The 49ers had a golden opportunity to deliver their fans an early Christmas gift, but unfortunately, they fell to the Tennessee Titans by a final score of 20-17. It’s hard to go across the country on a short week, mainly when you’re playing a quality opponent. The fact the 49ers lost this game isn’t disappointing. It’s the way they lost this game that will leave a bad taste in 49ers fans' mouths as we all head into a holiday weekend.
The 49ers thoroughly controlled the first half, scoring on what was arguably their most impressive opening drive of the year while also holding the Titans scoreless across the first two quarters. If I told you going into this game that the 49ers would hold a 10-0 advantage at the break, I’m sure most people reading this would have been okay with being up double digits on the road against a playoff team.
The problem was the points left on the field by the 49ers, largely on the shoulder of a couple of terrible misses from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers' first drive was near flawless, as the 49ers marched 75 yards on nine plays before Jeff Wilson Jr. capped it off with a 1-yard touchdown run. Their second drive appeared to be on a similar trajectory, getting to the Titans' 8-yard line before a ball intended for George Kittle was picked off in the end zone.
Before that turnover, the 49ers' offense hadn’t faced a third down, going 147 yards on 16 plays and looking every bit as dominant as they had in any stretch against a quality opponent this season. Moreover, they were moving the ball on the Tennessee defense at will. Still, the uncharacteristic turnover in the red zone seemed to halt the momentum they had accumulated prior and kept a critical scoring chance off the board (which would prove costly later).
The 49ers' defense played lights out off following not only this turnover but throughout the entirety of the first half, forcing the Titans to punt on all four of their first-half possessions. They held the Tennessee offense to just 55 yards and three first downs while also putting up a zero on the scoreboard.
This heroic effort in the first half must be accounted for when evaluating the full scope of this game, as it will be very easy for many to simply point to the Tennessee offense marching downfield to break a 17-17 tie with only four seconds remaining as the “reason” the 49ers lost this game. Unfortunately, that could not be farther from the truth, and while the defense had its problems (I’ll get to that), their ability to keep the 49ers in this game early is the only reason they were even within one score late.
Back to the 49ers offense, who again was moving the ball with relative ease on their third possession of the game. On 1st & 10 from the Titans 40-yard line, Kyle Juszczyk got free deep down the right sideline without a Titans defender in the same area code as him. So if he gets hit in stride (even a slight underthrow), he is likely waltzing into the end zone untouched for a touchdown that would have put the 49ers up 13-0 pending an extra point.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo sailed a ball well out of the reach of Juszczyk, yet another in a long line of missed layups for the 49ers signal-caller. This is the kind of miss from Garoppolo that makes one understand why the 49ers were so eager to move mountains to draft his replacement this past offseason.
Every quarterback makes mistakes, but the issue with throws like these is that Garoppolo is making the same mistakes, week after week and year after year. There have been a handful of missed throws to a WIDE open Juszczyk down the sideline over the past couple of seasons (remember in Seattle this year and at home vs. the Rams last year? I do.)
I understand that the majority of the people reading this are tired of the Garoppolo debate, but I ask that you please take the time to understate how critical these missed throws are when having this discussion. They are more egregious than the turnovers on contested balls or the shaky pocket awareness or whatever other flaws one might point out about Garoppolo.
They are wide-open looks that are schemed up and missed regularly and have held back this 49ers offense from reaching its full potential for years. Of course, that doesn’t take away any of the good things Garoppolo has done, nor does it overshadow the two interceptions thrown in this game. But to me, that critical miss was far more damaging to the 49ers' chances of winning this game than either of the turnovers.
