Winning three of the past four games was neat and all, but beating the Tennessee Titans would be really impressive.
The 49ers’ three wins came against the Giants, Bears and Texans — three losing teams who aren’t going to the playoffs. They had nothing to play for.
The Titans are playing for a playoff spot. They currently are the fifth seed in the AFC playoff race, and their record is 8-5. They need to the beat to the 49ers to stay ahead of the Bills, Ravens and Chargers in the wild card race. Losing would be catastrophic for Tennessee.
Are the 49ers good enough to beat a potential playoff team?
Here are five things the 49ers must do to beat the Titans.
1. The offense must pick up the blitz.
The Titans defense has recorded 37 sacks this season — fifth most in the NFL.
Last week, the Titans didn’t have outside linebacker Derrick Morgan, who leads the team in sacks with 7.5. He missed the game with a knee injury. Without him, the Titans still sacked Cardinals quarterback Blaine Gabbert eight times.
Morgan will miss Sunday’s game against the 49ers, but the Titans pass rush still will be dangerous. That’s because their pass rush doesn’t depend on one player.
Every player on the Titans defense is a threat to sack the quarterback. Their defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, loves to blitz. He invented the zone blitz — two or three linebackers or defensive backs rushing the quarterback while one defensive lineman drops into zone coverage.
LeBeau will try to trick Jimmy Garoppolo by blitzing with different players. LeBeau will blitz a cornerback one play and an inside linebacker the next.
And LeBeau will blitz the right side of the 49ers offensive line, which is missing right tackle Trent Brown. The 49ers placed him on IR with a shoulder injury on Friday.
Garoppollo must recognize where the blitz is coming from, and his teammates must block the extra pass rusher. Otherwise, Garoppolo may not make it through the game.
2. Kyle Shanahan must find a new way to roll out Jimmy Garoppolo.
One way the 49ers can protect Garoppolo from the onslaught of blitzers is to roll him out of the pocket.
As an offensive coordinator, Shanahan is known for his play-action rollout pass game. That is foundational to his scheme.
This season, everyone seems to have figured out how to defend Shanahan’s play-action rollout pass game. It almost never works. The quarterback fakes the handoff, keeps the ball, runs a “naked bootleg” out of the pocket (that’s when he rolls out by himself without a blocker) and runs into a defender almost every time. The defender usually forces the quarterback to throw a quick, short pass, or throw the ball away.
Shanahan needs to change how he moves the pocket. The naked bootlegs aren’t fooling anybody.
He needs to make an offensive lineman or a tight end roll out with Garoppolo and block. This is called a “waggle,” and it will give Garoppolo time to throw. If there’s no waggle, it could be a major draggle.
3. Garoppolo must not throw the ball up for grabs.