Between San Francisco's red-zone defense and the way it controlled the game in the second half, there's at least five takeaways from Sunday's victory worth revisiting before next week's blood bath in Seattle.
Right now, the unit is firing on all cylinders and its timing couldn't be better. However, it’s going to be a battle royal next weekend in the Pacific Northwest.
San Francisco finished the regular season in the top five in rushing yards allowed per game, and teams are struggling to earn any ground yardage against it in the postseason. The 49ers are playing blood, sweat and tears football.
Sunday, the Panthers couldn't run the ball against the 49ers defense. After averaging over 126 rushing yards per game this season, they were held to a pedestrian 93 total rushing yards.
Outside of Cam Newton's efforts in the first half, the 49ers were stingy on the ground. Newton finished with over half of Carolina's total rushing yards (54 yards), but he couldn't get any help from his backs. Fullback Mike Tolbert and running back DeAngelo Williams combined for only 33 yards on 13 carries, most of which were hard-fought yards.
Between Justin Smith, Dan Skuta and Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco completely shut down Carolina's run attack.
Aside from a few multi-yard jaunts from Newton, the Panthers couldn't explode for any significant yardage. There were red, white and gold jerseys all over Carolina's backfield, holding it to 3.88 yards per carry (it averaged 4.2 yards during the season). It would’ve been worse without Newton’s occasional quarterback keep.
The bottom line is that San Francisco needs a repeat performance next weekend.
In the two teams' previous matchups this season, the Seahawks averaged well over 150 rushing yards per game and two rushing touchdowns per contest. But as Colin Kaepernick said following Sunday's game, via Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, "That’s in the past. This is a different situation. We have to go up there and win."
Defensively, different is better for the 49ers when they head to Seattle, because their last visit to the area was embarrassing.
The Panthers had opportunities to score, but San Francisco's defense was too stubborn in the red zone. The 49ers forced Carolina into field goals all four times it was in the red zone, stopping the team twice on the 1-yard line and transforming Carolina’s kicker, Graham Gano, into its best offensive weapon.
That’s never a good look.
Even after San Francisco committed stupid penalties in the first half, it held its ground and refused to give up easy points. That’s saying a lot when Carolina’s got Cam Newton eying the end zone.
Superman or not, the 49ers had kryptonite near the goal line on Sunday.
As San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman put it, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN, “Yeah, we big-boyed them.”
With Marshawn Lynch in their immediate future, the 49ers must play more disciplined football in the red zone. DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton are not anywhere near the skill set that Lynch brings to an offense. San Francisco cannot afford to give Lynch multiple goal-line carries, because that could cost the team the game.
Defensive discipline must be a focal point during practice this week.
Carolina was able to gain some yardage in the first half through its read-option offense, which freed up running room for Cam Newton for a few modest gains.
But that was it.
Modest gains are one thing, touchdowns are another. The only touchdown that the Panthers earned was a deep pass to Steve Smith, who had single coverage on the outside, and in all honesty, it was just a great pass from Cam Newton.
Give credit where credit is due.
According to ESPN’s Eddie Matz, the Panthers ran the read-option 96 times this season, third-most in the NFL. But Sunday afternoon, their read option was useless.
In the second half, the Panthers had only 37 yards with less than eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter. San Francisco sacked Newton five times, and its mixed defensive packages forced him to pass early and often.
Newton looked overwhelmed during key stretches of the football game. He had problems reading the 49ers defense, and as NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal put it, he "held on to the ball too long, taking sacks in crucial situations to take points off the board."
It’s no secret that Seattle’s bread and butter is the read-option too.
The 49ers were able to slow down the Seahawks in their meeting in San Francisco, allowing only two touchdowns, and they’ll need to build on their efforts from Sunday. Continuing to pressure the quarterback early and forcing runs down the middle will be paramount to San Francisco’s game plan in Seattle.
More mixed packages and masked rushes will be imperative to containing Seattle’s offense.
San Francisco has allowed only one touchdown in the second half over the last two playoff games and hasn’t allowed any points in the third quarter. It's also given up less than 150 second-half yards each of the last two weeks.
This speaks to halftime preparation and coaching. The 49ers are making adjustments to not only hold leads, but take over ball games.
In the second half on Sunday, the Panthers earned a grand total of 145 yards, 108 of which came in the fourth quarter alone. By that time, San Francisco had firm control of the game.
The 49ers simply owned the third quarter, which (you guessed it) will be pivotal to beating the Seahawks in Seattle.
Cam Newton barely had room to breathe, as the 49ers defense sent wave after wave of rushing attacks from all different directions. San Francisco's defensive line pushed Newton's passing pocket into chaos, collapsing it down to an area that not even Doug Flutie could work with.
The defense relentless.
Whatever Coach Jim Harbaugh said in the locker room during halftime needs to be repeated next weekend in Seattle.
In their first meeting of the season, both of the Seahawks' third-quarter drives resulted in a touchdown. Things changed when they squared off in San Francisco.
San Francisco forced two punts and intercepted Russell Wilson, holding the Seahawks to no points in the second half.
Setting the tone in the third quarter will be pivotal to beating Seattle and the 12th man. Effective third-quarter defense keeps opposing offenses from finding a groove in the second half and also gives a team's defense more opportunities to wear out the other squad.
Less offensive opportunities equals less points on the board and more rest for the defense.
The 49ers defense was able to influence it offense’s field position all game. By forcing field goals, turnovers and punts, their defense took the pressure off the offense by giving it quality field position to work with.
Only one of their drives started within 10 yards of their end zone, so Kaepernick wasn’t forced into tight situations with limited play-calling. He was able to roam and roll out of the pocket, which earned the offense extra plays and more time on the field. It’s a different offense altogether when he’s mobile.
Moreover, Coach Harbaugh can depend on the defense to keep games close when the offense isn't clicking.
This is exactly what happened in the first half this weekend.
Carolina managed to slow down the 49ers run game and forced two field goals and two punts in its first four possessions. The defense was mucking up the game enough to hold the Panthers to only 10 points in their first four possessions, including two goal-line stands.
Carolina could’ve ended the half up 21-13 at home with pressure on the 49ers offense to keep up. Instead, it went into the locker room down 13-10.
That's a big difference.
Being that Seattle has arguably the best defense in the NFL, it’s imperative that San Francisco’s defensive unit comes to play. The 49ers will lose if they allow three rushing touchdowns and 29 points, because Seattle won’t give up those kind of numbers—period. The Seahawks have only allowed over 24 points at home once this season, and they still won.
It’s hard to expect San Francisco to walk into Seattle and light its defense up. The 49ers are going to need to force stops and keep their offense on the field, because they’ll need all the possessions and all the time they can get.
If Seattle keeps its offense on the field for 35-plus minutes like it's done in the past, San Francisco is in deep trouble.
Like Colin Kaepernick said, via Jim Corbett of USA Today, "We're one step closer to where we want to be."
No one said that the next step would be any easier.