The Tennessee Titans are coming off of two close losses in a row to the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs, and now they find themselves facing the San Francisco 49ers, the defending NFC champion.
On the one hand, Seattle and Kansas City combine for one loss, and the Titans played both games close, so they have to be feeling good about the strength of their team.
On the other hand, the Titans are 0-2 without Jake Locker and face their third top-10 defense in a row. And they are one more loss away from a losing season.
The 49ers aren't invincible—they've been blown out by both the Seahawks and the Colts—but they won't be a walk in the park either. If the Titans want to win, they'll have to make sure to do a few things correctly on offense, defense and special teams.
More than anything else on offense, turnovers have been killing the Titans since Locker has been out. Those simply have to stop.
Ryan Fitzpatrick seems to like throwing the ball deep downfield, but his accuracy has been awful so far, and he keeps turning the ball over.
I blame too many deep passes.
If Fitzpatrick learns to take what defenses give him and settles for short yardage, he can at least keep the Titans offense on the field longer. And the less the defense is on the field, the better rested it'll be, which will make it easier to limit San Francisco's offense.
Fitzpatrick will have to learn to trust his receivers and his defense.
The Titans have a great group of receivers, but getting on the same page as the quarterback is difficult with deeper passes, plus the defense gets more time to interfere with it. Taking short passes on early downs is a much better option.
To call the running game a disappointment would be an understatement, but the Titans have already made a bold move to fix it by replacing Rob Turner with rookie Brian Schwenke (per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean). Turner has been the weakest link in the offensive line all season, and replacing him will hopefully help the run game.
Even with Schwenke in, the Titans ought to consider trying to get Chris Johnson to the outside edge more often than sending him up between the tackles. Johnson has been relatively effective on the edge this season, but up the middle, he's been inconsequential.
To keep Johnson fresh, and the 49ers defense guessing, the Titans ought to give Jackie Battle more carries. He had none against Seattle but has a much better yards per carry average than Johnson recently (4.7 vs Johnson's 1.9 in the last three games), so he needs to become a bigger part of the game.
If Fitzpatrick can learn to pace it on offense, and the rushing unit does a better job of playing to its strengths, then the Titans offense ought to be able to score on the 49ers.
Of course, as much as the offense has potential to score on the 49ers, it'll be the Titans defense that really has to win this game for the team.
Luckily, the defense has been doing just about everything right.
In the defensive backfield, Alterraun Verner hasn't gotten any interceptions since the Jets, but he's broken up five passes in the two games since then, and Bernard Pollard has been playing better than ever.
The 49ers are thin at receiver, so shutting down their passing game won't be as daunting a task as it seems.
What the Titans will need to worry about is 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who sits at No. 2 in receiving yards on his team and has six of his team's eight receiving touchdowns. The Titans have had trouble covering tight ends in the past, and although that has been less of a problem in 2013, it's still an area of weakness.
The defensive backs and linebackers (especially Zach Brown) need to make stopping Davis their priority in pass defense.
Meanwhile, the defensive line hasn't picked up too many sacks, but it has still been a disruptive unit, constantly applying pressure. Antonio Johnson and Ropati Pitoitua have been particularly tough on opposing defenses.
Over the last three games, Johnson has taken advantage of playing next to Jurrell Casey and nabbed five total tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss. By the numbers, Pitoitua has been even better, with a team-leading four sacks and four tackles for loss, all of them in the last three weeks.
Colin Kaepernick won't be the easiest quarterback to chase down because of his mobility, but the Titans just did a fair job containing Russell Wilson and Alex Smith, limiting the latter to 10 rushing yards and the former to 61.
If Kaepernick has to stay on the run, then the Titans can control the game.
It's the passing game that's dangerous. If the Titans can stop it, then how many yards Kaepernick gets on the ground will be all but inconsequential.
So on defense, the Titans want to keep doing what they've been doing, concentrate on stopping Davis, and keep the pressure on Kaepernick steady. As good as the Titans defense has been playing, I wouldn't bet that the 49ers will score a ton of points.
The Titans have had major problems on special teams in almost every game they've played this season.
Several of those mistakes have cost them big: The botched kick return against Pittsburgh gave the Steelers a free safety, the accidentally touched punt gave the Chiefs their only touchdown for the first three-and-a-half quarters, and the miffed punt against Seattle gave the Seahawks the ball and great field position.
Mistakes like that will sink a team when the team's whole game plan is typically about playing consistent, low-scoring football where controlling the ball and winning the turnover battle wins you the game.
When games end with scores like 16-9, 20-17 and 20-13, one touchdown is the difference between victory and defeat.
With that in mind, the Titans need to take serious steps to address what the problem on special teams is. If the players don't know exactly what they're supposed to do, then special-teams play needs to become a bigger part of the Titans' practices until they do.
If there's an internal problem, like a problem with a coach or particular player, then that needs to be addressed immediately.
Whatever the problem is, it's costing the Titans wins. And when that starts happening, it's not a problem that can just be ignored.
The Titans don't have to aim high on special teams.
They don't need to make game-changing plays on special teams, they just need to not make game-changing mistakes. If they can do that, it'll be a big step in the right direction.
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