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NFL Preview - Tennessee (1-6) at San Francisco (3-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Chris Johnson continues to live in the shadows of Adrian Peterson as the NFL's best running back, but the league's current leading rusher has earned a few headlines of his own for the Tennessee Titans.
Johnson will try turn a few more heads this Sunday, when the Titans pay a visit to the San Francisco 49ers with hopes of recording their second win of the season.
The 5-11, 200-pound Johnson played a key role in Tennessee's first win of the season, a 30-13 triumph versus Jacksonville last week, by rushing for a franchise-record 228 yards on 24 carries with a pair of touchdown runs. Johnson had scoring sprints of 89 and 52 yards, giving him an NFL-high five runs of over 40 yards this season.
Johnson has been a spectacular runner ever since the Titans drafted him in the first round two years ago. His elusiveness and vision has him sitting at the top of the NFL with 824 yards rushing and a weekly average of 117.7 yards per game. He certainly has proved the naysayers wrong for knocking him for his size. Minnesota's Peterson is tied for third in rushing and like the rest of the league, is aware of Johnson's success.
While Johnson stole the show with his big performance, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher rolled the dice by naming Vince Young his starter in favor of ineffective veteran Kerry Collins. Young did just enough to keep the job against the Jaguars, as he was a pedestrian 15-of-18 for 125 yards and a touchdown.
Tennessee owner Bud Adams reportedly lobbied for Young to be the starter again after the franchise selected the former University of Texas star third overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. Young is more mobile and stronger than the savvy Collins, and hopes to lead the Titans to their second win of the season and first on the road in his third start since 2007.
Standing in the way of that goal are the win-deprived 49ers, who have dropped three in a row since a solid 3-1 start. Much like Tennessee's Fisher, 49ers head coach Mike Singletary made a switch under center last week and opted for former No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith, who has played in the past two games and has four touchdown passes to a pair of interceptions over that time.
San Francisco suffered a hard-luck defeat at Indianapolis last weekend, even though it prevented Colts All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning from throwing a touchdown pass. The wasted effort was highlighted by a 22-yard touchdown pass from Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai to Reggie Wayne that put the Colts ahead in the fourth quarter, as Niners back Frank Gore's 64-yard touchdown run to open the scoring never held.
Overall, Singletary was pleased with Smith's performance and seems to be set on a starter for the rest of the season.
Smith, however, won't have left tackle Joe Staley blocking his backside after it learned that the big lineman is hampered with a sprained right knee. Staley will miss the first game of his career on Sunday, with tackle Barry Sims expected to fill in this week for the 49ers, who are playing an opponent from the AFC South for a third consecutive week.
San Francisco's defense figures to provide a stern test for Johnson, as the 49ers currently sit second in the NFL with an average of 84.9 rushing yards per game allowed.
San Francisco has a 7-4 lead in its all-time series with Tennessee, but was a 33-22 road loser when the clubs last met, in 2005 in Nashville. The Niners won the previous two contests, including a 24-22 home victory in 1999. The Titans franchise last won in San Francisco in 1993, when the then-Oilers earned a 10-7 triumph.
Fisher is 1-2 in his career against the 49ers, while Singletary will be meeting both Fisher and the Titans for the first time as a head coach. Fisher (7th Round) and Singletary (2nd Round) were both selected by the Chicago Bears in the 1981 NFL Draft, and were teammates for four seasons together in Chicago (1981-84).
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Young (125 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) has a career mark of 19-11 and made his first start of the season last week, in which he managed well enough to get the Titans back into the win column. Collins struggled for the first few weeks and it was a big surprise, since he really didn't have to do that much for last year's 13-3 squad. Collins (1,071 passing yards) completed just 54.8 percent of his passes with five touchdown strikes to eight interceptions. Fisher may have had his hands tied with the owner in his ear about Young, who is getting a second shot at becoming the franchise quarterback after a series of odd stories that surfaced last season. He had a six-yard touchdown pass to Titans newcomer Nate Washington (20 receptions). who leads the team with four touchdown receptions. Young also avoided any turnovers against the Jaguars, something he must make a habit of from here on out. His mobility will help the offensive line in its pass protection, while a nice effort from Johnson helps with shouldering the load. Rookie wideout Kenny Britt (20 receptions), Justin Gage (18 receptions, 1 TD) and Washington hope to take advantage of a banged- up 49ers secondary in the Titans' first trip to the Bay area since 1999. Tight ends Bo Scaife (16 receptions) and Alge Crumpler (18 receptions) are also at Young's disposal, while Johnson has caught 18 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.
