The San Francisco 49ers confidence is growing as the team is getting healthier and playing complementary football, showcasing some of their best performances of the season in recent weeks. As a commander of the squad, Jimmy Garoppolo has led his team on a hot streak while earning an 86.5 Pro Football Focus grade since Week 8, first among all quarterbacks in the league. Offensive stars such as Deebo Samuel and George Kittle have shined on the field since coming back from injury and the 49ers defense has continued to limit opponents and aid San Francisco in the turnover battle.
While holding a 9-5 record, the Tennessee Titans have recently undergone an unfortunate series of events. Losing three of their last four contests, the Titans enter Week 16 missing several key players along their offensive line. Left tackle Taylor Lewan (back), left guard Rodger Saffold (shoulder/illness) and offensive tackle Kendall Lamm (COVID) will be sitting out, leaving Tennessee vulnerable to San Francisco's pass rush featuring defensive end Nick Bosa, who has his eyes on surpassing San Francisco's franchise sack record. Yet, the Titans are not to be underestimated as their defensive front is one of the most dominant in the league, featuring Jeffrey Simmons, Harold Landry and Bud Dupree. Offensively, wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones are both expected to see the field for the first time since Tennessee defeated the Los Angeles Rams in Week 9.
"It's going to be one of those games where you've really got to strap your chin strap tight and make sure your pads are right because you're going to have to bring it," linebacker Fred Warner said.
In advance of Thursday's game, here's a list of three Titans the 49ers will need to keep their eyes on:
S Kevin Byard
One of Byard's greatest strengths is attacking the football. The free safety is tied for fourth most interceptions (5) in the league. Recording 73 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one tackle for a loss and 13 passes defended in 14 starts this season, Byard has earned himself an impressive 90.3 PFF grade. Byard has led his defense in forcing turnovers, which has resulted in victories for Tennessee. Overall, the Titans pass defense is ranked fourth in the league with a total of 71 passes defended so far this season.
The 49ers rotating group of receivers that includes Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Sherfield, Jauan Jennings and Samuel, not to mention all-pro tight end Kittle, is likely to face Byard in deep-ball situations – an area that has seen improvement from San Francisco. Garoppolo notched 10.2 yards per attempt and one touchdown, and Kittle had a perfect day with six receptions on six targets for 93 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15. Garoppolo's pass completion to his star receivers will be tested against Byard and the rest of Tennessee's secondary.
"It's not just their defense, it's their whole team – they're extremely physical," head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "It starts with their front seven, with their D-Line and their linebackers. But then it goes all the way back to their backend, both safeties, they come up, are very good tacklers. They don't make many mistakes and they got real good ball skills that'll make you pay too."
RB D'Onta Foreman
In the Titans loss to the Steelers last week, Foreman left the field momentarily with an injured ankle. Despite the concern, Foreman rushed 109 yards on a career-high 22 carries in Week 15. He was a full participant in practices leading up to the Titans matchup against the 49ers and is set to see the field on Thursday night. After Tennessee lost Derrick Henry in Week 8 to a foot injury, Foreman has emerged as the Titans primary running back. Tennessee's backfield combined has scored 20 touchdowns and posted 1,992 rushing yards this season while leading the league in rushing attempts (455), according to ESPN.
Although Foreman performs as the engine of the Titans offense, he will face a difficult challenge when the 49ers come to town. Last week, San Francisco limited Atlanta to 62 yards on 23 carries and an average of only 2.7 yards per carry. Taking the ball away is one of the 49ers defense's biggest points of emphasis. San Francisco has notched at least one turnover in eight of their last nine games, much of the credit going to cornerback Josh Norman, who is tied for first in forced fumbles (6) among the NFL this season.
"They want to push you around. They want to run the ball. They want to be physical," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "That's their mindset. And it hasn't changed, no matter which running back is back there, you can tell they all have that same mindset … it's going to be a really good challenge for us against a really good running offense."
LB Zach Cunningham
Not only do the Titans excel in running the ball, but they also stand strong in stopping opposing runs. The Titans defense only allowed 35 rushing yards in their Week 15 matchup against the Steelers, and surrendered only 168 total yards, the fewest by any Titans opponent since 2010. After being waived by the Houston Texans two weeks ago, Cunningham made his Titans debut leading his defense with six tackles against the Steelers. Overall, Tennessee ranks second in the NFL allowing 86.9 rushing yards per game and they've only allowed an average of 49.3 rushing yards over their last three contests.
With the 49ers injuries in the backfield, Cunningham and the Titans run defense will be a challenge for San Francisco's rotation of ball carriers. After losing Raheem Mostert for the year in the season opener, rookie Elijah Mitchell emerged as the 49ers RB1 with 759 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. Mitchell is expected to miss his third-straight game while nursing a knee injury. However, running back Jeff Wilson Jr. helped lead the 49ers to victory against Atlanta with 110 yards on 21 carries and one touchdown. It seems as if any running back can have success when plugged into Shanahan's starting lineup, but Cunningham and the Titans dominant defense will be a true test as to how well the 49ers run game can outmatch their opposing defense.
Thursday night's matchup will prove to be a physical one as both teams have their eyes set on securing a spot in the playoffs and the 49ers look to keep up their hot streak. Kickoff is set for 5:20 p.m. PT at Nissan Stadium. For ways to watch the head-to-head matchup, click here.