NASHVILLE – When the 49ers offense stays on the field after third down -- and the team's defense leaves it in the same situation -- things go pretty well.
An efficient offense and a stifling defense pushed the the 49ers past the Tennessee Titans, 31-17, on Sunday, in the opponents' first meeting since 2009. The packed, red-and-blue-speckled crowd at LP Field was quieted early as San Francisco jumped out to a 24-0 lead.
The 49ers (5-2) has now won four straight games since Jan. 2012, when it won a 2011 NFC Divisional playoff game over the Saints. The Titans (3-4) have dropped three straight.
Not even the return of their quarterback Jake Locker, healthy enough to play for the first time in three games, helped build any sort of momentum against the 49ers defense. The Titans didn't reach the red zone until the fourth quarter, when Locker threw both of his two touchdown passes and 159 of his 326 passing yards.
The defense's success on third downs in the first three quarters gave the team the breathing room it required.
Defensive tackle Justin Smith ended the Titans first drive of the second quarter with a sack of Locker for an 11-yard loss -- one of two sacks for the game. Tennessee's offense was 5-of-14 in such situations.
On 3rd-and-5 during the 49ers ensuing possession, Kaepernick found wideout Anquan Boldin down the sideline for a 25-yard gain to the Titans 50-yard line. After a Kaepernick interception on another third down play was negated by a hands-to-the-face call on linebacker Akeem Ayers, the 49ers were faced with a 3rd-and-7 from the Titans 20-yard line: Kaepernick ran the read-option to his left and into the end zone for the team's 10-0 advantage entering halftime.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock's third interception of the season – he caught Locker staring down wideout Nate Washington – set up San Francisco's final score before the half.
And a big play on third down set it up again.
On 3rd-and-11, Kaepernick ran 20 yards deep into Tennessee territory thanks, in part, to a Boldin-thrown block. Then a 20-yard pass to Garrett Celek pushed the ball to the one-yard line, where running back Frank Gore scored from a play later.
Gore's 66th career touchdown tied him with former 49ers running back Roger Craig for third in team history. His 67th came on the first drive of the third quarter and resulted in the 49ers 24-0 lead, when the hometown fans, almost in unison, took their seats.
During the game-clinching drive, Kaepernick converted a pair of third-down opportunities by finding tight end Vernon Davis for gains of 19 yards and 12 yards.
Davis (four catches, 62 yards) and Boldin (five, 74) were Kaepernick's favorite targets on the afternoon. The quarterback also rushed for 68 yards on 11 carries -- his most since racking up 87 yards on the ground in Week 2.
The Titans scored 10 consecutive points in the fourth quarter, but the 49ers third unit -- special teams -- provided an answer with six-plus minutes remaining. Rookie reserve cornerback Darryl Morris caused a muffed punt, and veteran gunner Kassim Osgood recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
It was the first such score by a 49ers special teamer since linebacker Scott McKillop's on Oct. 4, 2009 against the St. Louis Rams.
Phil Dawson had finished the 49ers game-opening series – a 12-play, 65-yard journey in the first quarter – with a 44-yard field goal. Dawson is 9-for-12 on attempts this season.
The 49ers go straight from Nashville to London, where they will meet the Jacksonville Jaguars for an international Week 8 matchup. The Jags (0-7) fell to the San Diego Chargers, 24-6 on Sunday.