49ers vs. Panthers: Who Has the Edge at Every Position?
If Sunday's divisional-round game is anything like the Week 10 regular-season contest—a 10-9 Carolina win in San Francisco—we are in for a real treat.
Rarely do you see two of the most prolific defenses in the NFL go head-to-head. In the last few years, the league has featured high-flying offenses and substandard defensive play.
Based on the way these two teams have been playing, though, we should see more than 19 combined points.
This will be a hard-fought brawl until the end between two evenly matched teams. With injuries considered, let's analyze which team has the edge at each position.
49ers OL vs. Panthers DL
Ever since head coach Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff took over in 2011, the 49ers have built one of the most successful offensive lines in the league. Left tackle Joe Staley has been named to three consecutive Pro Bowls, left guard Mike Iupati has been named to two straight, and right tackle Anthony Davis is one of the better pass protectors in the NFC.
However, they will be squaring off against the most productive defensive line in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have combined for a plus-63.3 grade this season.
Carolina’s group is by far the highest-graded defensive line in the league. Defensive ends Hardy and Johnson registered 26 quarterback sacks, 34 quarterback hits and 87 quarterback hurries. Even though Short and Lotulelei didn’t match their stout pass-rushing numbers, the rookie defensive tackles provided a strong push up the middle.
They amassed 4.5 quarterback sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 39 quarterback hurries. In all, that’s 204.5 quarterback pressures among the four defensive linemen.
As good as the 49ers offensive line has been the last three years, there’s no question that its biggest test of the season awaits it on Sunday. Moreover, let’s not forget Carolina’s defensive line ate up San Francisco’s offensive line when these two teams met Week 10.
If the Niners don't bring their A-game on the offensive line, it’s going to be a long day for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Colin Kaepernick vs. Panthers Pass Defense
During the regular-season matchup between the 49ers and Panthers, Carolina’s pass defense had its way with Kaepernick and San Francisco’s wide receiving corps. The third-year signal-caller out of Nevada turned in the worst outing of his career. In addition to finishing the game with 91 yards passing, he was intercepted once and posted a quarterback rating of 42.
Yet, you shouldn’t expect a repeat performance this time around.
Why? Because wide receiver Michael Crabtree has proved to be San Francisco’s difference-maker since his return. Without Crabtree in the starting lineup, the 49ers were averaging 308 yards of total offense and 173 yards passing. With him in the lineup (playoffs included), they are averaging 361 yards of total offense and 214 yards passing.
Sure, 41 passing yards may not seem like a huge difference in the stat book, but it could mean another scoring drive for the 49ers offense.
Furthermore, his value on the field goes beyond the numbers. It extends into the run game and how the Panthers approach the 49ers offense. Crabtree’s presence also means wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis should see more one-on-one coverage downfield.
Carolina may have the No. 6 pass defense in the NFL, but it doesn’t have the necessary talent in the secondary to cover Crabtree, Boldin and Davis. Cornerbacks Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn have both had strong years in coverage, yet two defenders won’t be able to stop San Francisco’s aerial assault.
This, in turn, means Kaepernick is primed for a big game through the air.
49ers RBs vs. Panthers Front Seven
San Francisco’s bread and butter has always been its run game. Year after year, running back Frank Gore has led the charge for the 49ers offense, and this year hasn’t been any different. Gore put together his third straight 1,000-yard season and scored nine touchdowns in the process.
Surprisingly, one of his better games of the season came against the Panthers' vaunted front seven. Even though the 49ers lacked a passing attack, Gore averaged 5.1 yards a carry on 16 attempts and forced three missed tackles. Yet, one shouldn’t expect the ninth-year pro to turn in a similar performance this weekend.
Carolina didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher at home this season, and it possesses the second-best run defense in the NFL. Of the seven members of the Panthers front seven, five of them were awarded with above-average run grades from the folks at PFF. Linebacker Chase Blackburn and defensive end Charles Johnson were the two players who graded out below average.
Despite the negative grades from Blackburn and Johnson, the Panthers front seven should find success versus Gore. Inside linebacker Luke Kuechly will have a heyday if Kewann Short and Star Lotulelei can keep the interior of San Francisco’s offensive line at bay. That will prove to be the biggest key in the run game.
When Kuechly doesn’t have to fight off second-level blocks, he is a destroyer. He racked up 10 tackles for loss and the sixth-most defensive stops in the league, via PFF. There’s a reason why the Panthers have invested so many first- and second-round picks in their front seven. On Sunday, it’s their time to shine.
49ers Receivers vs. Panthers Secondary
When a team leads the NFL in quarterback sacks, odds are its entire defense is playing at an All-Pro level. That is definitely the case for Carolina. The pressure generated from the Panthers front four has helped the team's secondary exceed expectations in 2013.
Prior to the season, pundits from around the league had a hard time believing in the Panthers secondary. Rightfully so based on the fact few predicted big seasons from defensive backs Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn, Michael Mitchell and Quintin Mikell.
None of the four players exactly strike fear in the opposition, yet the 49ers are well aware that they are a capable bunch. Carolina finished the year with the No. 6 pass defense. It intercepted 20 passes, held opposing quarterbacks to an 81.4 quarterback rating and only gave up 17 passing touchdowns.
Nevertheless, the Panthers secondary has had its fair share of problems when it has to defend the deep ball. In the regular season, the unit allowed 48 pass plays of 20 yards or more and eight pass plays of 40 yards or more. This is good news for Crabtree and the wide receiving corps.
Yes, the 49ers have struggled to generate explosive plays in the passing game this season, but unlike the first meeting between these two teams, San Francisco will have the necessary talent to outduel the Panthers secondary. Undrafted cornerback Melvin White will have to cover Crabtree, which could spell trouble for the back end of Sean McDermott’s defense.
