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Paul Kitagaki Jr. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Patrick Willis forces a key fumble last Sunday while tackling Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Eric Reid (35) is about to make the recovery.

49ers aware of Titans' specialty: poking the ball loose

Published: Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C

NASHVILLE – Last week the Titans had only 66 rushing yards, converted just a third of their third-down tries, threw two interceptions and were held without a touchdown on offense.

So how did they manage to keep pace with the NFC-best Seahawks – in noisy Seattle, no less – for most of the game before losing by seven points?

Tennessee forced five fumbles on the afternoon, recovering two of them, including one that Titans cornerback Jason McCourty returned 77 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.

"Probably the best team we've seen at stripping, clubbing, punching the ball out, creating turnovers," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said when asked to assess the Titans. "Very physical, competitive secondary. A fine football team. Very well coached."

Of course, Harbaugh's 49ers aren't too shabby when it comes to stripping, punching and clubbing.

During their two-game skid last month, they managed only one takeaway. In the three-game winning streak since, they have 10, including four in each of the past two games.

The Titans have recovered a league-high four fumbles this season; San Francisco is tied for second with three.

For the 49ers, forcing fumbles is part of their daily routine. During the individual-drill portion of practice, one player runs with the ball while another comes up from behind and tries to wrestle it out.

Different techniques – a punch, a pull, a poke – are employed. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis likes to use what he calls the "lawnmower," in which he reaches a hand in for the ball and then abruptly yanks it back out – like pulling a lawnmower starter cord – in an effort to create a turnover.

It was Willis who dislodged the ball from Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald last week when the Cardinals were driving for a likely go-ahead score late in the third quarter. Safety Eric Reid gathered in the loose ball, and the 49ers' offense went on an 18-play touchdown drive that virtually sealed the win.

Willis said he merely was trying to tackle Fitzgerald. Wrenching the ball free has become an automatic reaction.

"It's a matter of guys having awareness (of where the ball is) and knowing that if one guy goes for the ball, then we have 10 other guys coming to back him up just in case he doesn't get the tackle," Willis said.

At times today, Willis will be asked to cover former teammate Delanie Walker, the Titans' starting tight end. Walker said the 49ers' opportunistic defense is playing as well as it has in recent years.

"That's how they always are," Walker said. "They play fast, they're explosive, they like to hit. I've been watching film on them, and it looks like the same fast defense that they always were, coming up, hitting, making plays. I would expect nothing less."

For the Titans, linebackers Moise Fokou and safety Michael Griffin each have forced two fumbles this season. Fokou will not play today because of a knee injury.

Harbaugh said protecting the ball – an emphasis every week – was stressed more than usual in the run-up to today's game. But he also noted that his skill players mostly have been sure-handed this season. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has lost four fumbles, while running back Frank Gore, who has lost only 21 fumbles in nine seasons, had a turnover earlier this season when a Rams player stripped him from behind.

Note – Quarterback Jake Locker will start for the Titans, The Associated Press reported. Titans coaches and trainers met Saturday and decided Locker should start rather than backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, a person familiar with the situation said.

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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