After a rocky start, the 49ers (4-2) have rebounded to win three straight games, posting at least 32 points in each victory. Meanwhile, the Titans (3-3) have dropped both games since starting quarterback Jake Locker was injured in their Week 4 contest against the New York Jets.
The 49ers are entering a two-week road trip, making a stop at LP Field in Tennessee before traveling to London for a date with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Recent trends aside, there will be a long flight ahead for the 49ers if they overlook this solid Titans team.
The Titans will be looking to salvage a victory before their bye week and give Locker a chance to revive Tennessee's season in the second half.
If the 49ers hope to earn their fifth win of the season, winning these individual matchups will play a critical role.
RB Frank Gore vs. MLB Colin McCarthy
Frank Gore has been on a tear as of late, rushing for more than 80 yards in each of the last four games. On the other side, the Titans enter Week 7 allowing 111.2 yards per game on the ground, ranked 19th in the league.
Gore's resurgence has obviously had a lot to do with the 49ers' winning streak. Titans MLB Colin McCarthy, however, has had little to do with Tennessee's struggles on the ground.
That's because McCarthy is making his first start of the season at "Mike" linebacker, according to Craig Peters of TitansOnline.com. McCarthy will replace injured LB Moise Fokou, currently second on the team with 40 total tackles.
Colin McCarthy will start at MLB on Sunday for the #Titans, per coach Mike Munchak on his weekly radio show. Moise Fokou injured vs Seattle— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) October 15, 2013
Peters noted that McCarthy struggled a bit while filling in against the Seattle Seahawks last week, but he has started 14 games in his three-year career. Titans coach Mike Munchak told Peters that McCarthy is looking at an excellent opportunity to make a statement with his play:
What a game to do it, against San Francisco, that’s going to have six linemen, seven linemen in there, a bunch of three tight ends trapping and whamming it. You’re going to see it all this weekend, so this is a great opportunity for [McCarthy] to step up and help us and we need it.
According to Peters, McCarthy has in the past shown flashes as a solid player and was named a defensive captain in 2012. Concussions and ankle issues have limited him recently, leaving a lot of unanswered questions for a player who once showed plenty of promise.
One thing is for sure, however. The former fourth-round pick will have his hands full with this 49ers rushing attack, already chomping at the bit to face a vulnerable run defense.
49ers Nose Tackle vs. C Brian Schwenke
Whether you're looking at pressuring quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick or limiting running back Chris Johnson, it all starts with this pivotal matchup in the trenches. Locker has not been ruled out as of this article's publication, but John Glennon of The Tennesseean reports that he is still unlikely to play.
According to Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com, the Titans are promoting rookie center Brian Schwenke to make his first career start in Week 7. Drafted in the fourth round out of California, Schwenke will take over for struggling veteran Rob Turner.
Titans make a change at center http://t.co/aefNsJsQnR— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 17, 2013
While a rookie making his first start is always a favorable matchup, Schwenke's main support won't necessarily do him many favors.
Both of the Titans' starting guards received negative grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) against Seattle in Week 7. Rookie Chance Warmack (minus-2.7) was drafted in the first round, while free agent Andy Levitre (minus-3.7) earned a big contract coming from the Buffalo Bills.
The 49ers would seem to be in great position to take advantage of this leaky interior line, if not for one problem: San Francisco still doesn't know who will be lining up at nose tackle.
Glenn Dorsey has experienced a bit of a career rebirth since taking over after Week 2, but Dorsey left last week's game with a hamstring injury. According to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, Dorsey has missed two straight practices and is unlikely to suit up on Sunday.
Backup lineman Tony Jerod-Eddie will likely see the majority of snaps against the Titans if Dorsey does sit. However, Williamson expects the 49ers to either promote Mike Purcell from the practice squad or activate Quinton Dial from the physically unable to perform list.
One thing that these two players have in common: both are rookies with zero NFL snaps.
It's no secret that football games are often won and lost in the trenches. With that in mind, the winner of this battle of the inexperienced will have a great chance to win the game.
QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Titans Secondary
Whatever you read into the hangnail story surrounding the 49ers' starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick has improved during the teams' three-game win streak. Despite continued disappointing play from his receivers, Kaepernick has thrown five touchdowns and just one interception over that span.
After overloading their young signal-caller early on, the 49ers have gone back to a more physical, ground-oriented offensive game plan. By riding Gore and the running game, the 49ers have taken the pressure off of Kaepernick.
However, as Titans coach Mike Munchak pointed out earlier in the week, Kaepernick still hasn't made much noise on the ground in 2013. With only 43 yards on eight carries in the past three weeks, it's clear that the 49ers are pressing forward without the second dynamic of their dual-threat QB.
Barring a change of course on Sunday, Kaepernick will have to do his damage through the air to beat the Titans. This won't be an easy task, as the Titans feature the 10th-ranked passing defense, in the league in terms of yards allowed per game.
49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman praised every individual member to the Titans' starting secondary in his Thursday news conference. Specifically asked about safety Bernard Pollard, Roman mentioned his ability to make plays all over the field, whether in coverage or in the box.
Pollard leads Tennessee with 44 total tackles and also knows the 49ers somewhat from having played against them in Super Bowl XLVII as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers run the ball well, but they will have to make a few plays in the air to come out with the victory. If Kaep can avoid turnovers and play smart, efficient football, the 49ers will have a pleasant overseas flight.
If Pollard bottles up tight end Vernon Davis and the wide receivers don't step up, it'll be a gloomy trip to London for Week 8.