Grading 49ers’ offense, defense in deflating loss to Titans originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The 49ers had five players selected to the NFC Pro Bowl team and seven others named as alternates.
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel had a huge game, but many of the team’s other big players had their ups and downs in the 49ers’ 20-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on Thursday night.
“I think our best was needed tonight and our best players didn’t play our best game,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “Deebo obviously played really well, and just as an offense we have to not make mistakes.”
The 49ers had their good moments on offense and defense, but they also made too many mistakes and were beaten on too many plays to win the game.
“All three phases weren’t good enough, obviously,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I thought they had a chance to have a special game, especially how they played in the first half.”
Here is the 49ers’ report card from their Week 16 loss in which they squandered a 10-point halftime lead:
The 49ers went up against a Titans defensive front that was designed to stop the run game. The 49ers averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt, though starter Jeff Wilson Jr. found it difficult to get anything going.
Wilson gained 45 yards and a touchdown on 14 rushing attempts. Deebo Samuel again made a contribution in the run game with 32 yards on five rushing attempts.
The 49ers had some success in the passing game, as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 322 yards and a touchdown. Samuel had a huge game with nine receptions for 159 yards.
But errors in the passing game were among the plays that led to the loss.
The 49ers are 7-0 on the season when Garoppolo does not turn the ball over. They are 1-6 when he throws at least one pick. He threw two interceptions on Thursday that accounted for a 14-point swing.
His pass intended for Kittle was intercepted in the end zone in the first quarter. That play enabled Tennessee to remain in the game.
Garoppolo’s second interception came at the beginning of the third quarter and led directly to a game-tying touchdown with a short field for the Titans.
Garoppolo also overthrew fullback Kyle Juszczyk on what could’ve been a long touchdown. Also, he and Brandon Aiyuk were not on the same page on a fourth-and-6 pass play late in the third quarter.
Garoppolo was at his best on the 49ers’ first drive of the game and the last drive. His 2-yard touchdown pass to Aiyuk with 2:20 remaining tied the game.
The 49ers continued to hold the opposition under 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. Former 49ers running back Jeremy McNichols led Tennessee with 31 yards on seven carries.
The 49ers’ defense did a good job of setting up third-and-long situations. But that is where things went horribly wrong for the team.
The 49ers did not generate any takeaways on defense, but otherwise the pass defense played about as well as possible in the first half. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 10 of 13 pass attempts in the first half but it accounted for only 40 yards.
Tannehill finished the game completing 22 of 29 attempts for 209 yards. Those numbers are nothing great, but how the Titans won the biggest downs of the game helped decide this one.
The Titans converted 9 of 15 on third downs before Tannehill’s sole intent on the final third down was to get the ball on the right hashmark for Randy Bullock’s game-winning field goal.
And these were not simple third downs the Titans converted, either. The 49ers gave up third-down conversions when Tennessee needed 11, 3, 10, 15, 7, 10, 23, 10 and 8 yards.
Cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Josh Norman played well for most of the game, but were beaten in key situations. The 49ers had no answer for Titans receiver A.J. Brown, who caught 11 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown.
In the game of field position, the Titans had a huge advantage. The 49ers’ average starting point was their own 22-yard line. The Titans began their drives, on average, at the 35.
The 49ers gave up a 37-yard kickoff return. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky averaged just 35 yards on two punts. Special teams did not kill the 49ers, but the Titans had a distinct edge in that phase of the game, too.
The 49ers were well-prepared on both sides of the ball and came out firing on offense and defense.
Clearly, the offensive game plan put the team in position to make a lot of plays, including the deep shot to Juszczyk that sailed out of bounds.
While some might second-guess the 49ers’ conservative strategy at the end of the first half, the thinking was obvious. There was no reason for the 49ers to try to force things at the end of the half and run the risk of giving the Titans some free points.
The defensive plan was effective through one half. But, ultimately, the 49ers could not finish on either side of the ball. The 49ers did not enact an effective defensive strategy for dealing with the Titans on third downs.
This game is not a killer, but it certainly complicates matters for the 49ers to gain entry into the postseason.
The 49ers had momentum early but made critical mistakes that allowed the Titans to stick around. One of the worst parts for the 49ers is that they were facing a team that was playing without two starting offensive linemen.
The 49ers looked like the better team from the outset and should have exerted their dominance and never allowed the Titans to believe they had a chance to win.
They let a major opportunity get away.