49ers vs. Titans: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their 34-27 loss to the Tennessee Titans, including a changing season outlook, QB Alex Smith's error-prone ways, the maturation of TE Vernon Smith, booing fans jumping off the Smith bandwagon, secondary breakdowns, WR Jason Hill, RB Frank Gore, protection issues, NT Aubrayo Franklin, LB Pat Willis, 4th-down conversions and much more? Check inside.

Thumbs down: Well, this changes the outlook on everything. If the 49ers can't beat a 1-6 team at home in a must-win situation, maybe their not ready yet to take the next step toward true playoff contention again, not to mention a winning season. And haven't we been saying that about them for way, way, way too long already?

Thumbs down: Alex Smith returned to his error-prone ways of making killer turnovers and his disturbing habit of locking on receivers instead of scanning the field as he had done so well since his return at quarterback. That resulted in two crucial interceptions in the final 6:24 of the fourth quarter that allowed the Titans to take away the game. The first pick, by Chris Hope, allowed the Titans to kick a field goal that put them ahead 27-20 with 3:06 to play. Smith's next pass was telegraphed to Josh Morgan, and Tennessee safety Vincent Fuller was all over it, tipping it in the air for cornerback Cortland Finnegan to snatch it easily and scoot 39 yards the other way for a game-clinching touchdown. Smith had three picks on the day, his first one coming on a tipped pass, and he also lost a fumble. The Titans scored 24 points off those turnovers.

Thumbs down: And by the finish, the fans who stuck around to the ugly end were booing Smith again after he had misfired on a pass toward the sideline in the final minutes. How quickly they jump off the new Alex bandwagon.

Thumbs up: The maturation of Vernon Davis into a star playmaker continues. Davis had another big day with career-high totals of 10 receptions for 102 yards, snagging all but one of the passes that came his way on the afternoon. But it was his 40-yard grab in the second quarter to set up San Francisco's first touchdown that really showed how much Davis has arrived. Davis was looking inside when Alex Smith threw a laser down the field, but Davis quickly adjusted to a ball that was thrown over his other shoulder, turning while the ball was in the air and catching it going in the opposite direction than when he began his route.

Thumbs up: An under-used weapon in the San Francisco offense is the screen play, and Frank Gore showed how well that play can work on San Francisco's second offensive play. In a play that was very well designed, Smith held the ball long enough against pressure before dumping it off to Gore, who had so much open field in front of him that he out-ran both of the blockers in front of him before finally being pulled down after a 35-yard gain into Tennesse territory. That set up San Francisco's first score.

Thumbs up: Gore was his usual productive self, turning his 22 touches in 158 yards from scrimmage, including a three-yard burst into the end zone. Gore had 83 yards rushing on 15 carries and caught seven passes for 75 yards.

Thumbs down: Every secondary is going to have blown assignments during the course of the game, but the 49ers continue to pay for their coverage breakdowns. Justin Gage, lining up in the slot, was uncovered off the line and got wide open in the left corner behind Shawntae Spencer and Dashon Goldson to haul in a 49-yard reception that set up Tennessee's first touchdown. An otherwise stingy defense just can't keep giving up those big chunks of yardage on blown plays every game. Gage also out-leaped Goldson for a key 33-yard reception on third-and-long that kept alive Tennessee's go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

Thumbs up: The 49ers came out passing, throwing on their first five offensive plays. Not so coincidentally, they moved right down the field by doing so on their first drive before it ultimately stalled after – you guessed it – two consecutive runs. Opening up the offensive playbook from the start is the right way to go for this team, particulary against this opponent, which was no doubt expecting to see the same slow-paced running start from San Francisco's offense.

Thumbs down: On third-and-goal from the 7-yard line, you've just got to do a better job of spying quarterback Vince Young in the pocket, particularly when he's in shotgun formation. But in that situation in the second quarter, Young basically walked into the end zone as the 49ers had nobody in his way after Young took the snap in shotgun formation, took one step backward, then rambled around the left side for the Titans' first touchdown while barely being touched.

Thumbs up: The 49ers continue to get tremendous play in the middle of their defense from nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who is having a career season. Franklin clogged the middle and had five tackles – two of them for losses – including a stuff of Chris Johnson for a five-yard loss.

