The Tennessee Titans (9-5) host the San Francisco 49ers (8-6) in a crucial Thursday night matchup. This game is vital for both teams playoff hopes.
Tennessee is seeking a second straight division championship while the 49ers are trying to stay in the thick of the Wild Card chase.
This game has a ton of storylines heading into this one so let’s take a deeper look into some of the more intriguing storylines surrounding the Titans & 49ers’ primetime matchup.
A.J. Brown’s pending return
The Tennessee Titans received some much-needed positive news on Monday when star wide receiver A.J. Brown was designated to return to practice from the injured reserve list.
As the week has started to progress, things are seemingly trending towards Brown making his much-anticipated return to the field on Thursday night barring any setbacks.
To say that Brown’s presence & production has been missed would be a massive understatement. Tennessee’s passing offense has been borderline non-existent over the last couple of weeks. Since returning from the bye, not a single receiver on the Titans has eclipsed 33 receiving yards in any of their two games.
This is why it’s not some sort of insult that some Titans fans make it out to be when people say that Brown is missed more than Henry at this very moment.
No one is saying that Tennessee’s running back committee equates to what Derrick Henry brings to this offense. Nor is anyone saying that Brown is more important or valuable to this Titans team than Henry is.
But at this moment in time when the Titans don’t have either of them, the current stable of running backs are producing at a much higher rate without Henry than the weaponry out wide is without Brown.
Before exiting the Week 11 game against the Texans, Brown had accumulated over 600 receiving yards and was well on his way to an 1100-1200 yard season if not for the chest injury. The Ole Miss legend had a three-week spurt against the Bills, Chiefs, & Colts where he caught 25 passes for 379 yards and two touchdowns.
That type of receiving threat who is capable of producing at a rate like that has been missing ever since Brown’s departure. Now that his return is within sight, his presence alone is going to help open up the offense.
Outside of his own production, Brown’s presence will allow the other receivers to go up against defensive backs closer to their talent level as opposed to being forced to face the top cover guys with no viable threat on the outside.
The Titans’ star receiver returning will likely help make the running back committee’s job a little easier as well.
Now the offense has the ability to become balanced again rather than being the one-dimensional train wreck it’s been for the last month or so.
Brown may be limited in his first game back due to conditioning combined with the fact that it’s a short week of preparation. Expectations may need to be tempered a little, but there’s no denying that anytime No. 11 is out there, Tennessee’s ability to move the ball increases exponentially.
Only time will tell how much of an impact Brown will have in his return. Be on the lookout for any official availability updates as we get closer to game time.
Re-taking momentum in AFC South
Last week was a real gut punch to Titans fans. Not only did Tennessee let their chances to control their destiny for the 1-Seed slip away, but the Colts also won which now only puts them 1.5 games back from the division lead with three games left.
The Titans (9-5) are now only one disaster of a weekend from ending up with the same record as the Colts (8-6) heading into the final two weeks of the season. Although Tennessee would have the tiebreaker and would still control their destiny, I don’t think any Titans fan would feel comfortable knowing the team is now technically tied for the once seemingly locked up AFC South crown.
Then on the flip side of that, Tennessee is one fantastic weekend away from clinching the AFC South and could then focus on trying to get the highest seed possible.
For that to happen, the Titans and Cardinals both need to win this weekend against the 49ers & Colts. That would allow Tennessee to officially clinch the division for the second straight year.
Nonetheless, the most important thing in all of this is that the Titans find a way to win on Thursday night against a tough 49ers team. That alone will put Tennessee in a fantastic position over the final two weeks of the season regardless of what happens on Saturday night between Indianapolis & Arizona.
Should the Titans beat the 49ers and the Colts beat the Cardinals, Tennessee will only be a 1/2 game away from clinching the division. Meaning the Titans will only need ONE more win OR Colts loss to secure the South crown.
How all this plays out remains to be seen. But there’s no denying that it’s going to be an exciting, stressful, and/or possibly depressing, Christmas weekend one way or another.
Limiting Nick Bosa’s impact
If Tennessee’s offense is going to have a chance at getting back on track, they’re going to have to limit the front runner for comeback player of the year. Nick Bosa has looked every bit like the superstar he is in his first season back from a devastating knee injury.
