49ers: Bye Bye Bye? Not So Fast
In what has become one of the sneakier, exciting matchups of Week 10, the Panthers (5-3) travel to the Bay for a date with the 49ers (6-2) Sunday. With both teams holding down a wild-card spot in the NFC, the loser will likely take a step back and could possibly be out of the playoff picture by Sunday night. Neutral observers have to be eager to see how the Panthers will handle a high-profile game. Yes, they’ve won four in a row, but each victory has come against an inferior team. For the Panthers to be taken seriously, they need a signature win. San Francisco, on the other hand, should be rested and well prepared and will know they need to take care of business with games against New Orleans and Seattle on tap.
San Francisco Offense vs. Carolina Defense
Carolina is one of the few teams that can match the Niners’ physicality on defense. The Panthers are a top-5 defense, due mostly to a ferocious front seven. Luke Kuechly is becoming a household name at middle linebacker, but the defensive line has been the unit to watch for the Panthers. Rookie Star Lotulelei has been wreaking havoc on the interior line, blowing up run plays and terrorizing quarterbacks. Additionally, Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson and Kawann Short have proved themselves along the line.
The battle with the 49ers’ offensive line should be the must-see matchup of the day. Lotulelei against the interior line – Iupati, Goodwin, Boone – will be a major factor in who comes out on top. Greg Roman wants to run the ball, and this is the stiffest run defense the Niners have faced since the Seahawks in Week 2. With an emerging elite linebacker in Kuechly, Roman will try and run away from him as much as possible. With Michael Crabtree still not close to returning to action, and Mario Manningham still a question mark to play in Week 10, the Niners will play multiple tight ends and running backs early. Behind their offensive line, and elite blocking tight ends and fullback, it will be interesting to see how effective they’ll be against the stout Carolina front.
The Panthers’ secondary has been incredibly makeshift, as the backend of Ron Rivera’s defense has been banged up all season. Because their front seven has been so dominant, in-season signees Quintin Mikell and Drayton Florence have done the job to hold up the secondary. Colin Kaepernick will likely have more success breaking off a few plays in the read-option game, as the Panthers have yielded just a 7:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Anquan Boldin has all sorts of trouble separating from cornerbacks these days, but his blocking could be a huge factor. Likewise for Vernon Davis. Safeties Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell have been very good in pass coverage this season, but Davis can beat nearly any safety in the league. Any big plays in the passing game are likely to come from him. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers commit more than one defender to Davis. It’s the matchup to watch in the passing game for the Niners.
Carolina Offense vs. San Francisco Defense
These two teams are actually more similar than people let on. After some early struggles, the Carolina offense has come on in recent weeks. Mike Shula is also looking to run the ball, just like San Francisco. With a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback like Cam Newton, the running game can be dynamic at times. In DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and a recently-healthy Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers have three backs that offer a variety of skills. Of course, the 49ers’ run defense is no joke; the Panthers will have difficulty running traditional run plays with DeAngelo Williams and company, so it’s possible that we’ll see Newton tuck the ball and run a little more with the read-option. Sunday’s game will be a battle in the trenches.
Similarly to the Niners, the Panthers have a few playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Steve Smith’s skills have declined at the age of 34, while Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. are more complementary wide receivers. Tight end Greg Olsen is one of the more dynamic players on the team at this point, so the Panthers are always looking for creative ways to get the ball downfield. They haven’t played a truly elite defense since facing the Seahawks in Week 1, so it will be interesting to see how Cam Newton reacts to seeing the coverage the Niners are throwing at him.
Additionally, the 49ers should be getting Aldon Smith back from his hiatus. Whenever the Niners force the Panthers into a third-and-long, expect to see Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier on the field as the four-man pass rush. However, it can’t be all about getting upfield and attacking Newton. The pass-rush has to contain the playmaker, keep him in the pocket and force him into difficult throws. The Niners’ once-maligned secondary has picked up their play over the past five weeks, led by rookie safety Eric Reid.
At the end of the day, both teams are likely to struggle in moving the ball. With the 49ers playing at home — and coming off a bye — expect them to win a low scoring, defensive battle.
Prediction: 49ers 20, Panthers 16