Niners inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman (above) and Patrick Willis will have to focus on stopping Titans running back Chris Johnson on Sunday. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Offensively, the Tennessee Titans haven’t been dynamic in 2013.
Tennessee is just 29th in the NFL in total offense and has averaged just 21.3 points per game. And, going into Sunday’s matchup against the 49ers at LP Field in Nashville, there’s a question of who will start at quarterback, backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Jake Locker, who returned to practice this week from injury.
So, on paper, the Titans (3-3) don’t appear much of a threat to the San Francisco defense, which has been playing very well in three straight victories over the Rams, Texans and Cardinals.
Yet the 49ers (4-2) go into the game knowing that starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey may not be able to play because of a hamstring injury sustained in last week’s victory over Arizona. Plus, left defensive end Ray McDonald is dealing with a partially torn biceps and right defensive end Justin Smith is working through a shoulder injury. Dorsey, McDonald and Smith all missed practice time this week.
That’s not a good situation going into a game against one of the most explosive running backs in the league, Chris Johnson.
The last time the 49ers faced Tennessee, in 2009, Johnson rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns. For his career, Johnson has 12 rushing TDs of longer than 45 yards, notes Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, which ranks No. 3 in league history behind only Barry Sanders (18) and Jim Brown (13).
So even though Johnson is off to a slow start in 2013, the Niners know they can’t let Johnson get loose on them.
“You know, I’m not sure what’s going on, his situation over there,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said this week. “I just know as far as what I’ve seen on the film that he’s a guy that you might stop him nine times, but on that 10th run, he’s boom, he’s gone, and it’s a long one.”
After some early rough patches in consecutive losses to the Seahawks and Colts, the 49ers defense has improved. It ranks No. 9 in the league in both scoring defense and total defense. But last week in the win over Arizona, the Cardinals were able to run on San Francisco when Dorsey left the game and was replaced by Tony Jerod-Eddie, who’ll get the call this Sunday if Dorsey can’t play.
That’s why Willis says he and his teammates have to zero in on Johnson.
“I don’t really care what he’s done up to this point, I just know we got to make sure we don’t let him get off this game,” said Willis.
The 49ers also have had to prepare for two styles of quarterback this week. Fitzpatrick, the former Buffalo Bills starter, is more of a pocket passer while Locker can run and allows the Titans to incorporate some read-option plays into their package. Both have struggled in 2013, though, with Fitzpatrick throwing four interceptions over his last two starts.
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers five-point favorites to earn their fourth straight victory, which would keep them a game behind the Seahawks in the NFC West race. Seattle beat Arizona Thursday night to improve to 6-1.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh says, however, that the Titans are a strong opponent and present some very specific problems.
“Offensively, they run the ball very effectively,” Harbaugh said this week. “Very physical offensive line. Very stout defensively. Probably the best team we’ve seen at stripping, clubbing, punching the ball out, creating turnovers. Very physical, competitive secondary. A fine football team. Very well coached. Excellent special teams.”
And they have one very fine, breakaway running back.