49ers vs Titans: Takeaways from Tennessee's 31-17 Loss to San Francisco
It isn't that bad to lose to the defending NFC Champions, but when the loss is ugly, at home and is the third defeat in a row, it makes even losing to a tough opponent hard to swallow.
The Tennessee Titans got manhandled by the 49ers for the first half of the game. Locker threw his first interception of the season, the run game continued to be stagnant, and the defense had its worst outing of the season, as they were unable to contain Colin Kaepernick until the 49ers had a comfortable lead.
Chris Johnson finally had a breakaway run, and Kendall Wright had a great showing, but a slow start on offense and horrible special teams play put the Titans in too big a hole to dig out of.
Here are some takeaways from the loss.
1. Locker Isn't 100 Percent Yet
Locker had a pretty good outing overall. He completed 25 of 41 passes for 326 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed three times for 29 yards.
That said, he was clearly still dealing with some injury issues. His throws were more erratic than they had been earlier in the season, he didn't scramble as much as he had in prior games and he was even visibly limping on some plays.
Despite the limitations, he ended up doing fairly well, and he almost put the Titans in a position for a comeback until a special teams debacle put away any chance of that happening (more on that later).
This game actually made me more confident that the positive changes Locker has shown this season are permanent. If he plays fairly well against a good defense when still injured, he ought to be back to playing well very soon.
2. Munchak Is Being Too Conservative
I expected to see Mike Munchak this year lose the conservative approach that characterized him and his teams for his first two seasons. After all, his job as head coach was on the line, so you'd expect to see him to take more chances in 2013.
However, last week against the Seattle Seahawks, when the Titans were behind by 10 and in the red zone with 2:18 left, the Titans settled for a field goal rather than go for it on fourth down.
The logic makes sense: the Titans needed both a touchdown and a field goal, so they may as well settle for the field goal and get the touchdown later. It makes sense on paper, but when you have to get the ball back from and drive down the field for a touchdown again, you aren't leaving yourself enough time.
I felt that settling for a field goal in that instance, while the safer play, was not the right play. In a situation like that in which you're unlikely to win, you have to take big gambles.
A similar situation occurred against San Francisco. The Titans had the ball at midfield, facing a 17-point deficit, with two time outs and less than a minute to go in the first half. Rather than make a play for field goal range on 3rd-and-5, the Titans went to the locker room down 17-0.
They went on to lose the game 31-17.
Had they taken the gamble and went for it, sure, the 49ers may have taken over on downs, but it's unlikely that they would have gotten any points out of it even if they did get the ball, as there was little time left.
Had the Titans made that play and came out of the first half with some points, it could have altered the rest of the game.
Munchak is going to have to take some more gambles if he wants to win these tough games.
3. Putting Brian Schwenke in Was the Right Move
Jake Locker returning to the lineup was the big news this week, but the Titans made another big move by replacing veteran Rob Turner with rookie Brian Schwenke at center.
So far, that looks like it was the right move.
Schwenke looked a bit stronger in run-blocking than Turner has, but he didn't dominate. And he struggled with pass protection. What impressed me was Schwenke's awareness. In back-to-back plays in the third quarter, he forced penalties on San Francisco by snapping the ball as soon as one of the 49ers jumped into the neutral zone.
Neither penalty stood, as Locker happened to make first downs with both of his free throws.
Even though the penalties didn't matter in the end, credit still needs to go to Schwenke for seeing the infraction and taking advantage of it.
Later in the game, Schwenke got to Patrick Willis and made a beautiful block to get Chris Johnson in the open field. Johnson ran 66 yards for a touchdown after that.
4. Penalties, Penalties...Everywhere
The Titans have had trouble with penalties already this season, but this is the first game where penalties really killed them.
A personal foul on Akeem Ayers negated an interception by Bernard Pollard, gave the 49ers 15 extra yards and extended their drive.
That was the most memorable, but there were several penalties that seem to come at the worst possible times. In the third quarter, a delay-of-game penalty took first and goal from the five yard line to the ten yard line, and of course, the Titans came up short, having to settle for a field goal.
In total, the Titans had 10 penalties called against them for 100 yards. When the score was so lopsided for so long, it's hard to say that penalties cost them the game, but if it weren't for so many of them, the game would've at least been a lot closer.
5. Kendall Wright Is Ready to Break out
Now Kendall Wright has been solid all season, but against San Francisco, he looked like a player ready to take his game to the next level.
He was catching poorly thrown balls all day, taking big hits and adding yards after the catch consistently. He's always been quick, but against the 49ers, he really put that quickness to good use.
His final stat line was nine catches for 98 yards (he was targeted 12 times), but that doesn't really show how great he was in this game. So many throws were a little off, and more than once he made a lot out of a little.
Wright looks like he's on the verge of a breakout game any time now. Keep an eye on him in the near future.
6. Punt Returns Are Killing the Titans
Special teams play has been, by a wide margin, the worst aspect of the Titans team this season.
In nearly every game, there has been a huge mistake made on special teams. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a muffed punt return resulted in a safety for the Steelers. Against Kansas City, a muffed punt return resulted in a touchdown for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Today, against San Francisco, yet another dropped punt resulted in what was effectively a game-clinching touchdown for the 49ers when they recovered in the end zone.
Three of these were returner Darius Reynaud's fault, and one is on Damian Williams. Williams is a pretty important part of receiver depth, but if Reynaud doesn't start doing something soon on special teams, he may be out of a job.
The Titans are eighth in the NFL in punt return yards and 14th in kick return yards, but if these mistakes keep happening, being a little better than average on returns won't matter.
7. Playoff Update
Outside of division leaders in the AFC, the Titans are behind only the San Diego Chargers, New York Jets and either the Denver Broncos or Kansas City Chiefs for the wild-card spot. The Broncos or the Chiefs are more or less a lock for one wild card spot at this point, but with the only teams ahead of the Titans being teams they've beaten, Tennessee isn't out of the race yet.
Now the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, and Baltimore Ravens are currently tied with the Titans, with all teams sitting at 3-4, so it's the back half of the schedule that will be the deciding factor as to whether Tennessee makes the playoffs.
Of those teams, the only one with a winning record is the Colts, and after losing to the Chargers, Indianapolis looks beatable. In fact, going forward, the only games the Titans have with winning teams are the games against the Colts and at Denver.
With the toughest part of the schedule behind them, the Titans could be ready to make a run.