ReFo: 49ers @ Panthers, Divisional Round
It wasn’t quite the defensive struggle we saw in the first matchup, but when the San Francisco 49ers traveled to Carolina to take on the Panthers, their defense made the big plays at the right time to come away with the 23-10 victory. They advance to the NFC Championship for a rubber match with division rival Seattle Seahawks in a game that most analysts agree will pit the two best teams in the NFC.
The Panthers certainly had their opportunities in this one, but a couple key second half plays thwarted their comeback attempt. After moving the ball well into San Francisco territory, quarterback Cam Newton was sacked on back-to-back plays to force a punt. On their very next possession, with Carolina once gain in 49ers’ territory, Newton’s errant pass was picked off by free safety Donte Whitner, to all but seal the game for San Francisco. All of this came after the Panthers were stuffed at the goal line twice in the first half, though they still came away with a field goal and an eventual touchdown due to the good field position netted from their fourth down failure.
As for the 49ers, it wasn’t a dazzling offensive performance, but they sprinkled in a couple big plays and took advantage of some Carolina penalties to keep the pressure on throughout the game.
Here’s a look at the top performances from this NFC Divisional matchup.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Front-7 Controls the Action
The talk during the week centered on both defenses, particularly the front-7s. San Francisco’s front has been one of the league’s best for a few years now, and they were certainly not ready to concede their position to the up-and-coming Panthers’ unit. All seven starters graded positively, led by inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman who graded at +3.4 and +2.8, respectively.
Willis did his usual fine work against the run coming away with three stops and a +1.8 grade and he also had one of the game’s biggest plays with a diving interception of a tipped pass in the first quarter. Bowman was one of the league’s best blitzing linebackers all season and he made the most of his only opportunity when he beat running back Mike Tolbert with a spin move for the first sack that took Carolina out of field goal range late in the third quarter.
Among the other standouts was outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks who came away with three sacks of his own on his 22 rushes, and he made the key tackle on a Newton quarterback sneak at the goal line to start the second quarter. The defensive line did their part as well, led by Justin Smith who looked like his old self at times moving blockers and making an impact against the run on his way to a +2.3 overall grade.
It was an impressive effort from San Francisco’s front-7 — one they’ll certainly need again in a week if they intend on moving on to the Super Bowl.
No stranger to making huge plays in the playoffs, WR Anquan Boldin came through again Sunday with eight catches for 136 yards and a +3.0 receiving grade. As I mentioned this week for ESPN Insider, Boldin may the San Francisco’s most important player given his ability to make the tough catches in traffic and consistently move the chains and that’s exactly what he did with seven of his eight catches going for first downs.
Boldin broke free from CB Captain Munnerlyn on a double move that went for 45 yards and set up the 49ers’ final touchdown of the game early in the third quarter. The rest of the afternoon was vintage Boldin, whether it was catching the back-shoulder throw along the sideline, the dig route over the middle, or the shallow cross, Boldin was clearly the 49ers’ best offensive weapon. His 136 receiving yards represented 69.4 percent of quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s total passing yards on the afternoon.
If there is a complaint on the 49ers’ defense, it’s at cornerback where Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock graded at -1.6 and -2.1, respectively. Brown was the culprit on Newton’s 31-yard touchdown pass to WR Steve Smith on his way to giving up receptions on all four of his targets for 66 yards.
Brock had his issues with Smith as well as he whiffed on a tackle at the 4:26 mark of the first quarter. He was also beaten badly on a double move by WR Ted Ginn, but recovered with the defensive hold to save the potential touchdown. For the game, Brock gave up three catches on his five targets for 48 yards. It certainly wasn’t an egregious effort from the cornerback duo, but it was a step below that of the rest of the defense.
Carolina– Three Performances of Note
Three Guards, No Positives
The Panthers used a two-man rotation at right guard between Nate Chandler (-1.3) and Chris Scott (-2.4), while left guard Travelle Wharton manned his usual spot, but all three finished in the red. Wharton was particularly disappointing given his strong play since taking over the job back in Week 6 as he finished at -3.2 overall including -4.4 against the run.
Wharton was controlled by Justin Smith on more than one occasion, most notably in the first quarter at both the 9:12 and 0:55 marks where Smith stood him up and got inside to make the tackle. Perhaps his worst play, however, came with 4:47 to go in the second quarter when he tripped on his pull attempt on 3rd-and-goal. Tolbert subsequently tripped over Wharton and the 49ers had their second goal line stand of the first half.
As for Chandler and Scott, Chandler got little movement in the running game and surrendered a sack to DE Tony Jerod-Eddie with 7:11 to go in the fourth quarter while Scott gave up three hurries on his 21 pass block attempts. It was not a good day for Carolina’s guards.
Over the course of a game, it often feels like only a handful of plays make the difference, a story that best describes the Carolina secondary in this one. Munnerlyn getting beat by Boldin on the double move proved costly as it led to a San Francisco touchdown that made it a 10-point lead early in the third quarter (and even the touchdown could have been avoided as CB Drayton Florence (-1.9) overran Kaepernick on his 4-yard score.)
Rookie free safety Robert Lester (-1.4) whiffed on his only tackle attempt as RB Frank Gore juked him on his way to a 39-yard gain that set up a 49ers field goal. And, finally, perhaps the worst of the bunch, CB Josh Thomas lost his cool with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 4:10 to go in the game, just as the Panthers had made a third down stop and were prepared to get the ball back for one final shot to mount a comeback.
Thomas played only three snaps on the day, but his penalty proved costly and summed up a frustrating afternoon for the Carolina secondary.
Linebackers Lead the Defense
As has been the case for most of the season, the Panthers got strong play from linebackers Luke Kuechly (+1.7) and Thomas Davis (+1.8), and even Chase Blackburn (+0.8) got into the action with a nice effort. Kuechly had some issues in coverage, particularly when he fell to the ground on tight end Vernon Davis’ touchdown at the end of the first half, but he did his usual fine work against the run grading at +2.0 and getting in on three stops. He also had a well-timed delayed blitz that led to a sack, one his two pressures notched on five attempts.
Davis was rarely out of position in the running game, grading at +1.4, and he picked up two hits and a hurry on his nine pass rush attempts. Meanwhile, Blackburn was as active as any Carolina linebacker on his 43 snaps. He got in on four stops and posted a season-best +1.3 grade against the run. It was a good final showing for Carolina’s linebacking corps.
– Newton graded at +3.5 on his 21 drop-backs in a clean pocket, but only -2.0 on his 12 snaps under pressure.
– Mike Iupati was San Francisco’s highest-graded offensive lineman at +2.7 overall. He didn’t allow a pressure on his 32 attempts.
– Both teams missed four tackles on the day.
PFF Game Ball
While the entire 49ers front-7 played well, Patrick Willis led the way with a +3.4 overall grade, three stops, and an interception.
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