3TFO: 49ers @ Panthers, Divisional Round
The second of three regular season rematches sees the San Francisco 49ers continue their quest for back-to-back Super Bowl appearances by heading to Charlotte to take on the red hot Panthers.
Winners of seven straight, the 49ers have relied on the same formula as always. They have a stellar front seven, a proficient running game, and a young quarterback who relies on his legs as much as his arm. Carolina, meanwhile… has a stellar front seven, a proficient running game, and a young quarterback who relies on his legs as much as his arm. If not for their contrasting jerseys and different defensive schemes, it may be tough to tell these teams apart.
Everything points to this being a low scoring defensive struggle reminiscent of their Week 10 matchup at Candlestick in which the Panthers pulled out the win thanks to a late interception. Both Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick are talented players, but it’s telling that 49ers and Panthers each averaged less than 200 passing yards per game on the year.
San Francisco’s players have the advantage of playoff experience, with a relatively unchanged roster compared with the one they took to the Super Bowl a year ago. Compare that to the Panthers who are returning only a handful of players from their last trip to the postseason back in 2008.
The winner will either travel to the unfriendly confines of Seattle or host the Saints next week for their shot at Super Bowl XLVIII. And while that NFC Championship berth awaits the victor, neither team can afford to look past this game. Here are some points they should keep an eye on to postpone their offseason by at least one more week.
Cam vs. Kap
They won’t be facing off directly on the field, and while there are certainly more high profile quarterback matchups this weekend, Kaepernick against Newton has as much merit and intrigue as any other. Their raw stats on the year are eerily similar. They’re QB ratings are just three points apart, they are among four quarterbacks who have rushed for 500 yards on the season, and neither lit up the statsheet with their passing yardage totals. In a rematch in which these teams combined to score just 19 points in their first contest, nobody is expecting either signal-caller to torch the opposing defense, but both have playmaking ability that could break the game open for their side.
Kaepernick’s physical skills were on full display last week as he burned Green Bay for 98 yards on seven carries, extending drives and gaining valuable field position in the process. At 5.7 yards per carry on the year, this is hardly the first time Kaepernick has used his mobility against defenses. Newton has somehow been even more exciting when he tucks the ball and runs. Over 40% of his rushing attempts have gone for first downs, an unbelievable rate and a big reason why his +12.3 rushing grade leads all quarterbacks this season.
Even if neither QB puts up gaudy rushing numbers, their ability to do so should be enough to slow down the fearsome pass rushers across the line. In addition, both clubs have excellent linebackers they may elect to spy from time to time to prevent big gains should either quarterback escape the pocket.
Fearsome Foursome, Part 1
Luke Kuechly has earned heaps of praise at times this year, and while he has been superb in his second season manning the middle of the defense, much of his success is set up by the guys in front of him. Somehow Charles Johnson actually has the lowest grade of Carolina’s starting defensive linemen, although some of his worst grades came upon returning from a sprained MCL and his +4.7 is still above average and no one’s complaining about 11 sacks in 14 games.
His partner on the right has been even more destructive than Johnson, and in a contract year no less. Greg Hardy has 39 combined hits and sacks with a whopping 16 of those coming in his last three games where he amassed a +15.5 grade that saw him find his way onto our Team of the Week all three weeks (honorable mention in Week 15). For ages a weakness for the Panthers, they nailed their first two picks with rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short wreaking havoc on the interior on a weekly basis.
As good as that front four may be, San Francisco has one of the soundest offensive lines around. Not quite playing at the surreal level of a year ago, none of these guys would struggle to find a job on the free agent market. Left tackle Joe Staley earned his second straight Pro Bowl nomination and it’s not hard to see why — he surrendered just 20 total pressures on the season. Staley is the only tackle to allow 20 or fewer pressures while pass protecting on at least 350 snaps, and he pass blocked 471 times.
He’s the star of this offensive line, even while moving forward (+8.5 run block) but the two men to his right also get excellent push in the run game. Mike Iupati and Jonathan Goodwin aren’t shy about redirecting defenders either, even if you’d like to see better pass protection from Iupati. Right guard Alex Boone may actually be the weakest link on the line (using the term loosely), but even he hasn’t allowed a sack since the Panthers’ Dwan Edwards took down Kaepernick back in Week 10.
Fearsome Foursome, Part 2
As has been the case for a few years now, the 49ers unquestionably possess one of the best linebacker groups in the league. Ahmad Brooks and tackling robot Patrick Willis are the veterans of the bunch, with 17 years combined experience. Brooks is having a down year by the lofty standards he set a year ago, but he’s still made his impact felt, batting almost as many passes (four) as the entire rest of the defense (five) and few outside linebackers matched Brooks’ 29 stops in the run game this year.
Meanwhile, Willis and fellow inside backer NaVorro Bowman seem to be two of the same guy, lining up next to each other with consecutive jersey numbers. This duo tops our inside linebacker grading 1-2, and each graded positively in every element of the game (pass rush, pass coverage, and run defense). As impressive as they are, they may actually be underrated as blitzers. Willis and Bowman are both in the Top 8 for Pass Rushing Productivity, recording pressure on nearly one quarter of all blitzes.
It’s impossible to discuss the 49ers’ pass rush without giving Aldon Smith his due. Even with the off-field issues resulting in several missed games, and a lack of playing time when he did return, Smith put forth a tremendous season that saw him climb to fifth in our 3-4 OLB grading at +23.6. Smith has been an absolute monster lately, tallying four or more pressures in each of his last four games. He’ll face off against an 11-year veteran in Jordan Gross, one of the league’s better pass-blocking tackles. Allowing just seven combined hits and sacks, Gross has had little trouble keeping Newton upright.
Perhaps the most trouble this linebacker group will have is with ‘jack of all trades’ back Mike Tolbert. He leads all Panther running backs with 606 snaps, and those snaps couldn’t have come at a wider variety of positions. Spending the majority of those plays as a tailback, only 157 have come at the traditional fullback position, and the Panthers have even split him out wide or in the slot a couple dozen times. Carolina will no doubt attempt to sneak Tolbert around the offense in the hopes he can add to his 18 total missed tackles forced and over 500 scrimmage yards this Sunday.