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'Thursday Night Football' preview: What to watch for in 49ers-Titans

San Francisco 49ers
2021 · 8-6-0
Tennessee Titans
2021 · 9-5-0

With three weeks left in the NFL season, it’s come to this for the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers: the Titans (9-5) are trying to shake a tail (the 8-6 Colts) in the AFC, while in the NFC, the 49ers are the tail. Tennessee’s grip on the AFC South has been shrinking, and now it’s a precarious one-game lead over Indianapolis. It’s more like a two-game lead -- the Titans hold the tiebreaker with two head-to-head wins over Indianapolis -- but that can’t be too reassuring for a Titans team that’s lost three of its last four. Meanwhile, an 8-6 record is only good for third place in the NFC West for the 49ers. Absent a collapse by both the Cardinals and Rams, the 49ers aren’t going to win the division, but they are in a strong wild-card position where they currently are the No. 6 seed.

Here are four things to watch when the Titans play host to the 49ers:

  1. Ryan Tannehill’s play is trending in the wrong direction. He’s thrown six interceptions and just two touchdown passes across a 1-3 skid for the Titans over the last month. He’s been short-handed for weapons due to injuries, but at this point, the Titans need their quarterback’s play to elevate that of the personnel that’s available. That hasn’t happened of late. The good news is that wide receiver A.J. Brown is expected to re-enter the picture Thursday, having been activated from IR. But regardless of who is in the lineup, Tannehill’s effectiveness needs to reach a higher level before the Titans fade any further -- Derrick Henry isn’t walking through that door anytime soon.
  2. Nick Bosa has been on fire. Can the Titans contain the 49ers’ star pass rusher? The last thing Tannehill needs is Bosa in his face all night, but the trends of both his play and Tennessee’s pass protection suggest that’s exactly what’s coming. Bosa has notched at least a sack in six consecutive games, one short of a club record held by Aldon Smith (2012). His 15 sacks tie him for third in the NFL, while his 18 tackles for loss lead the league. He’s recorded 57 pressures, which ranks fourth in the NFL and first in the NFC. Coming off an ACL surgery that ended his 2020 season after just two games, he’s been even more disruptive than he was as the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019.
  3. Zach Cunningham is settling in nicely in Tennessee. A team couldn’t ask for more off the waiver wire than to pluck a starter from another team’s scrap heap who proceeds to debut for his new team as its leading tackler. That’s what Cunningham did for the Titans last week with six stops, four of them solos, against the Steelers. NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger liked what he saw of the linebacker, who has the ability to energize a Titans defense that already ranks No. 2 in the NFL against the run. With another week to get comfortable with his new role and teammates, he could be problematic for the 49ers offense.
  4. Nothing-special teams in San Francisco. Over their last four games, the 49ers’ special teams units have: 1) lost fumbles on two kickoff returns; 2) allowed a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown; 3) allowed a 23-yard punt return; and 4) missed two field goals inside of 50 yards, plus an extra point. Brandon Aiyuk’s punt returns haven’t been much to speak of, either. Suffice it to say it’s all been quite the headache for special teams coach Richard Hightower. There’s a lot to clean up here, not just one particular ST unit, and if the Niners reach the playoffs without solving these woes, the postseason price paid could be a painful one.

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