourth (27.4) and twenty-eighth (398.2) in points allowed and total defense a year ago, Tennessee has grown by leaps and bounds on this side of the football in ranking sixteenth (22.1) and tenth (329.2) in those respective categories this season. A vastly improved pass-rush (35 sacks) has made them far more formidable on third down (37.4%) and within the red zone (51.9%), as (Defensive Linemen) Jeffery Simmons (49 TKL, 11 TFL, 14 QBH, 7.5 SK, 6 PD), Denico Autry (22 TKL, 8 TFL, 16 QBH, 7.0 SK, 5 PD), and Harold Landry (65 TKL, 13 TFL, 21 QBH, 11.0 SK, 1 FF) have combined for thirty-two tackles for loss, fifty-one Quarterback hits, and 25.5 sacks. Since Vrabel took over back in 2018 the Titans haven’t fared well on the short week, losing two out of three outings, including each of their last two with as 34-17 defeat at home to the Colts being the most recent example. Working against them tonight are injuries to a pair of starting Offensive Linemen, namely (Pro-Bowl Left Tackle) Taylor Lewan (back) and (Right Tackle) David Quessenberry (knee), though there is a chance that the aforementioned Brown could be activated off Injured Reserve, while (veteran Cornerback) Janoris Jenkins (46 TKL, 1 FF, 4 PD) will be back following a three-game absence due to a sprained ankle.