TNF Preview: Notes and Injury News

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The fantasy playoffs intertwined with the holidays sets us up for a chaotic weekend. Throwing in injuries and the league placing more players on the reserve/COVID-19 list ensures fantasy rosters will be prioritized over presents. We’ve only had a day to catch our breath from Week 15, and Week 16 kicks off tonight. Let’s dive into tonight’s matchup, and then I’ll review all of the fantasy-relevant news from yesterday’s practices.

TNF Preview: Who Wants to go to the Playoffs?

The Titans are 9-5, and San Francisco sits at 8-6. A single game separates the two teams on paper, but there’s a chasm of talent between the squads. The 49ers have an uphill battle to stake their claim on an NFC playoff spot, while the Titans may limp into the post-season. San Francisco (favored by three on the road) has the edge, and their win may depend on Jimmy Garoppolo’s arm.
So much of the 49ers’ success has been credited to the running game. And rightfully so. They’re fourth in rushing DVOA with a wide receiver as their leading scorer. However, San Francisco’s reluctance to pass doesn’t mean they can’t. Garoppolo’s shown his ability to connect with his pass-catchers even while under duress.

It’s easy to attribute most of his success to the guy’s catching the ball, and that’s not entirely wrong. Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are top-10 leaders in yards after the catch. However, it’s not like Garoppolo didn’t get the ball to them first. He’s ninth in completion percentage over expected (CPOE), which is his highest mark through 15 weeks since joining the 49ers. He’s right behind Aaron Rodgers in EPA per play. His efficiency has been the lesser-discussed element of San Francisco’s winning formula, and they’ll need it against Tennessee tonight.

Despite their problems, the Titans can still boast a formidable pass rush. They’re eighth in adjusted sack rate and fourth in rushing EPA allowed over the last two months. James Robinson’s 149-yard outburst in Week 5 is the only time an opposing rusher has crossed the century mark. Jeff Wilson was productive but inefficient (42.9% success rate) against a soft Falcons’ front last week and now faces a tougher matchup. Unless Kyle Shanahan intends to feature Samuel on toss plays to the edge all night, the passing game may be the focus. Luckily, Garoppolo has options.

Brandon Aiyuk’s versatility as a slot or Z receiver puts him in a good position against Tennessee’s interior secondary. New England gave them a blueprint as Jakobi Meyers (6-98-0), and Kendrick Bourne (5-61-2) had productive days. The Steelers tried the same idea, but their offensive line couldn’t hold up. With the 49ers being league-average in pass block win rate, Garoppolo should be able to find some success through the air. I’m not so sure about Tennessee, though.

Usually, I’d use a play to set up my thoughts on an offense, but no single play summarizes where the Titans are offensively speaking. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine’s drop on Sunday could be one. Any of their three fumbles are other options. All of it underscores Tennessee’s unluckiness throughout the year.

Timo points out what most have surmised watching the games. The Titans have suffered from their constantly rotating receiving corps. Their primary duo in A.J. Brown and Julio Jones has played in just three games when both entered and exited the game healthy. It’s possible that both will play, and they have a suitable matchup against the 49ers.

San Francisco’s pass rush is sixth in adjusted sack rate, and their defensive front is sixth in rushing EPA allowed. However, their secondary is exploitable as they’ve fallen to 19th in dropback EPA. Their biggest weakness has been in the slot. Interior receivers averaged 61.9 YPG with three touchdowns scored in Week 10. They’ve also given up big days to pass-catching running backs (Dalvin Cook – 7-64-0, James Conner – 5-77-1). Both factors work in the Titans’ favor, but we’ll need to see if their personnel can hold up through an entire game.

Points of Interest in TNF

For San Francisco, I’m interested to see if Tennessee’s front forces them into a heavier passing script. The Titans’ greatest defensive strength is their front, so the 49ers’ passing game may benefit if you assume rational coaching. But, Garoppolo’s pass-catchers are more than their title implies.

Samuel getting the touchdown is all most folks care about, but Chase correctly points out how the blocking makes it happen. Everyone’s still involved, even if they’re not the one with the rock. San Francisco has consistently led the league in play-action rate and pre-snap motion to maximize their offensive efficiency. As a result, it’s no surprise Garoppolo is second in EPA per play on the season. While their reliance on a solid ground game has been their strength, Garoppolo’s arm might be the key to another victory. For Tennessee, my interest lies in their backfield but for non-traditional reasons.

The offense needs another element as we’ve had to adjust “Julio Watch” from week to week to snap-to-snap. Brown’s return (if not tonight, then soon) helps, but the ancillary receivers need more experience, to put it kindly. The knee-jerk reaction might be increasing McNichols’ usage, which would tip the Titans’ hand as to the play call. However, he’s not the only capable receiver in their backfield. He’s not even the most efficient.

D’Onta Foreman has been more productive (108 yards to 37) on one fewer target and by far the most efficient. Per PFF, his 2.84 YPRR is second on the team, and he leads all Titans’ pass-catchers in EPA per target (0.79). Tennessee has already shown an inclination to mix each in as rushers by game situation or necessity. It gets away from how they operated at the start of the season, but they’ll need to switch it up if they want to make it to the playoffs.

Injury Slants

The league altered its testing protocols to give fully-vaccinated players a greater chance of playing out the rest of the season. But this week is marred by multiple stars on the reserve/COVID-19 list headlined by Kansas City’s primary duo. There’s been no word of another schedule change, but we’ll know more over the next couple of days.

Let’s start with the players injured during or before the Week 15 games. Most missed practice yesterday, and some are unlikely to play this week. However, we’ll be watching for any change in their status over the next few days.

It might be “too little, too late,” but at least one of our star running backs may be on the way back for our fantasy teams.

Rumors indicated Swift was an IR candidate just last week, so his return is a pleasant surprise. However, the change in course coupled with a limited practice doesn’t instill much confidence this late in the season. Plus, Craig Reynolds’s performances may force an even larger committee between the three. Their upcoming matchup against the Falcons is enticing, but let’s hope we get more clarity on the situation before forcing Swift into our lineups. Let’s move on to the injured running backs.

Sanders sat out the entire fourth quarter, but there were no reports of an in-game injury. Jordan Howard was the only other running back to earn a touch in his absence, which makes waivers easier to discern should Sanders miss Week 16. He wasn’t the only running back to leave the game with an injury.

The fact that Gibson has dealt with this before suggests he, and Washington’s staff, knows how to manage it. However, even if he plays, it’s tough to expect similar efficiency as Ron Rivera pointed out. Washington will have their rematch against Dallas in Week 16, which left Gibson with 36 scoreless yards and a lost fumble in Week 14. He still has most of the touches in the backfield, but his situation is dire, with injuries plaguing their offense. One more running back injury to monitor.

Beat writers have emphasized highlighting non-COVID illnesses when players miss practice. Reiss didn’t, and I haven’t seen any updates, so it’s worth following through the weekend. New England was one of the only teams that didn’t add any players to the COVID list yesterday, but we’ve seen that change quickly over the last few days.