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Thursday Night Preview: San Francisco 49ers at Tennessee Titans

Thursday Night Football Preview


 Line: 49ers -3, Total: 44


Ball Security Blues

Following a Week 10 win over the New Orleans Saints, the Titans were sitting at 8-2 with the best record in the AFC and the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the league. At that point, FiveThirtyEight gave them a 75% chance of securing the #1 seed in the AFC and the only playoff bye for the conference. However, a lot has changed since then. Tennessee lost to the lowly Texans and followed it up by getting drubbed by fellow top-seed contender Patriots. The Titans shut out the Jaguars following their bye week but lost at Pittsburgh on Sunday despite holding the Steelers to 168 yards of total offense. In fact, in three of the last four games, they’ve held opponents under 200 yards of offense, but went 1-2 in those games (Texans, Jags, Steelers).

How does a team give up less than 200 yards and lose … twice? Turnovers. Against Houston, the Titans gave the ball away five times and turned it over four times in Pittsburgh. In those two defeats, they generated zero turnovers on defense. In the loss against the Pats, the Titans also turned it over four times while producing zero takeaways. In those three setbacks, the Titans turned the ball over 13 times.

In 2020, they turned it over 12 times in 16 games. They’ve been plagued all season by miscues, tied for second in the NFL with the Bears and Chiefs with 25 giveaways (Only the Jets have more with 26). Tennessee has a turnover differential of minus-7, which is sixth-worst. Along with the Ravens, they are the only two NFL teams who have a turnover differential of minus-4 or worse while also having a winning record (Baltimore is minus-9).

This four-game stretch has dropped the Titans’ odds of securing the number one overall seed down to just 11% and a loss would all but close that window (1% chance with a loss on Thursday). While the Colts have made a surge in the AFC South, FiveThirtyEight still likes Tennessee to win the division at 84%, thanks to sweeping the Colts earlier in the season and holding the tiebreaker. While a division title would be a major accomplishment for the franchise – it would represent the first time the Titans/Oilers won their division in back-to-back seasons since winning the AFL’s Eastern Division three straight seasons from 1960-1962 – it’s not the goal they had in mind in mid-November.


49er Flip-Flop

San Francisco came into the season with a lot of hype but stumbled a bit out of the gates. That led to the Niners starting the year by failing to cover five of their first six games. However, they’ve since won and covered in six of their last eight (7-7 against-the-spread on the season). Additionally, they’ve been a good road favorite, going 7-3 ATS in their past 10 opportunities dating back to 2019. Tennessee, on the other hand, has been the complete opposite. The Titans went 7-2 ATS in their first nine games, including a five-game ATS winning streak from Week 5 through Week 9.

Since then, though, they’ve failed to cover in four of their last five, bringing them to 8-6 ATS on the season. They have been strong as a home underdog since mid-2016 though, going 9-4 ATS in their past 13 such games. In terms of Totals, the Under is 5-2 in Titans home games this season, but the Over is 12-3 when Tennessee faces good offenses (350+ yards per game) since the start of 2020. While 63% of the tickets have been placed on San Francisco, 68% of the money has been attracted by Tennessee, according to Action Network.


Deebo Does it All

San Francisco wide receiver Deebo Samuel is having perhaps one of the most unique NFL seasons in recent memory. Not only is he among the league leaders in several receiving categories — sixth in receiving yards (1,088), first in yards per reception (17.8), and tied for third in yards per target (11.1) — but he has also set an NFL record by scoring seven rushing touchdowns, which is the most by a wide receiver in the Super Bowl Era, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He has also scored a rushing touchdown in five straight games, which is also a record for a wide receiver.

Along with Christian McCaffrey, Samuel is the only other player to have at least 1,000 yards receiving and at least 250 yards rushing in the same season since the turn of the millennium. Samuel has 1,357 total yards from scrimmage, which is third in the league behind Jonathan Taylor (1,854) and Cooper Kupp (1,621), and he has 12 total touchdowns, which ranks sixth in the league. We discussed Justin Jefferson in the Monday Night Stack last week as being one of the best wide receivers in the NFL before he catches the ball.

Samuel, meanwhile, is arguably the NFL’s top wideout with the ball in his hands; he leads NFL wide receivers with 9.7 yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R) and +4.4 yards after the catch over expectation per reception (xYAC/R), according to Next Gen Stats. The next closest receiver in each category – Rondale Moore in YAC/R (8.4) and Ja’Marr Chase in xYAC/R (+3.3) – both trail Samuel by over a yard. A big part of those numbers come from Samuel’s ability to break tackles; only Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris (16) has more broken tackles following a reception this season than Samuel’s 12 and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill is the only other wide receiver who has double-digit broken tackles after the catch with 10.

If there’s one hole in his game, it’s that he’s had his issues with drops. Over the past three seasons, Samuel has played in 35 games and has 22 drops, according to Pro Football Reference. His nine drops in 2019 had him tied for fourth in the NFL and his 10 drops this season are tied with Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce for second-most (Cincinnati’s Chase has 11). Samuel has been targeted 223 times since the start of 2019, giving him one drop for every 10 targets over that time frame (10% drop rate). His 10.2% drop rate this season is third-highest among wide receivers (Ravens’ Sammy Watkins, 12.5% and Chase, 10.8%).

Despite the drops, San Francisco certainly isn’t complaining about the production the team is getting from Samuel. With 61 catches and 39 rushing attempts, he has 100 touches on the season, averaging 13.6 yards every time he touches the football-only Minnesota’s Jefferson (14.3) has a higher number in that category. We’ve now mentioned Samuel in the same sentences as McCaffrey, Hill, Jefferson, and Taylor – and he’s earned every bit the same status as those players.