Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton are on a collision course in Week 10 as the spruced-up Carolina Panthers (5-3) travel to Candlestick Park to take on the reigning conference champion San Francisco 49ers (6-2).
While the battle of the 2011 draftees is the headlining matchup, these two clubs are far more similar at other position groups than just quarterback.
Both of these teams vaunt top-10 defenses and highly functional rushing attacks with veteran backs, complementary pieces and a mobile quarterback. The Panthers and 49ers also play a roughhouse style of football on defense while preaching balanced, fundamental football on offense, with just the right amount of window-dressing.
All told, even at home, San Francisco should fear lining up across a team that is cut from such a similar cloth—especially with their troubled history against teams like the New York Giants, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens.
Know that, despite the perception of these teams, this game can go any which way if the 49ers do not formulate a precise game plan.
Coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. better believe that the Panthers are going to do everything in their power to jack a road win. Not only would it be an earth-shattering statement by the team and a landmark moment in Cam Newton's career, but it would firmly position Carolina in the talk of the NFC's best teams heading into the back half of the season.
Add in that both teams are riding win streaks and fresh off a shared bye, and this should be a slobber-knocker of a game. The following will break down what San Francisco can do to swing this game in their favor and secure a sixth straight victory.
Prepare for a Dual-Threat Quarterback
Characteristically, the 49ers are the one to torment a team by forcing them to prepare for a dual-threat quarterback. Playing an multi-talented QB like the one San Francisco is set to face this weekend stipulates caution by the entire team, simply because they are equipped to kill you in more ways than one.
Moreover, lack of discipline by a defense opens opportunities for this kind of player.
Cam Newton is having his best season as a runner and a thrower. In fact, he is one of only two “dual-threat” quarterbacks that have a positive passing grade from Pro Football Focus in 2013, along with Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson (h/t Danny Kelly of Field Gulls).
If the 49ers hope to stay hot, they’ll have to shut down the man with the “S” on his chest.
Part I: The Pocket Version
Per Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus, Newton’s accuracy rate of 74.8 is currently tied for eighth-best in the NFL, which also happens to be a career milestone after posting 68.3 percent in his first two seasons. After 30-plus starts, it seems he is finally hitting his stride.
In three of his last four games—all wins—Newton posted QB ratings of 143.4, 136.3 and 111.6, touting a 6:0 TD-INT ratio in those contests.
During this hot streak, he’s looked totally different. Newton is taking less risk, trusting his playmakers and exploring every inch of the field as a schoolyard-style passer. And above all else, this version of Cam 2.0 is winning because he is not trying to do it all on his own.
There is a newfound patience about him.
That said, the 49ers cannot allow Newton carve them underneath with the crossers, dig routes and creative screens that new offensive coordinator Mike Shula likes to run there in Carolina. It is a conservative approach, but like the 49ers system, it is also inventive and proficient.
Though, subsequently, the Panthers quarterback is struggling with the deep ball this year.
Pro Football Focus reported that Newton averaged 31 completions and 1,051 yards on deep passes in his first two seasons (2011-2012). This season, he's only on pace for 16 completions for 548 yards, which is evidently the most significant drop-off in his game.
In last week’s 34-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Newton had zero completions and two interceptions on six deep passes, but a 85.2 completion percentage and 117.4 QB rating on all other passes. His strengths and weaknesses really could not be clearer heading into this week.
Lastly, the most impressive aspect of Newton’s game, and it’s relatively new, is his productivity under pressure. He has been ice-cold—feeling pressure, improvising and making smart decisions. When facing live fire, Newton’s adjusted accuracy rate is the third-best in the league (72.1, via PFF).
1) Proficient in the underneath-to-intermediate part of the field.
2) Beating blitzes.
3) Not threatening the deep ball.
How to play it?
When possible, particularly on obvious passing downs, the 49ers need to make it a point to rush four and drop seven. No blitzing and don’t be overaggressive. Not only do the 49ers have the personnel to execute this way, but they can also avoid exposing themselves to the big play.
Cage the passer in with those four rushers and look for coverage sacks and throwaways; that’s the model plan for this defense in Week 10.
Sacrificing coverage to blitz Newton clearly hasn’t worked this year so the 49ers need to dare him to make throws against tight coverage and make that O-line deal with mixtures of four ruthless individuals. This weekend, the team will have at least five able-bodied pass-rushers.
This makes this game plan all the more feasible, especially when you consider the particular matchup.
According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers have the 27th-ranked offensive line in terms of pass protection. Their adjusted sack rate is nearly two percent above the league average, too. So, the 49ers want to trust that pass rush and rely on their defensive backs to blanket the field.
And since Newton isn’t threatening the deep part of the field, allowing him extended time in the pocket by sending fewer rushers has a limited affect.
Patrick Willis and Co. must test Newton’s internal clock and present him with high-density coverage looks. On top of that, they’ll need a very strong game up in the box, which they are more than capable of accomplishing with their gaggle of All-Pros and budding superstars.
Countering the route types we discussed, the Niners have to be wary of off-man concepts that place strain on the corners. They want to jam these receivers and play them tight. For an offense that has had a lot of success underneath, there is no reason to let them run their routes freely.
Technique by these 49ers corners within the first 15 yards will help them win it. They have to stick the wideouts and run stride-for-stride with them until they enter the secondary, which is a low percentage part of the field when it comes to production for the Carolina passing offense.
Fangio also has the option of mixing up the zone coverages to bait Newton into those underneath throws that are meant to chip away at the defense. A good example of this would be the play made by cornerback Tramaine Brock versus the Houston Texans in Week 5.
