Dissecting Most Crucial Matchups in 49ers' Showdown with Panthers

Sean GalushaCorrespondent IIJanuary 8, 2014

Dissecting Most Crucial Matchups in 49ers' Showdown with Panthers

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    When the San Francisco 49ers left Candlestick Park in an ambulance several weeks ago against Carolina, most of us set the DVR to Charlie Rose reruns. After spending a month kicking teams in the ass, the 49ers were the ones left with more bruises and cuts than a UFC combatant. 

    This is a team that thrives on being able to smack their opponents around, so it was shocking how many times we saw Colin Kaepernick on the ground with a Carolina lineman standing over him.  

    It reminded you of someone.  

    Things have changed since then, and Kaepernick seems eager to get another shot at the team that sacked him six times and held him to fewer than 100 yards passing. 

    It makes sense. He has four guys to throw to instead of one. The offensive line is healthier now than it's been since the beginning of the season. The Warriors won their 10th straight game last night.

    The 49ers are slight favorites over the Panthers this week because of their superior offense, but there's going to be several key matchups the team has to win to assure their third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game. 

    Should we break it down?


Joe Staley vs. Greg Hardy

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    Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

    If Greg Hardy thinks he's the Kraken, then maybe Joe Staley should start calling himself Hercules. He's actually more like Alcyoneus, a giant capable of fending off two attackers at a time. 

    The key to this battle will be in the trenches. While the offensive line did a serviceable job creating holes for Frank Gore during the regular-season matchup, Colin Kaepernick was constantly in a vise, having less than five seconds to throw before fleeing the pocket and getting dropped for an 11-yard loss.

    Hardy leads the Panthers with 15 sacks this year. Seeing that this will likely be a defensive struggle, protecting Kaepernick's blind side will be crucial in limiting pressure and reducing the risk of hurried throws and interceptions.

    Staley made it clear what his job was last week. I'm pretty sure he feels the same way now. 

Vernon Davis vs. Luke Kuechly

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    Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

    The 49ers were one dropped pass away from beating the Panthers, but that was easy to forget since Vance McDonald was the target.

    After Vernon Davis left in the second quarter, the 49ers lost about 30 percent of their offense. They only managed to score one field goal the rest of the way after coming up short on several red-zone opportunities. 

    Despite missing three games this year, Vernon tied his career high with 13 touchdown receptions, continuing the synergy he formed with Kaepernick during the 2013 postseason run.

    The Panthers have been lit up by tight ends lately, and it'll be up to Davis to exploit them in the middle of the field and in the end zone. He'll likely be guarded by linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is one of the strongest candidates to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

    Given his ability to react quickly and snuff out any play, Vernon's best bet might be to just run down the field and burn Kuechly on a seam route. This would stretch Carolina's defense and open things up for Boldin and Crabtree to take quick passes and plow through the Panthers secondary. 

    Davis is a nightmare for any defender in the NFL. Look for him to cause the Cats a lot of trouble on Sunday. 

Greg Roman vs. Sean McDermott

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Greg Roman has been hearing it from the 49ers fans this season. Because of him I've already received my second restraining order, a few months after the one I got from Josie Maran.  

    The offense didn't look a lot different in arctic weather last Sunday: the wasted timeouts, the failed red-zone opportunities and the hurried snaps. But there was one change that was kind of awesome. Kaepernick was allowed to use his legs.

    The 49ers rarely ran the option or executed any quarterback run by design. Colin just ran when the pocket shrunk or whenever the spirit moved him. Hopefully Harbaugh and Roman noticed this and will continue letting their franchise player utilize all of his abilities throughout the postseason. 

    Carolina's crafty defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, will try to counter what he saw from Kaepernick last week, and it'll be up to Roman to find a way to get around that.  

    This might be hard to believe, but the macho game of football is also a chess match. A violent one played on a big field where the pieces swear and intimidate each other. One thing remains the same. Whoever makes the right moves wins the game. 

    On Sunday, it's the 49ers' three-pronged attack up against the Panthers' sneaky, hard-hitting defense. Screen passes have been a problem for Carolina all season, and speedsters like LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter could torment them for over three hours. But if we know that, Roman should, right?