Thumbs up: But Johnson ultimately got the best of the 49ers, becoming the first player to rush for 100 yards against the 49ers this season. Johnson finished with 135 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns, slipping away from linebacker Parys Haralson for the second of those on a fourth-and-goal play that put the Titans ahead to stay. Haralson had Johnson trapped five yards behind the line of scrimmage but let him slip away in a play that turned the tide for Tennessee.

Thumbs up: Maybe the 49ers should mix in so no-huddle offense into their game plan a little more often. San Francisco went no-huddle at the two-minute warning before halftime, and the Niners promptly cruised right down the field to the go-ahead touchdown, completing a 10-play, 82-yard drive during which the Smith-directed offense looked simply marvelous.

Thumbs up: Why did the 49ers wait so long to make receiver Jason Hill a part of their offensive game plan? They finally did Sunday, and Hill responded with four receptions for 50 yards, scoring two of San Francisco's three touchdowns. They were his first receptions of the season. Hill's first catch of the year went for a 12-yard touchdown that gave the 49ers a 17-10 halftime lead, and his second kept the chains moving on San Francisco's first drive after halftime when Hill stretched out after catching a third-down pass to provide the necessary yardage, then demonstratively stretched out his arm to signal for a first down.

Thumbs down: The 49ers once again had some issues protecting the ball, and their two fumbles were a direct result from their issues protecting quarterback Alex Smith, who was sacked four times. Smith fumbled in his own territory twice, and both came after protection quickly broke down around him. But Smith needs to have a better handle on the ball, too. He allowed it to be popped out of his hands as defenders swarmed him in the second quarter, ruining a promising drive near midfield. The ball was knocked of Smith's hands just before his arm went forward in the third quarter, leading to a Tennessee touchdown that tied the score 17-17.

Thumbs up: If you can't gain three inches in the NFL, then you probably don't deserve to win games. Still, it says something that Mike Singletary opted to go for it on fourth down at the Tennessee 15-yard line early in the fourth quarter of a tie game. With fourth-and-inches to go, the Niners took a chance by passing up a go-ahead field-goal attempt, and Frank Gore picked up five yards on the play. The Niners had to settle for a field goal on the drive, but the message was sent that Singletary believes in his sometimes-functioning offense in a key situation. The 49ers, in fact, were 3 for 3 on fourth-down conversions Sunday.

Thumbs up: The aforementioned drive, by the way, was ball control at its best. The 49ers drive 66 yards in 15 plays, taking 9:45 off the clock in the process. They also had well-sustained drives that netted 67, 70, 78 and 82 yards.

Thumbs up: To be sure, Mike Singletary makes good use of the red challenge flag. Singletary again correctly opted to toss the red hankie after Chris Johnson's apparent 81-yard touchdown run. The play was overturned when replays showed that Johnson barely stepped out of bounds halfway through his run. That makes Singletary 3 for 5 on challenges this season. The NFL average success rate on challenges is 39.8 percent.

Thumbs up: It was yet another standout effort by linebacker Patrick Willis, who finished with a game-high 10 tackles and used his speed to close down plays that could have went for big yardage if he had not made the play. Willis made a great stop in the open field of Vince Young on third down that prevented the Titans from setting up a goal-to-go situation and burning more time off the clock late in the fourth quarter.

Thumbs up: It didn't mean much by the time this one was over, but … Didn't Alex Smith look just a little bit like Joe Montana there on his first touchdown pass at the end of the first half? Rolling right with time winding down in the half, Smith first shrugged off a defender, who got enough of Smith to pull the shoulder pad out of his jersey, then kept his poise as he neared the sideline with the play breaking down. With everybody expecting Smith to throw away the ball, he instead threw across his body off his back foot and drilled a perfect strike to a wide-open Jason Hill in the back of the end zone to give San Francisco the lead at halftime. Smith made that play happen, and it shows how far he has come since his last stint as the team's starter. Too bad he showed he still has a ways to go when the game was on the line.

Thumbs down: And just like that, the 49ers drop two games behind defending champion Arizona in the NFC West at midseason with their fourth consecutive loss. What a difference a month makes in the NFL, and now it's an uphill battle the next two months just for San Francisco just to prevent its seventh consecutive losing season. First place in the division – where the 49ers spent the first six weeks of the season – has never looked so far away.

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