Much like Tennessee, the 49ers have been experiencing problems against the pass, yielding just over 250 yards through the air per contest. Manning threw for 347 yards but had zero touchdown passes to show for it. High-priced defensive back Nate Clements (35 tackles, 1 INT) will miss the next six-to- eight weeks because of a broken right shoulder blade. The 49ers tried to shore up the position by adding ex-Lion Keith Smith on Tuesday, while Tarell Brown (7 tackles) may see more of an extended role. Safeties Dashon Goldson (46 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Michael Lewis (35 tackles) must be cognizant of where Young is on the field at all times. Otherwise, a broken play can turn into a long scramble or a mismatch in the secondary. With the way Johnson has been running, Singletary better tell his defensive backfield to be ready for a long afternoon.
Johnson (824 rushing yards, 4 TD) played a vital role in Young's first start by setting a franchise record with 228 rushing yards against Jacksonville. His 52-yard and 89-yard touchdown runs displayed the East Carolina product's top speed and agility, and the 49ers will be waiting. Tennessee is second in the NFL with an average of 162.3 rushing yards per game thanks to Johnson and LenDale White (195 rushing yards, 1 TD),who hasn't done much this season to earn a fair share of carries. With Johnson averaging 6.9 yards per carry, it makes it really tough to decipher why the Titans have been so bad. His yardage total last week was the most by an NFL player in two years (296 by Peterson on Nov. 4, 2007) and tied for the 16th-best individual total since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Johnson has two of the team's three longest touchdown runs with an 89-yarder and a 91-yarder -- both coming this season. He helped the Titans end with 305 rushing yards as a team, the second-highest total in franchise history (332 at Kansas City on Oct. 19, 2008). White will see action when Johnson needs a breather and offers a more bruising style of running behind a veteran bunch of lineman led by center Kevin Mawae and tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart.
The 49ers will be waiting for what Johnson will bring this weekend and will show no fear, since they have the second-best rush defense in the NFL, holding opposing teams to just 84.9 yards per game on the ground. Much of that success can be attributed to All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis (67 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT), who will be aiming for his fifth double-digit tackle performance. Willis has emerged as the main man on defense in the Bay area, but gets a lot of help from fellow linebackers Manny Lawson (36 tackles, 1.5 sacks), Takeo Spikes (35 tackles, 1 sack) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer (23 tackles, 1 INT). The linebackers have a tall task on their hands with the NFL's leading rusher in town and his backup White hoping to change the pace of the game. The 49ers have held opponents under 100 yards rushing in six games.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Alex Smith (404 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) is in charge of San Francisco's steadily improving pass attack and will make his second start of the season this week. The 49ers are 22nd in passing this season, averaging 174.9 yards per game through the air, and recorded just 182 in last week's loss to the Colts. Smith passed for 198 yards with a touchdown and an interception, one week after passing for 206 yards with three scores and an interception in relief against Houston. Tight end Vernon Davis (32 receptions, 7 TD) is still the go-to receiver on the roster and leads the team in receptions, touchdowns and receiving yards (375). He will be counted on again to be Smith's safety valve and top target in the red zone. Davis will be often be lined up in the spread offense, which features three wideouts and Smith in the shotgun position. There's also a two-wide receiver, two-tight end formation to beef up the run game. Josh Morgan (18 receptions, 1 TD), Isaac Bruce (19 receptions) and rookie Michael Crabtree (11 receptions) will try to expose and confuse the Titans' defense, which has surrendered just under 400 yards a game. Niners offensive tackle Adam Snyder returned to the starting lineup at tackle in place of the injured Tony Pashos last week, while Sims will take over for Staley. According to the team's site, Staley will miss the next six weeks with the knee injury.