It has to be noted that there is a big discrepancy between Garoppolo’a effectiveness when throwing the ball downfield rather than throwing near the line of scrimmage. This was on full display in this game, as Garoppolo struggled mightily when throwing the ball on attempts with more than five air yards downfield. Check these numbers out
On throws of 5 or fewer air yards :
- 20-22, 186 yards, TD
On throws of more than five air yards
- 6-13, 136 yards, 2 Int
The second of these interceptions were costly in its own right, as Garoppolo sailed a ball intended for Deebo Samuel that ended up giving the Titans possession on the 49ers' 18-yard line. This was on the very first play following a drive where the 49ers' defense managed to hold the Titans to a field goal attempt inside their own red zone. This was yet another example of a poor decision by Garoppolo leading to an opposing team starting a drive deep inside 49ers territory, something that has happened far too frequently this season.
The Titans took advantage of the short field, scored a touchdown, and tied the game at 10. Now I don’t want to pin everything on Garoppolo, as that wouldn’t be objectively true or fair when dissecting why this game was lost. However, I do want to make it clear that I believe his horrid performance most assuredly deserves the Lion’s share of the blame, as the critical points lost due to his mistakes ultimately ended up being the difference in the outcome of this game.
So enough about the quarterback for now, because I do want to focus on the biggest blemish of an otherwise admirable performance by the 49ers' defense. After holding the Titans defense to a 40% conversion rate on third down in the first half, that number skyrocketed in the second half to 63%. Even with good quarterback play (which the 49ers clearly didn’t have), it’s hard to win when you allow your opponent to win on the money down continually.
The problem wasn’t as much the conversions themselves as it was the distance the 49ers were allowing these conversions to occur from. The Titans regularly got into third and long, and it felt like every single time, they managed to find a way to get beyond the sticks no matter how much ground they had to cover in the process. Here are the distances the Titans converted from in the second half.
- 3rd & 15
- 3rd & 7
- 3rd & 10
- 3rd & 23
- 3rd & 10
- 3rd & 8
Allowing four conversions of 10+ yards is absolutely brutal, particularly when your offense isn’t able to match blows with the offense that's racking up these conversions on your defense. I still think the offensive failures were more to blame for this loss, but this poor showing on third down defensively, unfortunately, overshadowed an otherwise very solid performance by the 49ers' defense.
The worst of all was a 3rd & 23 from the Titans 28-yard line. The Titans came out simply trying to draw the 49ers offside with a hard count, which they succeeded in doing. This led to a free play, which allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill to take a shot downfield. Tannehill connected with wide receiver AJ Brown for a 42 yard gain to the 49ers 30-yard line.
Making matters worse, this occurred in a 10-10 ball game and took away all the momentum the 49ers were poised to have if they simply got a stop. Instead, they likely get the ball back with premium field position, and who knows what happens at that point. Ultimately it was yet another example of a team that couldn’t get out of its own way in big moments, getting beat repeatedly after dominating first and second down to put the Titans in obvious passing downs on third and long.
This was the matchup the 49ers wanted heading into this game against a makeshift Titans offensive line that was missing multiple starters. Sadly the inability to get off of the field on third down ends up being the lasting memory of this game for the defense, rather than the incredible defensive effort that saw them hold their opponent scoreless for the first 35 plus minutes of this game.
There is blame to go around on both sides, but the defensive unit played a much more complete game over the course of the 60 minutes in my eyes, and I thought their effort played a far bigger role in the 49ers' chances of winning than Garoppolo and the offense did. There was a chance to put this game out of reach early, and while the clock hits 0:00 at the end of the fourth quarter, it felt like this game was lost way back in the first half when the 49ers' offense couldn’t sustain the hot start they had amassed.
Luckily, the 49ers head home to take on an objectively bad Texans team next week, and they’ll have 10 days to regroup and prepare for that contest. They are still very alive in the playoff race and still maintain key tiebreakers over Minnesota and Philadelphia. The toughest part is it feels like this is the 5th time the 49ers have lost a game in this manner this season.
As unfortunate as the 49ers' loss may be, it still is Christmas Eve after all. So for anyone reading this, I hope you enjoy the Holiday no matter how or what you celebrate, and I hope your time is spent doing something you love while being surrounded by those that you love.