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Top 10 Spotlight: 49ers vs. Titans

Posted Oct 18, 2013

Breaking down the top storylines to watch for during the 49ers vs. Titans Week 7 matchup.

The San Francisco 49ers face the Tennessee Titans in a rare matchup between the two teams. It’s the 13th game between the clubs and the first since 2009. The road trip to Tennessee is part of an 11-day voyage for the 49ers that will see the team face back-to-back AFC South opponents. The 49ers will stay in London, England to face the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium. But before San Francisco takes part in the NFL’s International Series, Tennessee is on the schedule, and the Titans are looking to snap a two-game losing streak.

Here are the top 10 storylines to track in Sunday’s non-conference matchup.

10. James' Role
The 49ers insist LaMichael James is a valued member of the team. Jim Harbaugh reiterated San Francisco’s stance on James, a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. James was inactive last week against the Arizona Cardinals, but he has been positive about the experience. James is focused on improving each week and will look to earn a role on gameday. James is the only 49ers running back without a touchdown this season. The second-year pro’s gameday role for Tennessee is not known yet. Harbaugh explained that it hinges on whether the team dresses three or four running backs.

9. Blocking Ropati
The Titans defensive line is led by bull-rushing lineman Ropati Pitoitua, who has 4.0 sacks on the season. The right defensive end stands at 6-foot-8, 298 pounds and will be a handful for the 49ers offensive line. Pitoitua has recorded all of his sacks in Tennesee’s last three games. The four-year veteran continues to be a force for the Titans defense and presents a challenge to left tackle Joe Staley, who is coming off a strong showing against Arizona.

8. Defending CJ2K
Chris Johnson was once one of the most feared play-makers in the NFL. In 2013, however, the sixth-year running back is averaging a career-low 3.1 yards per carry. Johnson earned his “CJ2K” moniker after a 2,006-yard season in 2009, the last time the 49ers and Titans competed. Since then, Johnson has not come close to threatening the elusive 2,000-yard mark. Speed is the trademark talent of Tennessee’s lead running back and San Francisco’s defense remains aware of that. If the 49ers are able to bottle up Johnson’s game-breaking ability, the pressure to move the chains falls on the quarterback, depending on who gets the call.

7. Rookie D-line Watch
Will a 49ers rookie defensive lineman be active on Sunday? This could be the week the team calls Quinton Dial or Mike Purcell up to the 53-man roster. Dial, a fifth-round draft pick out of Alabama, is on the Non-Football Injury list, but he joined practice this week for the first time in his NFL career. Purcell, an undrafted nose tackle out of Wyoming, could be promoted from the team’s practice squad. The 49ers could use defensive line depth if starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is unable to play against the Titans due to a hamstring injury. San Francisco’s defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said both Dial and Purcell are options for the club. The 49ers also have an open roster spot after releasing wide receiver Chris Harper.

6. Center of Attention

The Titans have moved rookie Brian Schwenke to starting center this week. He’ll be stepping in and snapping for veteran Rob Turner. If the 49ers have to promote a rookie defensive lineman this week, first-year players could be grabbing the spotlight on Sunday. Tennessee has allowed 15 sacks on the year, including nine on starting quarterback Jake Locker, who could return to action on Sunday.

5. Boldin vs. Verner
Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner leads the NFL with 13 pass breakups and is tied for the league lead with four interceptions. The four-year veteran cornerback is another player who looks familiar to the 49ers coaches, who came over from Stanford. Verner, formerly of UCLA, is quietly one of the league’s best defensive play-makers. He’ll likely match up against San Francisco’s top wideout, Anquan Boldin. The 49ers have respect for the top cornerback they’ll face on Sunday. Verner’s battles with Boldin will be entertaining the say the least. When Boldin faced the Titans as a member of the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, Boldin caught three passes for 46 yards.

4. Kaepernick's Demeanor
We’ve seen a serious and playful side to the 49ers starting quarterback. Colin Kaepernick plays with passion, and he also plays the game with energy. It was evident in last week’s win. Kaepernick laughed with teammates, razzed members of the defense and was encouraging his offensive linemen throughout the win over Arizona. The focused side of Kaepernick tends to come out on the road. The 49ers quarterback is 3-3 as a starter away from Candlestick Park in the regular season. On Sunday, Kaepernick will face a Titans defense that ranks No. 10 in the NFL, allowing 223.8 yards per game. Kaepernick’s on-field demeanor is always under the microscope. If he’s having fun with teammates, it’s a good sing the team is performing to his liking on the field.

3. Vernon and Delanie
Friends become competitors on Sunday when Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker meet as opponents. Walker, a former 49ers draft pick, signed with the Titans to be a No. 1 tight end option after serving as Davis’ backup. Walker has a shared of Tennessee’s team-lead with two touchdown catches and feels like he’s starting to become a main target. Davis, on the other hand, is coming off a career-best 180-yard outing against the Cardinals. Walker’s play-making will be worth watching, especially when he’s being defended by All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. The reunion aspect of Sunday’s game will be entertaining, but both tight ends will want to out-produce the other.
 
2. QB Conundrum
Who will play quarterback for the Titans on Sunday? Is it Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick? Locker suffered a hip injury on Sept. 29 and has not played since. The former first-round pick, however, took the majority of the practice reps on Friday. Fitzpatrick was the quarterback in Tennessee’s back-to-back losses and might be replaced if Locker is healthy enough to play. Locker has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions; Fitzpatrick has thrown two touchdowns and four interceptions. The 49ers have prepared for both quarterbacks.

UPDATE: According to multipe reports, Locker will get the start.

1. Gore Season
The 49ers used the meat grinder in last week’s win over the Cardinals. Frank Gore churned out 41 of the team’s 89 yards in an 18-play scoring drive that put an ear-to-ear grin on Harbaugh’s face. San Francisco has averaged 181.7 yards per game in a three-game winning streak. The team averaged 101.7 yards per game in the first three weeks of the season. Pounding the rock and continuing Gore’s success on the ground will be important against a Titans defense that ranks 19th in the NFL, allowing 112.2 yards per game. Gore ranks fifth in the NFL with 477 rushing yards and has picked up 81 or more rushing yards in four consecutive weeks.