The San Francisco 49ers are still strapping up their pads and playing football in January, which is a scary thought for other teams that have witnessed them make a deeper push each season under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
They notched their first win by defeating former MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at a frozen Lambeau, helping to build what is already a thick playoff callus in 2013-14. This weekend, they'll travel for a second week in a row, taking on quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
The NFC Divisional Round battle between Harbaugh's Niners and the resurgent Panthers will feature two of the NFL’s best front sevens and hulking run games, which sets this up to be an all-out war in the trenches. Despite the star power on both sidelines, if this one isn’t a shootout, it won’t be a surprise.
Big plays may be few and far between, and if that’s the case, the 49ers have to be prepared for a battle of field position.
With how physical, evenly matched and eerily similar these two teams are, it might look a lot like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Who will do enough by the end, though? And who can give themselves an advantage over four quarters of football?
In a close one, the 49ers must do the little things well while playing to what has been working for them recently. Back on the road again, here is a look at how the Niners can give themselves an advantage in an elimination game versus the Carolina Panthers.
Interior Run Blocking: Part I
There probably isn’t a more imperative factor for the 49ers in this game than their blocking in between the hashes.
The 49ers offensive line—made up of two Pro Bowlers, a Super Bowl champion center and two mountainous grinders on the right side—must have its best game, specifically on the ground. Reason being, the Panthers front seven is the finest collection of young talent and confluent play that San Francisco will see this postseason.
These guys fly to the ball. They were the principal reason that San Francisco lost in Week 10.
With 6’3”, 235-pound All-Pro linebacker and defensive captain Luke Kuechly patrolling the middle for Carolina, the 49ers will have to be on high alert in all phases, because he can kill a play in a litany of ways. On top of that, he’s already proved to be problematic for San Francisco.
Of the rookie’s 156 takedowns in 2013, he had 11 tackles and his first career sack against the 49ers.
The NFL’s fourth-leading tackler was an utter nuisance and has improved his game each week. In Week 16 versus the New Orleans Saints, he ran down the ball-carrier a total of 24 times, which hasn’t been done since 2007. It was also the first time since 2001 that a player had 20 tackles and an interception, per Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk.
He and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis (123 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions) are the only linebacker duo in the NFL with 120-plus tackles, two-plus sacks and two-plus interceptions apiece, via Panthers communications assistant Ryan Anderson. It just goes to show, even with relative newcomers, this team is rock solid in the middle.
The Panthers can make all kinds of plays, but what’s most worrisome for San Francisco is that this group can stop the run.
Worse yet, the 49ers have to worry about both of these backers without fullback Bruce Miller, who was the league’s fourth-best run blocker. That’ll be a challenge, as the team will be relying on a rotation of a couple of inexperienced players there, who are lesser physical specimens than Miller.
But it can be done.
According to the advanced stats at Pro Football Focus, defensive tackle-turned-ancillary-fullback Will Tukuafu had a positive grade in the Wild Card Round (+2.1). While he is nothing special in pass protection, the 272-pounder is a mortar. So far, his angle blocking in the run has been sharp, and he has thumped defenders.
He needs to have a commendable game in the run versus Carolina. Seeing what he's done so far, it’s reassuring that the 49ers have someone who is willing and able.
But most importantly, any neutralization of this Panthers front will boil down to the execution of back-side guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin and front-side guard Alex Boone. Consistent second-level blocking, creating traffic between Kuechly and the ball after he sheds the block and playing keep away is how they will deal with the linebackers.
This is how they sprung running back Frank Gore in Week 1:
After their first formation, the 49ers execute two pre-snap shifts here with fullback Bruce Miller, getting Kuechly to move the linebackers accordingly before motioning Vance McDonald offset behind right tackle Anthony Davis.
With McDonald set and the linebackers in their place with eyes in the backfield, the 49ers are ready to hike the ball.
The design is a weak-side counter to Gore, who intends to follow Miller and McDonald around the edge that tight end Vernon Davis and left tackle Joe Staley set. That’s where the focus of the run is. But the most important aspect here is that both guards, Mike Iupati (No. 77) and Alex Boone (No. 75), get a clean jump off the line and get helmets on the linebackers.
This is the second-level blocking that the 49ers need on Sunday.
Vernon Davis and Anthony Davis pick up the defensive ends, while Staley and Goodwin go one-on-one with interior linemen, one of whom winds up over-pursuing the run inside.
But as you can see in this frame, the two biggest guys, Iupati and Boone, are up on Carolina linebackers Kuechly and Chase Blackburn, ready to engage. And Gore hasn’t even received the handoff yet.
By now, Iupati and Boone have locked down Kuechly and Blackburn away from the play while Vernon Davis sets the edge, and Gore follows a convoy led by McDonald and Miller to the weak side of the formation. Now it’s on Gore to take advantage of this window provided by the guards and make something happen.
He takes the handoff and proceeds to follow McDonald and Miller left.
It doesn’t take long for Kuechly to rip free and for Iupati to give up his leverage as to avoid a holding penalty. Gore, the patient runner that he is, is still behind the line of scrimmage, though. Fortunately, the praise about his vision is true, and he goes left instead of cutting up near Kuechly.