It’s trap coverage versus an underneath breaker that features Andre Johnson as the primary read on what is essentially a timing route. San Francisco’s response isn’t pressure-based—its just coverage outfoxing the quarterback. This is what the 49ers will need to do this weekend, so lets take a look.
From Matt Schaub’s perspective, it looks like man-to-man coverage across the board with a four-man rush coming his way. On the perimeter, Tarell Brown is on DeAndre Hopkins and Tramaine Brock is on Andre Johnson. Meanwhile, slot receiver Keshawn Martin is beginning to motion across the formation from the Y to the Z receiver position.
Martin slides over to that spot and Rogers follows, reassuring in Schaub’s mind that it is man coverage. The quarterback tucks back down to receive the snap, but what he fails to notice, or overlooks, is that Brock is now shading Martin and Rogers is now shading Johnson.
Johnson (red circle) is the primary read here, designed to fill into the space cleared out by Martin. It is supposed to be a quick pitch and catch with potential to turn the play up field.
The play is snapped and Schaub immediately turns his shoulders toward the front side of the formation, looking for Johnson. In this frame, it looks like Rogers is trailing Johnson and Brock is playing Martin up the sideline. However, it was more of a quick bump to sell the man coverage before they dropped into their zone assignments.
This is just enough to get Schaub to pull the trigger.
The ball is out and Brock is in a position to drive on the under route, not only because he is supposed to be there, but knowing that he has Carlos Rogers and Eric Reid behind him in case he whiffs on the ball or the tackle. This is a perfect example of setting a trap for the quarterback and a player knowing where to take risks within the scheme.
That being the case, Brock breaks on the ball more aggressively than Johnson.
Part II: The Running Threat
Last week, Newton recorded his 18th career game with both a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown, via ESPN Stats & Info. No other player has more than six in the last three seasons. He has rushed for 251 yards and four touchdowns in 2013 and has picked up steam since Week 6.
How to play it?
Again, versus passing plays, the 49ers should refrain from sending extra pressure. But the team would also be wise to avoid stunting on Newton; it leaves the edge wide open and he can run.
Just like before, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is going to want to dial up various combinations of four-man rushes, while dropping seven into coverage and counting on the guys up front to get home. Not only does this method make sense to defend him as a passer, but as a runner as well.
They’ve also done it in this past with mobile quarterbacks.
It is a safe tactic and it challenges the QB in a way they don’t want to be. You see, even if the rush over-pursues and Newton is in a position to scramble, he’s still got seven guys in front of him. If you’re aggressive sending five, six or even seven, and he steps up, you’re in trouble.
By doing that, you’re asking the safeties and corners to come up and make a tackle on a 6’5”, 245-pound super athlete than can run a sub-4.5 40. Needless to say, the 49ers don’t want to give him openings to scramble.
Moreover, the 49ers want to tap inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a special role this week and leave him to spy Newton. By nature, he is a tracker. He hustles to the football consistently, and it was first visible in his fourth-ever start versus Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2011.
As you can see in the graphic below, Bowman was designed to spy Vick. The 49ers only rushed three to four players at a time and left No. 53 over the top to keep his eyes down toward the line of scrimmage and react to the quarterback. He was free to play to his instincts and it worked well.
Run Hard, Challenge With Misdirection
You wouldn’t believe it, but the Carolina Panthers, which seem to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding, actually now have the No. 3 total defense in the league. Even after seeing two top-10 rushing teams, they are still second versus the run and they’re also No. 10 versus the pass.
There are a lot of guys playing really well in their front seven in particular.
Via PFF, rookie Star Lotulelei is the Panthers' top defensive performer with a grade of 13.4; he has the third-highest run grade of all defensive tackles in the NFL. Defensive ends Greg Hardy (9.4) and Charles Johnson (5.4) are also ranked two and three on the team, sharing 12.0 sacks between them.
Along with linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, the Panthers are tough in the box. The Niners’ best chance to wiggle through such a concrete defense is to field a balanced attack and make them defend the whole field.
It’ll come down to Greg Roman. He has an obligation to get Frank Gore multiple carries over the game and allow him to do some north-and-south running. These touches also need to come in proximity of one another, enabling him to find a rhythm. They can’t be sporadic; they must be calculated.
Right now, San Francisco’s unit is No. 1 in rushing yards per game (153.5) and rushing touchdowns (15). They can win a lot of games with 4.5 yards per attempt. This ground game is functioning at a high rate of efficiency.
Nevertheless, they must respect the run defense they are set to face. This means bringing the add-ons and little nuances to otherwise basic powers and leads. Counter steps, wham blocks, trap blocks and misdirection are all things that may affect the reaction time of the defense or disrupt their path to the ball-carrier.
It’ll also setup play action, which Colin Kaepernick is highly effective with, so this is the most important thing the 49ers can offensively.
- Stop the Run: When using play action, Cam Newton is third in the league in both QB rating (130.5) and yards per attempt (10.4), via PFF. Carolina is also the No. 8-ranked team in the rushing category, which stems from their quarterback’s mobility and the stable of backs led by DeAngelo Williams.
- Play Penalty Free: San Francisco certainly dealt with their early-season issue of mounting penalties. It was killing drives on their end and helping their opponents extend theirs. Already shorthanded, the Niners can not afford this. In what looks to be a close game, the players need to be fundamentally sharp.
- Insert New Kick Returner: Special teams coach Brad Seely needs to plug in a new return man on both the kickoff and punt teams. The obvious candidate seems to be running back LaMichael James, or perhaps cornerback Perrish Cox. Of course, for that to happen, they need to be active. If they are going to transition to a fresh set of hands, Week 10 is the time to act.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Screen grabs provided by NFL.com Game Rewind (subscription required). Special thanks to Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus for advanced statistics.