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49ers improved run defense might get help from Titans poor decisions in run game

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Derrick Henry has out-performed DeMarco Murray, but is getting less of a role. The 49ers might benefit on Sunday.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers run defense has taken a huge step forward this year, showing dividends from a combination of a talent infusion and a sound scheme. A year ago, the 49ers were getting over regularly, giving up a league worse 4.8 yards per carry. This year, they rank seventh in the NFL, giving up 3.9 yards per carry.

The advanced stats hold up as well. A year ago, Football Outsiders ranked the 49ers No. 29 in adjusted line yards, and No. 31 in overall rushing defense. This year, they rank No. 20 in adjusted line yards, and No. 17 in overall rushing defense. FO uses DVOA to adjust for opponent and situational context. Yards per carry allowed is helpful, but I like having a little more context in the numbers.

This week, the 49ers face a Titans offense that ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing, and No. 13 in adjusted line yards. They roll with a DeMarco Murray-Derrick Henry one-two punch, although the second punch has been a lot stronger than the first. Murray leads the team with 151 rushes for 552 yards (3.7 ypc), while Derrick Henry has 133 carries and leads the team with 649 yards (4.9 ypc). Marcus Mariota is averaging 5.0 yards per carry on his 45 carries.

Heading into this season, I thought Henry would emerge as the Titans starter. Murray got the bulk of the work last year and averaged 4.4 yards per carry to Henry’s 4.5 yards per carry. Last week, Murray had 11 rushes to Henry’s eight. The previous week, they split carries, with Henry rushing for 109 yards on 11 carries, and Murray rushing for 66 yards on 11 carries.

I recently chatted with Jimmy Morris from Music City Miracles about this weekend’s game, and I asked him why we have not seen Henry move into the starting lineup.

That's an excellent question. It is obvious to everyone with eyes that Derrick Henry is the better back, but this coaching staff is so stubborn. They refuse to change course from what the plan was coming into the season. Murray was great last season, but he looks old and slow this year. It feels like they are giving up on a play every time they had him the ball.

They also use the excuse that they don't trust Henry as much in passing situations. That is why the snap numbers are always higher for Murray even in the rare game where they give Henry more carries.

It's really crazy because Henry is just better at this point. He also gets more effective as he gets on a roll and gets carries. The Titans never allow him to do that because they are committed to giving DeMarco his carries regardless of the results.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has been plenty pleased with the 49ers run defense thus far. He acknowledges there have been a couple poor performances, but overall, he is happy with how the unit has responded week in and week out.

“We felt good throughout the entire year. There were a couple of lame ducks in there. Dallas game still punches me in the stomach, punches all of us really. Overall, just the overall structure of the defense and the way we’ve been playing we don’t feel like we’ve been schemed at all. From a run-game standpoint, we feel like we’ve been very sound. It’s been progressing. The yards per carry has remained constant. We feel really good about where we are from a yards per carry stat, if you want to give it that. Overall, we’re holding teams town in overall rushing yards. But, that’s also contributed to the way our offense is playing, able to get us the lead, keep us in the game. It’s all team ball. I’ll go back to the way those guys are playing too, it’s been great.”

Saleh was complimentary of the Titans rushing attack, and said they offer up the biggest playbook he has seen on film. He does not have access to the Titans’ physical playbook, but when he watches film in preparation for the game, he can see the various decisions they make over the course of the season. When asked what he meant by such a big playbook, he offered up some details of what he sees.

“Anything from gap-pull to zone-read to just normal bounce schemes. They shift you. They motion you. They do everything they can to get you out of your gap and get you confused on what your responsibility is. For us, repping all that stuff and being sound is going to be the challenge.”

Marcus Mariota has had his share of struggles this season. After taking a step forward in his second season, he has regressed in year three. His completion percentage is similar to his first two seasons, and his yardage should end up over 3,000 yards, but his QB rating is down significantly, and his TD/INT ratio dropped from 26/9 last year to 10/14 this year.

The Titans will likely try and challenge the 49ers secondary, but I expect a heavy dose of the run game. The big question is whether or not we see more of the superior talent in Derrick Henry, or if the veteran DeMarco Murray keeps getting the bigger role.