The Ohio State product has accounted for 15 sacks (3rd in NFL), 29 quarterback hits (2nd), 18 tackles for loss (1st), & four forced fumbles (4th).
Meanwhile, Titans’ left tackle Taylor Lewan was listed as a DNP (Did not practice) on Monday & Tuesday’s injury report meanwhile their starting right tackle David Quessenberry has allowed the most sacks in the NFL this year, according to PFF.
Bosa is known to move around all along the front line so whoever lines up across from him on any given play is going to have their hands full. If Lewan can’t go, Kendall Lamm will likely be the next man up. Needless to say: that’s less than ideal.
Be on the lookout to see how the Titans try and slow down one of the NFL’s best young players on Thursday night.
Attempting to put out the fires that are George Kittle & Deebo Samuel
Tennessee’s stout defense has been on full display over the last couple of weeks and they’re going to have to be again on Thursday to give this team a chance.
49ers’ Tight end George Kittle & the ultimate utility knife in Deebo Samuel are two of the most dangerous players in the league at the moment.
Kittle has caught fire over the last three weeks, catching 28 passes for 425 yards and three touchdowns.
Titans’ safeties Kevin Byard, Amani Hooker, & possibly Dane Cruikshank are the ones that are likely going to be responsible for helping to keep Kittle in check.
Prior to an injury that landed Cruikshank on IR, the Titans’ most productive dime linebacker did a fantastic job earlier in the year in limiting Travis Kelce’s impact in a 27-3 Titans victory over the Chiefs. He may be asked to do something similar on Thursday but it’s probably going to be a group effort to slow down the 49ers’ superstar tight end.
The Iowa product is also a staple in their run blocking scheme, Kittle possesses the ability to seal defenders off by beating them at the point of attack more often than not.
On the other spectrum of the offense, the 49ers also possess their do-it-all-superstar in Deebo Samuel. The South Carolina product takes this offense to an entirely new level. He has the ability to beat any defensive back in the passing game if left single covered. Samuel is also arguably the team’s best running back anytime he’s allowed to take the ball out of the backfield.
The 49ers find lots of creative ways to get the ball into Samuel’s hands so the Titans need to be prepared for anything when No. 19 is on the field. Samuel has tallied 61 catches for 1,088 receiving yards, five receiving touchdowns, while also rushing for 269 yards and seven rushing touchdowns (12 total).
If the Titans’ defense wants to show everyone that they’re among the league’s best, they’ll have the chance to prove it on primetime against two borderline unstoppable forces at the moment.
Is D’Onta Foreman RB2 for foreseeable future?
One of the more pleasant surprises out of all these injuries has been the rise of D’Onta Foreman. Tennessee has been yearning for a productive backup running back to occasionally relieve Henry from time to time. The team had hoped Darrynton Evans would evolve into that role when they spent a third-round pick on him back in 2020 but he has failed to stay on the field.
Foreman has been the most consistent back Tennessee has had since Henry went on injured reserve. He’s produced over 100 yards anytime he’s carried the ball over 15 times and has already set a new career-high for himself (348 yards).
The Texas product brings the bruising running style that the Titans love to pound the rock with. Once Henry is back, Foreman will be able to occasionally relieve Henry while the team continues to wear out defenses with their punishing style of play. This likely allows Henry to be fresher towards the end of the game which is when he tends to truly take over. Opposing defenses are still taking a physical pounding for three quarters but Henry won’t have to take all of those tone-setting hits anymore.
The former Longhorn could spell Henry in blowouts while also being able to keep the ground game potent whenever called upon.
Henry is a physical specimen, truly a one-of-a-kind talent. But as we all, unfortunately, saw this year, he is still human even though many see him as some sort of superhero.
And with each passing year, the king gets closer to that dreaded 30 wall for running backs. Could Henry be different and prove that he can continue being elite into his 30’s? Possibly, but history tells us that even the greatest of running backs start to decline once they hit the age of 30.
Tennessee needs to protect its investment and ride this wave as long as they possibly can. This is why Foreman could and should become part of this Titans offense for the foreseeable future. Foreman’s ability to lighten Henry’s load could possibly extend the King’s peak by a season or two if everything goes to plan. That alone is worth having him stick around into 2022 and possibly beyond.