Tennessee's secondary will be looking to snag a few balls out of the air on Sunday. The Titans held the Jaguars to 113 passing yards last week, with defensive backs Cortland Finnegan (20 tackles, 2 INTs) and Rod Hood (6 tackles, 1 INT) coming away with picks. Tennessee has been struggling on defense this year, just one season after having one of the stingiest stop units in the game. Regardless of what they did to slow Jacksonville down, the Titans are allowing 282.4 passing yards a game this season. Safeties Chris Hope (43 tackles, 1 INT) and Michael Griffin (33 tackles) have to step it up this week and play better. The talented duo have dropped off this season, which has led to the team's demise. The Titans' pass rush is nothing to brag about either under defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil. Tackle Jason Jones (12 tackles, 4 sacks) is tops in sacks with just four, and end Jacob Ford (11 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is next with only 2 1/2. Ends William Hayes (24 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (24 tackles, 1 sack) will try to provide pressure around the corners to throw off Alex Smith.
The Niners will try to run Gore wild against Tennessee's 18th-rated run defense on Sunday. Gore shook off a rough week following a two-game absence by posting 91 yards on 13 touches in the Indianapolis game. Singletary hopes the switches on the offensive line work out for both Smith and Gore, but more importantly hopes that the ground game is able to open the spread offense. While San Francisco tries to further humiliate Tennessee's worst-rated pass defense, the ground attack should have a productive afternoon against the Titans' run defense, which is surrendering 112.4 yards per contest.
Gore is the catalyst for the 49ers, and how he goes San Francisco follows. He is coming off a strong performance against the Colts in which he ran for 91 yards on 13 touches, including a 64-yard scoring scamper. The Titans cannot afford to allow him to get comfortable. Perhaps the departure of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is starting to take its toll on the front line. Haynesworth, now in Washington, was a run-stuffing monster, something the Titans are hoping to get from Jones and a gaggle of talented linebackers. Keith Bulluck (60 tackles, 1 INT), Stephen Tulloch (58 tackles, 1 sack) and David Thornton (39 tackles, 1 sack) will make it tough for Gore to run wild like he did last week. Veteran end Jevon Kearse (3 tackles, 1 sack) has been inactive the last three weeks and doesn't appear to be returning to the gridiron soon. Cecil's defense is 31st in yards allowed this season and 32nd in points given up.
Tennessee and San Francisco enter this week's matchup with an extensive list of fantasy players. The obvious for the Titans is Johnson, who won't have as much success on the road but will still do his fair share of damage. Any of the receivers for Tennessee is a risk, since Young is the new sheriff in town and hasn't been able to establish a rapport with any of the pass-catchers. Young is not a wise choice unless you're desperate and can't find a worthy safety pick in free agency. Kicker Rob Bironas is one of the best in the business and will give the Titans some points on Sunday.
San Francisco has a few weapons of its own on offense, as Gore, Crabtree and Davis are all capable of racking up points in front of the home crowd. Singletary has molded this defense into a mirror image of himself, a group built on more grit than glitter and more spit than polish. Willis is the reason for that. Give kicker Joe Nedney a shot, as he's usually good for at least five or six points.
He may not show it, but Young has a lot of pressure on his shoulders as he makes his second start for the Titans. He made it clear he wanted his job back and justified his wishes with a safe showing last week in place of incumbent starter Collins. He didn't have to do much, though, because Johnson stole his thunder with an unbelievable performance against Jacksonville. Johnson will not have that type of outing this week, because the 49ers have consistently been able to slow down opposing backs, and this should be no different regardless of where Johnson ranks in the NFL. Sunday's matchup will be a defensive struggle, with the Titans finally putting together 60 minutes of hard work. Gore will pose problems for the Titans' linebackers, but won't be able to prevent San Francisco from losing for the fourth consecutive time.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 26, 49ers 20
11/05 19:19:07 ET