NFL

Skidding Titans now struggling to protect ball

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TERESA M. WALKERAP Sports Writer

Jake Locker is ready to start testing his sprained right hip and knee by doing some throwing and running. Tennessee's starting quarterback still isn't expected back before November.

So, it's still up to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Titans to protect the ball better going into what they're calling a must-win game against the visiting San Francisco 49ers on Sunday before Tennessee's bye week.

The Titans have squandered a 3-1 start losing two straight since Locker got hurt. Fitzpatrick has been intercepted four times and struggled to hold onto the ball. Luckily, Chris Johnson recovered one fumble against Seattle.

''We're putting more pressure on his shoulders than we need to as an offense,'' coach Mike Munchak said Monday.

The Titans did not turn the ball over even once as they started 3-1. But Locker was hurt in the third quarter of a win over the Jets on Sept. 29, and the offense has ground nearly to a halt in losing to Kansas City and Seattle. They managed only six points offensively losing 20-13 on the road against the Seahawks.

Munchak noted the Titans had only one three-and-out against Seattle, down from five against Kansas City. That doesn't include Fitzpatrick being intercepted on the Titans' lone play on two other drives, including his second with 11:15 left after Seattle took a 13-10 lead.

Johnson now has rushed for 33 yards or less in each of the past three games, and the Titans have slumped to 29th in total offense through six games. Munchak said they remain a work in progress when they thought they'd be much better.

Fixing the issues is challenging because the Titans keep taking turns making mistakes whether it's missing blocks or dropping balls. Munchak said the issues are not complicated and the Titans aren't winning enough of 1-on-1 battles.

Fitzpatrick took blame for his turnovers after the game. He is expected to start again Sunday against the 49ers (4-2). Munchak said the Titans won't rush Locker back as the quarterback tests how sore his hip is later this week. The Titans are not declaring Locker out against the 49ers, though Munchak said they are assuming Locker will be back later than sooner.

The Titans have their bye after hosting San Francisco, which could put Locker on target to return Nov. 3 when they visit St. Louis.

For now, Fitzpatrick said the Titans just need to get a win going into the bye.

''That will kind of get the mojo back going,'' Fitzpatrick said. ''The last two weeks, unfortunately, especially offensively, we just haven't played well and I haven't played well enough for us to win.''

The Titans still rank second in the NFL in turnover margin because Jason McCourty recovered a botched hold on a field goal attempt that he returned 77 yards for a touchdown, and the defense recovered another fumble. But linebacker Zach Brown couldn't hold onto a ball with a chance to scoop and score with the game tied at 10-all in the fourth quarter.

''We are our own worst enemy,'' safety Bernard Pollard said. ''We're beating ourselves. We've gone out there we've played really good football. The little things are beating us.''

Munchak agreed, saying the Titans believe they are much better than their record shows with their last two losses to teams with a combined 11-1 record.

''We're frustrated because we left too many plays on the field where we could've won either one of those games,'' Munchak said. ''That's how this league is. When you're a good team like we feel we're becoming, these are the kind of games you're going to have every Sunday against good football teams, and we have to start winning them.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Tagged: Titans, 49ers, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jake Locker

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