The numbers may favor the Panthers, but the talent outweighs statistics.
Panthers OL vs. 49ers DL
Like the Panthers, the 49ers are absolutely loaded on the defensive line. Justin Smith is a perennial Pro Bowler, Glenn Dorsey has resurrected his career under defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, and Ray McDonald is a dominant force against the run.
To no one’s surprise, San Francisco’s defense goes as the defensive line goes. When Smith, Dorsey and McDonald play well, the rest of Vic Fangio’s defense follows suit. This could prove to be bad news for the 49ers, because their defensive line will be taking on one of the most potent offensive lines in football.
Left tackle Jordan Gross is the second-best pass-blocking offensive tackle in the NFC, left guard Travelle Wharton is the seventh-best run-blocking offensive guard in the league, and center Ryan Kalil is proficient in both areas, per PFF. Right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler could stand to improve, yet both players have upped their levels of play as the season has pressed on.
San Francisco’s defensive line knows it has to play better the second time around. If it doesn't, Carolina’s offensive line will own it for the second straight meeting. During the Panthers-49ers Week 10 showdown, Smith and the boys failed to generate a pass rush. This proved to be the defense’s downfall when the clock struck zero.
Generating a pass rush is rarely a problem for the 49ers defensive line, so it will be interesting to see if it can regroup and make the necessary adjustments.
The Panthers offensive line will control the line of scrimmage and keep quarterback Cam Newton clean if Tomsula’s unit isn’t better prepared this time around.
Cam Newton vs. 49ers Pass Defense
I will be the first one to admit that the 49ers pass defense is underrated. It may not have star-studded talent at the cornerback position, but it does have above-average talent at the safety position and two All-Pro inside linebackers.
Furthermore, the numbers don’t lie. At PFF, the 49ers graded out as the second-best team against the pass. Of the 27 defensive players who played at least one snap for San Francisco, only six of them were hit with negative grades. The other 21 players either received an above-average grade or an average one.
That speaks volumes to the job secondary coach Ed Donatell has done. He dealt with injuries and helped maximize the talent of young players like cornerback Tramaine Brock. Yet, it seems like the 49ers pass defense has taken a step back the past few weeks.
Brock’s late-season surge is starting to cool, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have been uncharacteristically bad over the course of the last three games, and Perish Cox is a liability. These things are worrisome as San Francisco prepares to head into its biggest game of the year.
With wide receiver Steve Smith returning to the starting lineup for the Panthers, Newton may be in a good position to take advantage of the 49ers pass defense. The No. 1 overall pick out of Auburn is enjoying the most fruitful season of his young career as a passer.
During the regular season, he threw for 3,379 yards, tossed 24 touchdown passes and posted a quarterback rating of 88.8. He underperformed Week 10 versus the 49ers, but he always plays better at Bank of America Stadium. At home in 2013, he completed 65.2 percent of his passes, turned in a 100 quarterback rating and took fewer sacks.
Newton has the clear edge over a pass defense that has struggled since Week 16.
Panthers RBs vs. 49ers Front Seven
After a subpar season last year, you really have to credit running back DeAngelo Williams for having a bounce-back year. Despite scoring more touchdowns and averaging 4.3 yards per carry in 2012, Williams has improved in pass protection and as a pass-catcher.
Yet, he’s still a 30-year-old running back who is facing off against the fourth-best run defense in the NFL. The 49ers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season long, and they are surrendering a measly 3.9 yards per carry.
In the two teams’ first meeting, San Francisco limited Williams to 46 yards rushing and held him catchless out of the backfield. It’s hard to think things will be different this weekend. The 49ers front seven is too good at the point of attack, and it rarely gets gashed.
The longest run the unit gave up this season was 30 yards. Running back Jonathan Stewart will give the Panthers a second option if Williams struggles, but his status is up in the air right now. He’s battling a bum knee and is listed as questionable.
For me, this one is a no-brainer. I will take five Pro Bowl selections (Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman) over an aging tailback with an often injured backup.
Panthers Receivers vs. 49ers Secondary
Cam Newton has had a phenomenal season and is skilled enough to take advantage of the 49ers pass defense. But are the Panthers receivers up to the task?
Outside of Steve Smith, Carolina doesn’t have a reliable No. 2. Brandon LaFell’s 627-yard season isn’t going to cut it. Plus, he has had a case of the dropsies in 2013. According to PFF, he has eight drops on 57 catchable passes. That’s the 11th-highest drop rate in the league.
Ted Ginn Jr., at times, has provided a spark, but he’s not consistent enough to be an every-down receiver. He is at his best when the Panthers use him as a situational player. On average, he only plays 31 snaps a game. Additionally, he made one start this season. And in that one start, he graded out below average based on PFF’s rating system.
As long as San Francisco’s secondary keeps Smith in check, it should have little problem owning LaFell and Ginn. Tight end Greg Olsen will require some attention, yet the Niners seem to have a sound plan when it comes to him.
Donte Whitner will drop down from the safety position and cover him the same way he did Week 10. He limited Olsen to 14 yards on one catch.
The matchups are in the 49ers’ favor. They just have to come out and win them consistently.
The Final Tally
By going back and looking at the areas of importance, the 49ers and Panthers each have the competitive advantage in four different categories. Both teams were favored twice on offense and twice on defense.
However, San Francisco should come away with a victory on Sunday. The team is riding a seven-game win streak (playoffs included), Kaepernick is playing his best football of the season, Crabtree is becoming the weapon the Niners needed for a playoff run, and Carolina doesn't have enough offensive firepower to keep pace.
The 49ers got hot at just the right time. We've seen it in the past, and we may see it again this year. The team that starts to click prior to the Super Bowl has the best chance of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Prediction: 49ers win, 27-21