The 49ers’ Nick Bosa was in on the tackle on the first two Titans plays Thursday night. His next stop didn’t come until there were less then 7 minutes to play in the game.
San Francisco 49ers’ tight end George Kittle’s forgettable night in Nashville included being targeted only three times — after 33 targets in his previous three games.
There were plenty of reasons to criticize Jimmy Garoppolo’s play in Thursday’s loss to the Titans, but he was not without a couple good moments as well.
On Nick Bosa’s first snap Thursday night, the Titans ran a screen pass that was well-designed but not very well thought out.
The reason: They asked third-string left tackle Dillon Radunz, a rookie making his first career start, to block the 49ers’ Pro Bowl pass rusher without assistance.
The result: Bosa shoved Radunz at the line to create several yards of separation and dropped Hillard for an 8-yard loss.
On Bosa’s second snap, Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing tried something only slightly less ill-advised: He had tight end Geoff Swaim block Bosa without assistance.
The result: Bosa, lined up at right defensive end, dismissed Swaim and tracked down Hillard after a 7-yard rush on a play that was run away from him, over right guard.
At that point, it looked like the start of another monster performance for Bosa, who arrived with a sack in his past six straight games and was facing a team missing its top two options at left tackle and its starting left guard.
However, here’s what happened after Bosa had two tackles on his first two snaps: He managed one tackle and zero sacks and in 52 snaps.
Yes, the Titans quickly abandoned the block-Bosa-one-on-one strategy – good idea, fellas! – and their ability to neutralize him with frequent double teams, which often came in the form of tight ends chipping him at the line of scrimmage, was a major reason they emerged with a 20-17 victory.
Consider: Bosa was double-teamed on 12 of his final 28 pass-rush snaps and the Titans often designed quick passing plays on those snaps on which Bosa was blocked without assistance.
For example, the Titans asked running back Jeremy McNichols to handle Bosa on a 3rd-and-3 play in the second quarter, a mismatch that didn’t hurt them because quarterback Ryan Tannehill rolled right, away from Bosa, before completing a 4-yard pass to wide receiver A.J. Brown.
The Titans only used a double-team on Bosa on two of his 25 run snaps. However, after Swaim blocked on him on their first rush, Tennessee only had a tight end block Bosa one-on-one on two more snaps.
After the game, Bosa, who took turns rushing against Radunz and right tackle David Quessenberry, highlighted the extra attention he received. When asked to assess Radunz’s performance, he indicated he was always hit by a tight end before engaging with a tackle.
“When you have a tight end staying in to help the entire game it helps them,” Bosa said.
However, Bosa was overstating the case. It’s notable that an offensive tackle handled him without help on some of the Titans’ biggest plays.
Quessenberry had a solo block on Bosa on Tannehill’s 42-yard pass to Brown on 3rd-and-23 on the final play of the third quarter. And Radunz handled Bosa one-on-one on Tannehill’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Brown that gave the Titans a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead.
But Tennessee’s wild 3rd-and-long success in the second half was partly attributable to how they handle Bosa. Tannehill converted six third downs on which at least seven yards was required for a first down, and Bosa was doubled-teamed on four of those plays.
The Titans set the tone after Bosa had tackles on each of his first two snaps of the game. On his third snap, Bosa, lined up at tight end, ran an inside stunt and was hit by Radunz, and then left guard Aaron Brewer and, finally, center Ben Jones.
The result: He didn’t threaten Tannehill, who fired a 14-yard completion on 3rd-and-11.
Other observations from the loss to Tennessee:
• Tight end George Kittle, who had 33 targets in his previous three games, was targeted with three passes, none in the final 46 minutes.
Kittle, who had two catches for 21 yards, also had a few forgettable moments. He was responsible for a 7-yard sack in the second quarter, although he was asked to block 265-pound Denico Autry without assistance.
In the third quarter, Kittle had a false-start penalty on 3rd-and-2, but was bailed out when Jimmy Garoppolo completed an 11-yard pass to wideout Jauan Jennings on 3rd-and-7.
Later, on the same drive, Kittle also moved before the snap on 4th-and-1 from the Titans’ 35-yard line and linebacker Rashaan Evans began pointing at Kittle while asking an official to throw flag. The flag was thrown, but left tackle Trent Williams, lined up next to Kittle, was assessed the penalty.
It was a massive infraction: Garoppolo threw a 4th-and-6 incompletion to set up the Titans’ 60-yard, go-ahead drive.
• Head coach Kyle Shanahan is known for running the same plays, but making them look different by using different formations and personnel.
A prime example came on a 17-yard completion to all-alone wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk on the 49ers’ game-opening touchdown drive.
It should have looked very familiar: It was the same play on which Aiyuk scored his game-winning 12-yard touchdown to beat the Bengals in overtime on Dec. 12.
Against Cincinnati, the 49ers had three wide receivers, one tight end, Garoppolo under center, running back Jeff Wilson in the backfield and Aiyuk lined up in a two-man bunch to the right before he leaked across the field to the left.
Against Tennessee, the 49ers had two wide receivers, two tight ends, Garoppolo under center, running back Jeff Wilson in the backfield and Aiyuk lined up in a two-man bunch to the left before he leaked across the field to the right.
• Garoppolo’s shaky performance has been well-documented, but there were a few notable highlights.
Among them: He capped the game-tying, 95-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes by staring left, towards Jennings and wideout Trent Sherfield, before finally looking to the middle where Aiyuk was wide open in the back of the end zone for a 2-yard score.
In the second quarter, he improvised – not his strong suit – to convert a 4th-and-1 from Tennessee’s 31-yard line. After the snap, Garoppolo was flushed to his right by pressure and held the ball long enough to allow wide receiver Deebo Samuel to break free along the sideline, delivering an 11-yard completion with two defenders about to drill him.
Eric Branch covers the 49ers for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Eric_Branch
Eric Branch has worked at the San Francisco Chronicle since 2011 as the 49ers beat writer. Before that, he covered the 49ers for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2010. Since he began his career in journalism in 1997 in Logansport, Ind., he’s covered events ranging from archery tournaments to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.