This extends the play.
This forces Kuechly to run the play down, tiring him out in the process. And by creating those original blocks and running outside the tackles—away from the nucleus of the defense where Kuechly resides—the 49ers are able to create this natural congestion that creates a barrier between Kuechly and the ball-carrier.
With the time that Iupati provided, along with the garbage on the field keeping No. 59 away from the play, Gore is able to shoot through for 11 yards before Kuechly scrapes over the top and takes him down out of bounds. That’s a big first down and a way to establish the run against Carolina.
But it starts and ends with consistent second-level blocking from the guards. And for the run to be optimized, everyone else around them has to execute. One misstep or whiffed assignment would result in a win for the Carolina defense. The 49ers need to have as perfect a day as they can when it comes to blocking.
San Francisco has to try to run against this team.
At the end of the day, Carolina’s pass defense is still ranked No. 6 overall, so it’s not like going pass heavy is a surefire philosophy to beating this team. If anything, the Panthers are a lot like the 49ers, in that offenses that can establish balance will have more luck against them.
They must establish some sort of tempo on the ground with Gore and the tailbacks, because if that happens, it will set up the pass in a big way, particularly on play action where quarterback Colin Kaepernick has thrived. The 49ers must respect this defense for what it is and counter by not being one-dimensional.
Interior Run Blocking: Part II
Then there’s the uber-athletic hybrid defensive tackle in Star Lotulelei—another rookie whose game is already through the roof.
The way that the 49ers have formulaically dealt with the league’s most punishing defensive linemen—particularly true defensive tackles in a 4-3 defense—has been the wham block, which is often executed by No. 2 tight end McDonald. Since Day 1, he has been the offense’s consistent in-line blocker.
Typically, the backup tight end motions inside a moment before the snap, allowing him a head start, as well as the time to properly angle himself and dip his shoulder into the defensive lineman before he comes off the line. This is how McDonald, who is 60 pounds lighter than Lotulelei, will have a physical advantage.
The 49ers executed this to a T in the beginning of the season versus a similar 4-3 front in the St. Louis Rams.
Once again, McDonald is a key blocker.
Lined up behind Vernon Davis and Anthony Davis, No. 89 is motioned inside prior to the snap. With the dive into the belly of the defense, directed straight at the defensive tackle, the idea is for McDonald to connect with defensive tackle Michael Brockers and knock him out of the rush lane.
If McDonald is not there, the play is a bust.
If he is there, there's a good chance Gore will get to the secondary because the guards are free to pick up the linebackers.
After being motioned in by Kaepernick, McDonald is upright and offset a yard away from the center, eyeing his target a nanosecond before the snap.
He connects, trucking Brockers and opening up the barn door.
This frees up Gore, who makes the defensive backs chase him downfield to secure the tackle. This is a significant chunk play that all stems from the initial block. This is how the 49ers have to deal with a disruptor like Lotulelei and even Kawann Short at times.
Yes, it may be boring, but when San Francisco blocks well, it can create big plays. And against Carolina, this team will have to emphasize it.
Uncage the Ostrich: Colin Kaepernick
Since wideout Michael Crabtree made his season debut in Week 13, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had the third-highest Total QBR in the NFL (76.9), per ESPN Stats & Info. That includes passing and running, as well as counting for the moment. Dropbacks are once again a good thing. Kap can look to throw 25-35 times a game because they want him to have more touches.
Whether he’s slinging it or scrambling, allowing him to drop back and survey the field has been a good thing recently. Clearly he’s been instructed to run more. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman even told Brian Murphy of KNBR radio that the idea was never to have Kaepernick run a lot during the regular season:
From what we can tell, he’s the dangerous dual-threat that broke onto the scene a year ago, but this time, he’s a bit more seasoned. And the 49ers may have more up their sleeve, as the read-option was hardly a focus in the Wild Card Game vs. the Green Bay Packers. So, whether it's designed runs or just allowing him to create, Kap needs the ball.
If the 49ers are going to win this game against the Panthers, they’ll need a few big plays. And for San Francisco, nobody does it better than Kaepernick.
- Bottle up the Tight End: According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, Cam Newton has a passer rating of 114.7 when targeting tight end Greg Olsen. (It’s 83.3 when targeting wide receivers.) The 49ers have been exposed by the tight end more than they have been by wide receivers, which makes this a favorable matchup for Carolina.
- Rattle Cam Newton: The 49ers are going to have to hope Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are Superman's kryptonite, because this is a team that rarely blitzes or gets creative with their personnel groupings. Last time, it was Brooks who broke out. They'll need that again, along with contributions from the Smiths. Newton is the heartbeat of this team, but this will be his first playoff game. The Niners have to come out swinging and connect with Newton to slow the pace of the offense.
- Stop the Run: This is something the 49ers need to emphasize every week because when they lose games, this is how. The Panthers have a dense, physical backfield that can take it to them and grind it out over four quarters. If Carolina is able to do this, control the pace and have offensive balance, the Niners may be at risk of losing. They have to swarm and tackle well.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Advanced statistics provided by Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. Screen grabs taken from NFL.com Game Rewind (subscription required).