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49ers’ defensive line needs to control matchup vs. Titans’ offense

For the 49ers’ defense, it will start up front with their pass rush on Thursday night vs. Titans.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

With every passing week, it seems like the 49ers’ defensive line continues to get stronger and stronger. Sure, having one of the best edge rushers in the sport in Nick Bosa helps, but the development of lesser-known players like Arden Key, Samson Ebukam, and D.J. Jones has really elevated their pass rush.

49ers’ defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has also gotten more creative with his pressure schemes, lining up his best pass rushers in different spots along the formation to find the best matchup.

Against Cincinnati, Kocurek lined up Bosa, Key, and Arik Armstead on one side of the formation, running stunts to isolate his best rushers. Against Atlanta, Key accounted for two sacks (though one got called back due to a defensive penalty).

The formula will have to be the same against the struggling Titans’ offense, who will be without left tackle Taylor Lewan and left guard Rodger Saffold on Thursday.

The Titans’ offense has been a shell of itself since the loss of running back Derrick Henry back on Halloween. Since Week 10, Tennessee’s offense is 27th in Dropback EPA/Play and 17th in Rushing EPA/Play. They’re also dead last in explosive passing plays during that time frame.

Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, Titans are 24th in Total Offense, 26th in Passing Offense, and 17th in Rushing Offense. They’re also 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate, giving ups sacks on 8.7 percent of drop-backs this season.

They haven’t been able to top 20 points in their last four games (including one against the free-falling Jaguars). Ryan Tannehill hasn’t looked like the same quarterback, and a large part of that has to do with his complement of skill players. Wideouts A.J. Brown and Julio Jones have been in and out of the lineup, but Jones is expected to suit up against the 49ers.

San Francisco’s passing defense has been tested for explosive plays down the field given their inexperience and lack of depth at the cornerback position, but that might not necessarily matter against a Titans’ offensive line that’s wounded and struggling.

On the flip side, the 49ers’ pass rush has been utterly dominant over the last three weeks. According to PFF, Nick Bosa ranks second, and Arden Key ranks third in pass-rushing productivity, which is a metric that accounts for sacks, hurries, hits, and total pressures.

The 49ers' defense generated the 35 pressures last week against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, which was their highest total on the season. They were consistently in the backfield, wreaking havoc on Ryan, and I can see a similar outcome for Tannehill.

With Bosa playing better than ever and the rest of the complementary pieces starting to gel, the 49ers’ defensive line should really control this game upfront. If they’re able to disrupt Tannehill and the Titans’ passing attack, they should be able to limit them to under 20 points and lead the 49ers to their sixth win in seven games.