The San Francisco 49ers didn't get much of a chance to celebrate their Week 15 win over the Atlanta Falcons given the short turnaround. However, they hope things are just as merry and bright heading into the extended holiday weekend as they are set to take on the Tennessee Titans on "Thursday Night Football."
Both teams are looking to remain relevant in their respective postseason pictures, with a win on Thursday being an added boost for both clubs entering into the final stretch of the season.
ESPN NFL Nation reporter Turron Davenport joined 49ers.com to break down several storylines to follow heading into the primetime matchup. Here are this week's Four Downs:
1st Down: Biggest Storyline Surrounding Team's Current State
@KeianaMartinTV: Have the 49ers Found Their Groove?
The 49ers appear to have hit their stride. The team is playing complementary football – something that wasn't the case earlier in the season. The major storyline surrounding this 49ers team was its identity, or lack thereof. And as of late, they have found it. San Francisco's offense has been efficient. Despite the injuries in the backfield, they're effectively finding ways to run the ball, including getting their top receiver involved. Jimmy Garoppolo has been playing well, garnering a 70.2 completion percentage, averaging 8.81 yards per attempt and tossing ten touchdowns to only three interceptions over the last six weeks.
Defensively, the 49ers have managed to slow down opponents, and force turnovers (more to come on this). The unit is coming off of a dominant outing last week against the Falcons where they forced three turnovers on downs inside their own 10 yard line and allowed Atlanta to score on just one of their five red zone trips.
With the horde of talent on the roster, the 49ers are playing how many expected in 2021. And with postseason aspirations, the timing is perfect as the team can write their own narrative down the final stretch of the season.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel has placed an emphasis on turnovers since taking over in 2018. The Titans have a ball disruption period during each practice to hone in on securing the football on offense and causing takeaways on defense.
The results show in their wins and losses. Starting in Week 4, Tennessee went on a six-game winning streak earlier this season. It was fueled by the defense creating 11 turnovers over that stretch.
The defense only posted two takeaways in their five losses this season while the offense turned the ball over a total of 16 times. Tennessee can not afford to give the ball away at that pace when they don't have top players like Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown in the lineup.
2nd Down: What's Been the 49ers/Titans Biggest Strength Heading into Week 16
@KeianaMartinTV: San Francisco's Pass Rush
As the season has progressed, the 49ers pass rush has gotten better and better.
They are coming off a game against the Atlanta Falcons where quarterback Matt Ryan was pressured 33 times and sacked on three occasions. It was a similar outing the week prior against the Cincinnati Bengals, where they generated 27 pressures, five sacks and three quarterback hits against Joe Burrow.
While Nick Bosa deservingly has garnered much of the attention, it's the complementary players who have also been reaping the benefits of the unit's uptick in play. In each of the 49ers last three games, they have had at least three different players register four-or-more pressures in the same game.
Their surge in production comes at an opportune time as Tennessee is coming off of a less than ideal outing against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked four times as Pittsburgh notched seven quarterback hits. The unit as a whole has allowed 41 sacks this season, the 28th-worst mark in the league and enter Thursday night without two of their starting offensive linemen – a prime opportunity for Bosa and his counterparts to capitalize on Tennessee's woes.
@TDavenport_NFL: Tennessee's Run Defense
The Titans defense is clearly their strength. Specifically, their ability to stop the run. Tennessee ranks second in the NFL allowing 86.9 rushing yards per game. They've only given up an average of 49.3 rushing yards over the last three contests.
Jeffery Simmons leads the interior push. He'll get help from fellow defensive tackle Teair Tart who is likely returning to the lineup after missing the last two games. Denico Autry, Harold Landry and Bud Dupree all do a great job setting the edge.
The linebackers swarm to the ball and the defensive backs aren't afraid to tackle which makes it really tough to run against the Titans. They pride themselves on being a physical defense and gang tackling.
Adding a speedy sideline-to-sideline inside linebacker like Zach Cunningham will make the defense even better. Cunningham led the Titans with six tackles in his debut last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
3rd Down: What's the Biggest Area of Concern Heading into Thursday Night?
The 49ers currently own the sixth-best passing defense in the league heading into Thursday night. Now, while that's certainly an impressive mark, it's also slightly deceiving. A lot of the credit goes to San Francisco's aforementioned pass rush, who have helped take the load off of the 49ers secondary. However, their woes in the secondary have been on display as of late following the loss of Emmanuel Moseley (ankle). Last week against the Falcons, the 49ers gave up several huge plays to Atlanta's pass catchers, including two 49-yard bombs and a 91-yard outing for wide receiver Russell Gage.
Rookie corner Ambry Thomas has stepped in for Moseley and has performed as one would expect a first-year player to. While the rookie is still a work in progress, the 49ers have been impressed with how he's handled his recent string of tough assignments. He'll likely see another one on Thursday night with Julio Jones (hamstring) expected to play and A.J. Brown (chest) expected to be elevated to the active roster.
@TDavenport_NFL: Offensive Effectiveness
Ryan Tannehill has to find a way to once again become an effective passer. Tannehill has failed to throw any passes for touchdowns in the last two games. He has also finished with less than 200 passing yards in those games. The Titans offense has become one-dimensional as a result. The interceptions have mounted for Tannehill this season. His 14 interceptions through 14 games surpass his total (13) over his first two seasons under center for the Titans.
The wide receiver group has been underwhelming for Tannehill. A hamstring injury has kept Julio Jones from being the threat he once was. Jones only has 25 receptions for 369 yards in eight games this season. A.J. Brown has only played in 10 games but leads the Titans in receptions (46) and receiving yards (615). With three receiving touchdowns, Brown is tied with MyCole Pruitt and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for the team lead.
4th Down: Underrated Stat That Has Been Key to 49ers/Titans Recent Success
It's refreshing when the focus is on taking the ball away, rather than giving it up – and the 49ers defense has finally been getting the luck of the draw in that regard. After garnering just two takeaways to a whopping seven giveaways over the 49ers first five games of the season, things have shifted for San Francisco, as ball security has become a point of emphasis, and winning the turnover battle has played in the 49ers favor.
San Francisco has notched at least one takeaway in eight of their last nine games, including five-straight games of giving the ball back to the offense on two-or-more occasions. It's hard to win football games when you're giving the ball away, and that seems to be a recent issue for Tennessee.
While Tannehill has thrown 14 touchdowns this season, he's also thrown the ball to the opposition just as many times, the worst mark in the league through 15 weeks. Tennessee's offense as a whole is coming off of an outing where they coughed up the ball four times in their 19-13 loss to the Steelers.
@TDavenport_NFL: Tannehill's Rushing Ability
Tannehill has a career-high seven rushing touchdowns this season and five came in wins. Tannehill's usage as a runner inside the 20 was created by necessity when Derrick Henry fractured his foot in Week 8.
The Titans have used Tannehill on bootlegs and other designed QB runs in the red zone. It keeps defenses honest, especially in the low red zone where they tend to load up the middle of the field.