Though crucial, the matchups themselves are as straight forward as the basic end goal both teams hope to achieve.
The 49ers and Panthers are rising second-place squads that are a mere one game back from sitting atop their respective divisions. If either secures a win this week, and division-leading Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints suffer defeat, then first place belongs to them.
Both teams also produce their wins in similar ways. Each strives toward owning the line of scrimmage, preventing end-zone access to opposing foes, running the ball and setting up play action in the passing game.
Big, dazzling and spectacular plays should be the norm, right?
Not so fast.
This is a head-to-head clash where the respective meat-and-potatoes-esque run games take precedence over their cheese-topping, read-option accompaniments. This is about Kaepernick feeding off running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, about Newton passing behind a balanced rushing attack powered by DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert.
Don’t get us wrong: Both Kaepernick and Newton will indeed sprinkle in read-option and run plays of their own. Each has tallied at least 49 rushing attempts for 220-plus yards and three touchdowns on the season.
Yet, this Sunday will ultimately feature a battle of trench warfare and running back-led offensives, one in which the 49ers look to capture on their home turf.
Let’s now delve into those and other crucial matchups for the 49ers in Week 10.
Note: Unless noted otherwise, all advanced statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required for access).
3. Inside Linebacker/Safety/Cornerback vs. Tight End
Common football logic would dictate that generating a pass rush is the most effective defense against an opposing quarterback.
Sacks, hits and hurries are certainly what disrupt all-time greats like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers the most.
Yet, what means must a defense employ when said quarterback is the NFL’s most accurate passer under pressure?
The stat brains at Pro Football Focus reveal that Panthers’ field general Cam Newton sports an accuracy percentage of 75 when passing in the face of defensive pressure. When the pocket breaks down and Newton must avoid insatiable would-be sack artists, he still completes 62.1 percent of his passes, with seven of those going for touchdowns.
Compare those numbers with an overall completion percentage of 64.4 and 13 total passing touchdowns. Newton is just as proficient at playing quarterback with the likes of Aldon Smith and Corey Lemonier bearing down on him as he is without that pressure.
So, the next best defensive strategy involves the 49ers eliminating Newton’s top target—tight end Greg Olsen.
Olsen leads the Panthers with 426 yards receiving, three touchdowns and eight receptions of 20 or more yards. He is tops in the league with a catch percentage of 79.1 among tight ends with at least 16 targets.
In other words, when Newton targets Olsen, he catches it. And when he does, it often goes for a big play.
Now enter: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers.
San Francisco’s aforementioned inside linebackers, strong safety and cornerback will have the tough assignment of covering Olsen on Sunday.
Willis and Bowman have not exactly matched their spectacular play in coverage from last season.
League-wide No. 9 and No. 13 rankings among ILB this year have replaced No. 1 and No. 8 marks from 2012, according to PFF. Opposing quarterbacks have completed at least 71 percent of their passes and amassed triple-digit ratings when targeting these inside backers.
That said, Willis and Bowman have been responsible for just two touchdown completions.
They’ve held the dynamic Jared Cook, Owen Daniels and Delanie Walker all out of the end zone. Lance Kendricks’ garbage-time score for the St. Louis Rams in Week 4 represents the lone touchdown allowed to a tight end by either Willis or Bowman.
Next up is Whitner, one of the league’s best in coverage from the safety position.
Quarterbacks are completing less than 53 percent of their throws with a sub-50 passer rating against Whitner this year. He owns an interception and three passes defensed, and has not given up a touchdown all season—tight end or otherwise.
Finally, we bring Rogers into the picture because of his role as a slot corner.
Olsen runs over 50 percent of his routes from that receiving position (133 of 246). He has hauled in 13 of 18 targets for a catch rate of 72.2 percent, good for fifth-highest among tight ends.
Rogers, for his part, has allowed just 0.88 yards per coverage snap and an opposing passer rating of 61.2 when operating out of the slot. He must use every bit of that No. 2-ranked prowess when matched up against Olsen.
It’s apparent that the 49ers will have the upper hand in this coverage matchup come Sunday.
But Olsen is the most dangerous pass-catching tight end they’ve faced all season. The Panthers will surely feature him in creative ways throughout the game, especially in the red zone.
If the 49ers want to mitigate Newton’s effectiveness as a passer, they must eliminate Olsen as a target.
2. Nose Tackle/Defensive End/Outside Linebacker vs. Center/Guard/Tackle
Please excuse another multi-layered breakdown for this next matchup.
Strength derives from the core and, depending on the perspective, favors one side over the other as it moves outward. In this football-related case, the Panthers’ greatest strength along the offensive line begins at center and extends to left tackle.
It applies most especially to run blocking.
Pro Football Focus grades Ryan Kalil as the NFL’s No. 2 run-blocking center. He is a savvy seven-year veteran that consistently moves the pile.
Left guard Travelle Wharton replaced the injured Amini Silatolu officially in Week 6 but had excelled as a run blocker since receiving increased playing time three weeks earlier. He has earned a positive grade in four of Carolina’s five victories and ranks fifth overall.
Two-time Pro Bowler Jordan Gross still operates as a tremendous blindside protector at age 33. And like his draft position back in 2003, he’s been top-10 quality in run-blocking duties this season.
