NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans figured a hurt Locker was better than no Locker, but they ended up in a cold locker here Sunday with a lethargic 31-17 loss to the visiting San Francisco 49ers.
Make that Jake Locker, the Titans quarterback who was rushed back into action after missing the last two games — both losses with backup Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm — because of hip and knee injuries. It wasn’t determined until late in the week that Locker, while obviously still not 100 percent, had progressed enough in rehab to make the start.
The Titans (3-4) seemed desperate to get Locker back onto the field after Fitzpatrick’s lackluster play was compounded by the prospect of limping into a bye week riding a three-game losing streak following a 3-1 start. The 49ers (5-2), meanwhile, head to London to play Jacksonville next Sunday on a four-game win streak.
“We felt comfortable that (Locker) would be able to protect himself,” said Titans coach Mike Munchak, whose Titans return to action in two weeks at St. Louis. “I think that he showed that he could do that. He ran out of the pocket. He made plays with his legs.”
While the Titans didn’t advance into the 49ers’ red zone until early in the fourth quarter, Locker felt that he was ready to play. His numbers bear that out, too. He completed 25 of 41 passes for 326 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a solid 92.1 rating. He also rushed for 29 yards on three carries.
“I felt good and I thought I was able to do everything that I needed to,” Locker said of his play in front of a sell-out crowd of 69,143 at LP Field. “I felt comfortable in the pocket. I felt good throwing the ball. So, overall, I felt good.
“I thought I saw things well. Overall, I felt very comfortable.”
The third-year quarterback played a large part in the team’s 3-1 start by throwing for 721 yards with six touchdowns, no interceptions and a 99.0 rating before being injured three games ago in a win over the Jets. But most impressive is how he has not only finally taken over the offensive reins, but risen to be a vocal team leader as well.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick, a ninth-year veteran and former Buffalo starter, struggled in two losses while subbing for Locker by throwing four interceptions with no touchdowns and a paltry 61.2 rating.
“We’re 3-4, and we have to decide how we’re going to handle that,” said Munchak, whose team went 6-10 last season after going 9-7 in his first season.
“The season is a long journey (and) 3-4 is not where we hoped we’d be, without a doubt. But again, we have nine games to play, and things can change dramatically. We get to decide how this thing is going to finish.”
The 49ers rode the sturdy arm and legs of third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who completed 13 of 19 passes for 199 yards and a 93.2 rating. He also gained 68 rushing yards with a touchdown. His favorite targets were tight end Vernon Davis (four catches for 62 yards) and receiver Anquan Boldin (five for 74), while running back Frank Gore provided balance with 70 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“I am very comfortable, very confident in what we are doing,” said Kaepernick, who became the starter for the 49ers in midseason last year and guided them to the Super Bowl. “I feel like I know what the offense is trying to get done and how we are going to get it done.”
Trailing 24-3, the Titans finally broke through to score a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Running back Chris Johnson, who was held to 39 rushing yards on only nine carries, darted 67 yards untouched up the middle of the field after collecting a screen pass from Locker.
The 49ers stretched the lead back to 21 points when Titans punt returner Darius Reynaud muffed a punt that was recovered in the end zone by the 49ers Kassim Osgood. But the Titans showed life by answering with a 10-play, 58-yard drive that culminated with Locker finding tight end Delanie Walker in the end zone on a 26-yard scoring strike.
“This was a big game,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We were treating it like it’s the biggest game of the season. This was Game 7 for us, and we treated it like Game 7 of the World Series, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup.”
The 49ers drove their opening possession from their own 9-yard line to the Titans’ 25 in a dozen plays — the longest being a pass connection between Kaepernick and Davis for 24 yards. A 44-yard field goal by Phil Dawson gave the visitors an early 3-0 lead.
San Francisco opened a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter when Kaepernick turned a keeper around the left side into an untouched 20-yard score. The drive went 80 yards on eight plays, including a key third-down conversion when Kaepernick connected with Boldin on a 25-yard reception.
During the drive, the 49ers caught a break when an interception by Titans safety Bernard Pollard was nullified. On the play, Titans outside linebacker Akeem Ayers was penalized for unnecessary roughness for tackling Kaepernick at the knees from behind, which kept the drive alive.
The 49ers pushed the lead to 17-0 just before halftime after cornerback Tramaine Brock picked off a pass from Locker to set up San Francisco at the Titans’ 45. Six plays later, Gore plunged in from 1 yard out for the score after Kaepernick converted on a 3rd-and-11 with a 20-yard run and then hooked up on a 20-yard pass to tight end Vance McDonald.
San Francisco broke the game open with the first possession of the second half, methodically marching 79 yards on 12 plays. Kaepernick connected on all four of his pass attempts, and Gore capped the drive with a 1-yard run around left end to make it 24-0.
The Titans finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter thanks to a 31-yard field goal by Rob Bironas. It capped an 11-play drive in which Locker went 4-of-7 and had a key 16-yard run to convert a third-down play.
“Anytime with the offense and you’re beating yourself, it’s very frustrating,” Locker said of several dropped passes and missed throws, the lack of a running game and the team being penalized 10 times for 100 yards.
” … We need to figure out a way to shore up those details so that I am not standing here after the next game and saying the same thing.”