NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In coaching parlance in the NFL, every game is a must win.
Against the backdrop of possibly dropping below .500 for the first time this season and heading into the bye week on a negative note, Titans coach Mike Munchak conceded that Sunday’s game against visiting San Francisco at LP Field is more of a must win than most.
But he did so only after offering the obligatory coach speak about how the most important game is always the next one.
“I think it’s just important. It’s the next one, so it’s the most important,” Munchak said of Sunday’s game. “I think we feel that we need to win a football game against a good football team. Losing two in a row is really unsettling because we know we could win both of these games.”
Indeed, the Titans (3-3) led in the fourth quarter two weeks ago Sunday in a loss to visiting Kansas City and then played Seattle down to the wire last Sunday. And with the bye week looming and the notion of heading into it with three-straight losses, the Titans understand they might be at an early crossroads.
“The reason I say must win is, we’re going into the bye week,” said Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard, who leads the team with 44 tackles. “You don’t want to go into the bye week (below) .500. We’re not a .500 football team. We’re not. … I don’t care what analysts say. We’re a football team that can go out there and win 12 games easy. That’s who we have. We have the guys to make it happen.”
Well, almost anyway.
Quarterback Jake Locker is expected to miss a third game with hip and knee sprains, although he was cleared to practice this week and worked with the first team during seven-on-seven drills. It is more likely he will return two weeks from Sunday to play at St. Louis, though Munchak hasn’t completely closed the door on Locker playing against the 49ers (4-2).
Most likely, that leaves the team trotting backup Ryan Fitzpatrick back out there, despite his poor play in both losses. Thus far, the nine-year veteran has completed only 52.6 percent of his passes, thrown twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two) and compiled a paltry 61.2 overall rating.
“We’re not going to change anything until there’s a reason to do that,” Munchak said about Sunday’s starting quarterback. “A lot of it will depend on the next 24 hours or so to see really how (Locker’s) doing and what is realistic. Again, like I said, we put him through a lot of things (Thursday), movement stuff, things that are more game-like for him. It’s kind of wait and see now.”
Not all of that has ailed the offense the past three games, including a win Sept. 29 over the Jets in which Locker was injured, can be placed on Fitzpatrick. The run game has been anemic, especially lead back Chris Johnson, who gained 258 yards the first three games to lead the AFC at the time. He has gained just 71 yards the past three outings (1.9 yards per carry).
The Titans have since made a change at center. Rookie Brian Schwenke, a fourth-round draft pick out of California, will replace veteran Rob Turner, who has struggled.
“It’s just going to be going out there and playing in a game again (because) he hasn’t experienced that in a while,” Munchak said of Schwenke, who hasn’t played this season while recovering from a hamstring injury. “So, that’s going to be the interesting part with how fast the game’s going to be moving when we get started. He’s got everything else. We’re not concerned for that mentally, physically (because) that’s all good.
“I think he communicates well with the guys, and he’s worked with them throughout OTAs and camp. I think he’ll be fine.”
Defensively, the Titans will be without middle linebacker Moise Fokou, who injured a knee last Sunday against the Seahawks and his future status is uncertain. Former starter Colin McCarthy will replace Fokou, who is second on the team with 40 tackles. The Titans also signed free agent Zac Diles for linebacking depth.
Certainly, the 49ers’ offense will test a Titans defense that ranks 11th in the league overall. They are led by the passing and running threat of third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has completed 90-of-161 passes for 1,221 yards with eight touchdowns, five interceptions and an 83.9 rating. He has also rushed for 172 yards.
But it’s much more than just Kaepernick and his gazelle-like strides. Ninth-year running back Frank Gore has 477 rushing yards at 4.6 yards per clip and is just 684 yards shy of 10,000 yards for his career, star tight end Vernon Davis has 22 catches and six touchdowns, and Anquan Boldin (29 catches, 421 yards, two scores) has been a nice free agency signee since lead receiver Michael Crabtree went down with an Achilles injury.
“They’re the best we’ve seen at clubbing, punching, stripping, lawn mowering, just lodging it out from opponents,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of the Titans’ defense. “It’s always a critical thing to our well-being to have ball security and not turn the ball over. It’s emphasized weekly, daily, but, yes, this week we have to emphasize it even more. The Titans are excellent — the best we’ve seen.”
That includes the Titans featuring one of the best cornerback tandems in the league in Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty. Verner’s four interceptions is tied for the league lead, while McCourty is fourth on the team with 30 tackles and returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown last Sunday.
But unlike his head coach Munchak and fellow defensive back Pollard, McCourty wouldn’t go all the way there in declaring Sunday’s game a must win.
“You go into each week and it feels like a must win to me,” he said. “You don’t go into the game and like, ‘Well, it will be OK if we can lose this one.’
So, I feel as though every Sunday when you show up, it’s a must win. And you’re doing everything you can to come out on top.”
Titans tight end Delanie Walker, who played for the 49ers the last seven seasons, agrees.
“I think every game is a must win, especially coming off two losses,” he said. “We need a win and then go into our bye week.”