NASHVILLE – The Titans face the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night at Nissan Stadium.
Here's a look at six things to watch in the contest…
Will A.J. Provide a Boost?
The Titans need playmakers on offense, and more points. After averaging 31 ppg during the team's six-game winning streak, the Titans have averaged just 15 points per game while losing three of their last four games. Enter receiver A.J. Brown. Brown, who has missed the past three games with a chest injury, returned to practice this week and he was activated from Injured Reserve on Thursday in time for tonight's game vs the 49ers. Brown could bring an extra dimension to the offense, but he could also open things up for others. Julio Jones is expected to play as well after being a full participant in Wednesday's jog-through session. Against a tough 49ers defense, the Titans need a boost.
If Brown and others are going to have success, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is going to need time to get them the football. Too many times this season, Tannehill has been under duress, and that's led to sacks, and turnovers. Making things tougher on Thursday night: left guard Rodger Saffold (COVID-19), left tackle Taylor Lewan (back) and back-up tackle Kendall Lamm (COVID-19) have been ruled out. Others will have to step in and step up. Tannehill was sacked four times against the Steelers, and he's now been sacked 41 times this season. The Titans must protect him better, and that's easier said than done going against a 49ers team with Nick Bosa, who currently ranks tied for second in the NFL with a career-high 15 sacks, while leading the NFL with 18 tackles for a loss. As a team, the 49ers have 36 sacks.
OK, enough is enough. The Titans turned the ball over four times in Sunday's loss to the Steelers, and they've turned it over 13 times combined in their three most recent losses. It's why the team's takeaway/giveaway margin went from being plus-2 before the Houston game to minus-7 (18 takeaways vs 25 giveaways) today. This week, Titans defenders have talked about the importance of creating turnovers, so it's a big point of emphasis this week. The 49ers, by the way, are a minus-2 in the takeaway/giveaway category (17 takeaways vs 19 giveaways). Sure, it's the holidays, but the Titans don't need to keep giving away the football.
The Titans didn't roll over and die in the running game when Derrick Henry went down with an injured foot. In fact, they've had some impressive success in the running game, especially in recent weeks. The Titans have gained over 200 rushing yards in two of their last three games, and D'Onta Foreman has over 100 yards in two of the contests (vs New England and Pittsburgh). The Titans need to be able to run it in this one for two reasons: For starters, it would keep them out of third-and-long situations, which would keep Bosa and Co. from being able to pin their ears back and go. Success in the run game would also help with play-action. It won't be easy, though, as the 49ers are ranked 12th in rushing yards allowed per game (108.6), and 14th in rushing yards allowed per play (4.21).
Contain SF's Weapons
The 49ers have won five of their last six games, and a good part of the reason has been their offense. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has recorded a passer rating of 90-or-higher in eight consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL. 49ers TE George Kittle has recorded at least 90 receiving yards in each of his past three games and at least 150 receiving yards in each of his past two road games. But the 49ers also have a versatile playmaker in Deebo Samuel (1,088 receiving yards and 5 TDs plus 269 rushing yards and 7 TDs) and a talented receiver in Brandon Aiyuk (42-585-4). RB Elijah Mitchell (759 yards, 5TDs), who paces the 49ers ground attack, is out for tonight's game. The Titans defense has been stout, but San Fran's offense will present a challenge.
Atmosphere, Including 'Titans Light Show'
The Titans are 2-0 in primetime games this season, with wins over the Bills and Rams. On the eve of Christmas Eve, Nissan Stadium should be electric, starting with a 'Titans Light Show' before the game, and then at the half. The halftime ceremony will include a coordinated light show set to the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Fans have been encouraged to download the latest Titans app update to take part. But Thursday night's game should provide a great fan atmosphere in what's a big game for the Titans, whose magic number (Titans wins or Colts losses) to clinch the AFC South is at 2.