NASHVILLE – Nothing better illustrates the Tennessee Titans’ dramatic improvement on defense this season than its ability to stop the run.
Ranked 19th in that regard in 2020, Tennessee has the NFL’s second-best rushing defense through 14 games this year. They’re allowing just 86.9 yards on the ground per game, less than a yard behind the top-ranked Baltimore Ravens (86.2 per game).
The Titans are fresh off a pair of monster flexes in run defense. They surrendered just eight yards on eight carries to Jacksonville two Sundays ago and followed that up with 35 yards allowed on 17 carries to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A combined 43 yards allowed on 25 carries over two weeks? That happens to be the Titans’ best back-to-back efforts against the run in franchise history.
“One thing I’ve learned to have is a short memory … being able to cut everything off and then re-start real fast for this Thursday night,” Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “It is a good thing we are stopping the run and doing as good as we are on defense. But at the end of the day, this league is always about wins.”
Thursday, the Titans face a San Francisco rushing attack that is one of the more productive and unusual in the league. The 49ers average 126.6 yards on the ground, seventh in the NFL and currently the highest of any team the Titans have faced this season aside from Indianapolis.
It is not quite a clash between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. But it’s not so far removed.
“Their strength is running the ball, and our strength is stopping the run,” Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said. “It’s kind of one of those strength-on-strength things. It’s going to come down to who’s going to be the most physical and the team that wants it the most.”
A few things that make the 49ers’ rushing attack stand out:
• San Francisco has taken full advantage of wide receiver Deebo Samuel in the rushing game. He has carried 39 times – more than any other receiver in the game – for 269 yards (6.9-yard average) and seven touchdowns. Over the past five weeks, Samuel has averaged almost seven carries per game, picking up about 49 yards per contest and scoring six touchdowns.
“They’re using Deebo a lot, and that’s what coaches do – find ways to get ball in the best hands of their ballplayers,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “With that comes a whole different set of circumstances you’ve got to deal with, just based on where they’re placing guys. It’s the challenge of multiple formations, with different players in different spots that are unconventional.”
• Unlike many teams, the 49ers use their fullback extensively. Kyle Juszczyk has been on the field for 230 run-blocking snaps, the second-highest figure in the league, per Pro Football Focus. By extension, San Francisco uses “21” personnel – two running backs and one tight end – more often than most other NFL teams.
“We’ve seen some `21’ from our offense in training camp,” Bowen said. “So, it’s not totally as foreign to us as it would be to another defense who really just sees `11’ or spread-out offenses throughout training camp. We’ve got some reps in the bank, and we should be able to go back and see those.”
• In George Kittle, the 49ers feature not only one of the game’s best pass-catching threats, but one of the best blocking tight ends as well. His work alongside powerful linemen like tackle Trent Williams, center Alex Mack and guard Laken Tomlinson is one reason San Francisco leads the NFL with an 88.2 run-blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus.
“They really commit to the run,” Evans said. “They know how to finish. It’s going to be a real big challenge for us defensively.”
Translation: It’s one thing to re-write the record book against the likes of the Jaguars and Steelers. It will be that much more difficult to draw a line in the dirt against San Francisco’s running attack.
“These guys want to run the ball,” Simmons said. “You can see on film that these guys want to try to knock you off the ball. The last two weeks, we have been stopping the run. That’s why I said it’s strength on strength.”