Losing a tough game the way the San Francisco 49ers loss to the Carolina Panthers can cause some reason for concern to some. There were some things that came out of this game that will cause Jim Harbaugh and his staff, specifically the offensive staff, to put together new ways to squeeze production out of their players. The defense did show some good signs that they are still a very good unit. They only allowed the Panthers to score 10 points but unfortunately, the offense could only score nine. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad from the 49ers loss against the Panthers.
1. Ahmad Brooks: Brooks has done an excellent job of setting the edge against the run. He rarely allows any plays to get outside of him and consistently forces the play back inside to Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. We saw more of this on Sunday. There has been some talk about him not being that good of a pass rusher. Many overlook the fact that rushing the passer is not his primary role. Brooks showed that he can get to the quarterback, even one as mobile and athletic as Cam Newton. He registered three sacks against the Panthers and got four hits on the quarterback. I would say that is a pretty good day for even the best pass rushers.
2. Aldon Smith: It was good to see Aldon Smith back on the field against the Panthers. He was able to make his presence felt right away. On his first snap, he bull rushed Travelle Wharton back into Cam Newton’s lap. It caused Newton to rush a throw to a receiver that was open on a third down. Smith played limited snaps but didn’t show any signs of rust or fatigue. After the game he said that he is ready to take on a larger role instead of just a situational pass rusher.
3. Mario Manningham: The 49ers have been desperately searching for someone that could be an option at the No. 2 receiver spot. Manningham is a veteran that will take advantage of the matchups that he will face as a result of all of the attention going towards Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. He came through with a big catch for a 14-yard gain on a third down late in the game. Manningham said that his knee felt fine after the game and he is eager to get back at it next week against the Saints.
1. Six Sacks: Colin Kaepernick was sacked a career-high six times. The Panthers do have a very good front seven, but six sacks is far too much to give up. All of the blame can not be placed on the offensive line however. The receivers simply could not get open. Kaepernick was under duress most of the game and there were times when there looked like a crease was there, but Charles Johnson was able to trip up Kaepernick before he could take off.
2. Stagnant Offense: The 49ers offense was stagnant. They were not able to get into any kind of rhythm. They were horrible in third down efficiency. The offense was only able to get first downs on two out of 13 third down situations. The red zone woes continued to haunt the 49ers as well. Frank Gore was able to get the 49ers to a first-and-10 from the 11-yard line. They still could not score a touchdown. They had the ball on a fourth-and-1 from the Panthers 2-yard line, but Harbaugh was not able to use their best short yardage formations because of the lack of personnel. The 49ers only had 46 net yards passing and their previously top ranked rushing attack gained 105 yards rushing, well below its average of 153.
Kaepernick will need to get things going in the passing game if the 49ers expect to make any noise in the playoffs. They need to find some sort of balance. Right now, teams know that the 49ers strength lies within the running game but they still struggle to stop them.
3. Third Down Defense: There were a few plays were the 49ers defense gave up completions that either were for a first down or allowed the Panthers to get back into field goal position after a big play to put them out of field goal range. Tramaine Brock has played well this year but he gave up a big first down to Steve Smith on a third-and-6 situation in the fourth quarter. Ahmad Brooks had a key sack on a second down during that same drive and that put the Panthers into a third-and-19 from the 49ers 41-yard line. They were out of field goal range thanks to the Brooks sack. Steve Smith struck again, this time the victim was Tarell Brown. Brown gave up a six-yard catch that put the Panthers in position for Graham Gano to kick a 53-yard field goal. The same thing happened on two more drives as the Panthers were able to eat up the clock. Ted Ginn made an 11-yard reception on a third-and-7. Instead of getting the ball back with just about two minutes left and a timeout, the 49ers allowed a first down on third-and-8 when Steve Smith made another first down reception.
4. Injuries: The two injuries that will be a major cause for concern are the concussions to Vernon Davis and Eric Reid. Each of these players suffered their second concussions, Reid’s was his second in two months. It is very likely that Reid and Davis will be out next week for the big game against the New Orleans Saints. Missing them will make it even harder for the 49ers to escape New Orleans with a victory.
The prevailing message in the locker room after the game was that it was not the end of the world. Each of the players that I spoke to talked about how important it is to bounce back. They will have a big test when they travel to New Orleans to face the high powered Saints.