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Do the 49ers have a 3rd down problem on defense?

The Titans owned the 49ers' defense on third down, which helped lead to an ugly collapse in Tennessee last week. What happened, and can it happen again?

Syndication: The Tennessean Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

As anyone could plainly see, the Niners' defense looked dominant against the Titans, especially in the first half, and even more especially on first and second downs. However, after some adjustments, Tennessee unlocked how to convert long third downs, and convert, they did.

The Titans started three of seven on third down before halftime, then cashed in six of nine opportunities, four of which were for ten yards or more, with the shortest measuring in at seven yards.

The longest and most demoralizing had to be the 42-yard gainer after an offsides-induced free play on a 3rd and 23. A.J. Brown, who made a habit of outmuscling man coverage all night, mercilessly bodied Ambry Thomas on the jump ball. Nevertheless, the drive that seemed all but dead continued onward, resulting in a go-ahead touchdown.

On the whole, the Niners only allowed 278 yards of production by the Titans. Unfortunately, 149 of those yards were generated by Ryan Tannehill passes that moved the chains on third down. That yardage, and the resulting scores, only serve to highlight the situational importance of those downs.

The ability to effectively end drives and consistently escort teams off the field is one of the best markers of a successful defense. So, how have the Niners stacked up in this regard on the season? Is this game part of a worrying trend or a one-time aberration? Let’s take a look.

For a bit of perspective, in 2020, the last season of Robert Saleh’s tenure, the Niners only allowed conversions on third down 35.50% of the time, which was good enough to rank third in the league. This year, under DeMeco Ryans, that percentage has risen, but only slightly to 38.83% to slot them in at twelfth overall.

However, looking at the average for the last three games, including Tennessee, you can see the resulting uptick to 42.86%. That might seem like an alarming increase, but it’s clearly just the bump from a 56.25% performance because the previous two games against the Bengals and Falcons didn’t feature the same troubles, as they came in at 30.77% (4 of 13) and 38.46% (5 of 13) respectively.

So, what accounts for this week’s spike?

Donte Whitner, former Niners safety, did a great job of diagnosing the issue post-game, pointing to the lack of pass rush on those downs. Instead, the Titans used a deceptively simple strategy. Whitner explained, “It was the same concept: 7 man max pro, keeping guys in to block, sitting the tight end right over the ball...”

Selling out for pass protection basically guaranteed that one of the strongest receivers in football would eventually get open against single-man coverage, especially when you consider the Niners’ corners. Not adjusting to give help from safeties in those situations feels like a huge missed opportunity.

All things considered, this seems like a bump in the road for a rookie coordinator, who’ll take it in stride as a learning experience to improve further. It just happened to be a perfect storm of a solid game plan, superior talent, and unfortunate circumstances that caused the anomaly of a meltdown.