Five Burning Questions For 49ers v Titans

The San Francisco 49ers come into their week fifteen matchup with the Tennessee Titans on the heels of their first consecutive wins in over three calendar years. Throw in the performance of new starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to go with three wins in the last four weeks and the buzz around the team is reaching levels not seen since the days when Jim Harbaugh was roaming the sidelines.

The challenge facing the 49ers ramps up over the next three weeks as they face opponents who are all currently in playoff positions and fighting to stay there. After winning three of the last four games against teams with a combined 10 wins, the next three opponents all almost match that number on their own. This will be a great lead into the offseason and should show us the level which the 49ers need to reach to get back to the level of play that they are striving for.

With that as a backdrop lets take a look at the five burning questions for this week:

1) Can the 49ers’ offense remain balanced?

Prior to the game against the Giants, I questioned the unbalanced play-calling of Kyle Shanahan. At the time, the 49ers were coming off a four week stretch which saw them calling passes on 74% of their offensive snaps, 209 passes to 73 runs. It seemed as though the run was an afterthought, which seemed odd considering how well the 49ers passing game has gone when using play action and with a rookie quarterback making his first starts in the NFL.

That has flipped quite a bit over the last four weeks, however. During this last four game stretch, the 49ers have become much more balanced with the percentage of passing plays reduced to 56%, 147 passes to 114 runs.

Staying balanced is key to the 49ers success on offense, especially with the tough defenses they’ll face in the next three weeks.

2) Can the 49ers keep up this third down conversion rate?

For the season the 49ers have converted third downs at a rate of 35.23% which ranks them 25th in the league, however that number has seen significant improvement over the last four weeks. Over this time the 49ers have been able to convert 43.8%, 25-57, of third down attempts which would rank them 5th in the NFL.

These next three weeks will be a real test for the 49ers in this area. The ranking for their next three opponents in third down conversions allowed is 7th, 4th and 14th.

3) Can the 49ers continue to win time of possession?

For the season the 49ers offense ranks 27th in the league for time of possession at 28:17 per game. Over the last four weeks however the 49ers have bettered that number and have won the time of possession battle each of the last three weeks. In fact, the 49ers 34:41 time of possession per game these last three weeks ranks 3rd in the league.

Both the increased emphasis on the run game and the increased third down conversion rate have played key roles in this improvement which also has led to the improvement found in our next burning question.

4) Can the 49ers defense limit the explosive plays?

Through the first thirteen games the 49ers defense has given up the fifth most explosive plays in the league at 116. Explosive plays are defined as runs of 11+ yards or passes of 15+ yards.

This is yet another area in which the 49ers have made drastic improvement in recent weeks. Through the first nine games the 49ers had given up 94 explosive plays, 10.4 per game. Over these last four weeks the 49ers defense has limited opponents to just 22 explosive plays, 5.5 per game. This level of play would put the defense in the top 5 in the league.

The increased balance, third down conversions and time of possession has all played a key role in this improvement for a defense which until the last few weeks had faced the most plays in the league. While they currently sit 29th with an average of 66.2, that number drops to 56.75 over the last four weeks which is the fewest in the league. That 56.75 number is helped greatly by facing a Bears offense which can’t get out of its own way and managed only 36 plays against the 49ers. Even if you remove that and go only with the other three games, the 49ers defense jumps to 16th at 63.7 plays per game.

Fewer plays, fewer opportunities for the opponent to make plays. A simple formula.

5) Can the 49ers’ offense break through against the Titans defense?

For the most part, the Titans’ defense has been pretty stout on the road this season. With the exception of road games at Houston, when the Texans offense was rolling with Deshaun Watson and Pittsburgh, the Titans defense has held opponents to only 13.8 points per game on the road, and nothing over 16 points.

Even with the improved production in the passing game with the insertion of Garoppolo into the starting lineup the 49ers have struggled to put points on the board. Both games have been on the road however, and it will be interesting to see if this can improve playing in front of the home crowd.

Prediction Time: 49ers 16 Titans 17

For this one I am going with the averages. The 49ers have averaged 16 points per game at home this season. On the other side of the field the Titans have averaged 16.7 points per game on the road this season. I see this as a defensive struggle that really could go either way. If the 49ers can minimize the mistakes that they have faced all season, even in wins against other losing teams, they may be able to pull off a big win against a top level opponent.

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