The Panthers’ elite corps of offensive linemen has played critical roles in the ground attack during this team’s streak of winning five of six games.
The first of these wins had Williams rushing for 92 of his 120 yards and Newton recording his first touchdown carry of the season against the New York Giants. Both originated from the center or left side of the line.
In Carolina’s latest triumph over the division-rival Atlanta Falcons, an injury-free Jonathan Stewart totaled the majority of his rushing yardage behind Kalil and company. The bruising Mike Tolbert punched in rushing touchdown No. 4 courtesy of his left guard paving the way.
And lest we forget, backup Ben Hartsock is unrivaled as a blocking tight end. His positive-12.0 rating is more than triple the total score of the man below him.
He provides a substantial advantage to whichever Panther runs in the wake of his blocking.
Fortunately, San Francisco counters with its own menacing group.
Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, defensive end Justin Smith and trio of outside linebackers Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier and the now-active Aldon Smith have all stood firm against the run during their time on the gridiron.
Dorsey boasts the fifth-highest run-stop percentage among defensive tackles. He halts opposing rushers behind the line of scrimmage 11 percent of the time he defends the run.
Justin Smith isn’t quite up to par with his usual standards. Yet, the Paul Bunyan of a man has still registered 11 stops and has missed just one tackle all year in run defense.
While filling in for Aldon Smith, Skuta and rookie Lemonier surprised many with their consistently strong performances. The duo combined for 10 stops in his stead.
The 49ers’ coaching staff will likely restrict Smith to situational passing downs as he acclimates back into football shape. Even so, the all-world talent maintained a positive-2.4 grade and notched eight stops against the run in just three games when active.
This group as a whole helped San Francisco limit the opposition to zero 100-yard rushers and just one rushing touchdown during its five-game winning streak.
Let’s now return to the matchup at hand.
The 49ers’ defensive front must overpower its offensive line counterpart for Carolina to create a domino effect. Occupying blockers and stifling the Williams, Tolbert and Stewart-led ground attack will, in turn, harness Newton’s entire game.
The dual-threat quarterback will revert to the pass if his running backs don’t generate consistent positive yardage. And that will negate the possibility of play action.
Newton is the NFL’s No. 3 passer with an awesome rating of 125.5 and 75.4 completion percentage after faking the handoff to his tailbacks. Without the benefit of misdirection, Newton plummets to No. 17 with a pedestrian 80.0 rating and 60.0 completion rate.
He has also thrown six of his seven interceptions from non-play-action dropbacks.
By controlling this side of the line, the 49ers’ defense will keep Newton and Co. off the field.
By virtue, the 49ers’ offense and primary means of winning the game will then step onto the field.
1. Guard/Center vs. Defensive Tackle
The 49ers have premier inside maulers on the offensive line and rank No. 4 in rushing offense.
The Panthers have premier inside stalwarts on the defensive line and rank No. 1 in rushing defense.
On Sunday, then, what gives?
The most crucial battle in the trenches lies in San Francisco’s offensive interior against Carolina’s defensive front. It showcases guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone and center Jonathan Goodwin against first-year D-tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
Iupati and Boone are the road graders that advance the 49ers’ rushing attack. They are also extremely athletic and pull as well as any guard in the NFL. While not quite earning Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 and No. 3 ranking in run blocking from last year, they remain wholly formidable in this assignment.
The mauling duo has created the inside push for three touchdowns and bulk yardage by running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter this year. Boone was the lead man in front on Hunter’s score against the Indianapolis Colts, while Iupati has been integral in Kaepernick’s touchdown rushes to the left side.
Goodwin, for his part, has been solid throughout as a run blocker. Pro Football Focus awarded him with positive grades for his effort against the Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Carolina, meanwhile, trots out impressive rookies Lotulelei and Short.
Lotulelei rates as the league’s preeminent defensive tackle for stop percentage in run defense. Short joins him as a contributor of double-digit stops as well, which represent plays that result in offensive failure for the opposition. They have missed only two tackles all year.
This tandem is the primary reason why opposing offenses generate just 79.1 yards rushing per game. The same goes for the grand total of two running scores allowed on the season.
Coming back full circle, everything begins and ends with the ground game for the 49ers’ offense.
This is a team that runs more than it passes (270 rushing vs. 199 passing attempts). Gore is the leader of that charge with an overwhelming team-high 146 carries for 618 yards and seven touchdowns. He excels especially at the inside attack between the tackles.
Hunter and Kaepernick piggyback off No. 21 by gashing defenses with their speed to the outside. They have produced five touchdowns in this way.
More so, the downfield passing game and read-option only work when Gore succeeds.
To wit, Kaepernick rocks a touchdown-to-interception ratio of five to one and a quarterback rating of 114.3 when throwing off play action. He has, in comparison, tossed four interceptions with a rating of 76.5 without the threat of Gore up the middle.
His greatest rushing outputs the past two weeks have coincided with Gore’s as well.
Iupati, Boone and Goodwin must win this line of scrimmage matchup against Lotulelei and Short.
A 49ers’ win and first-place ascension could very well depend upon it.
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