The San Francisco 49ers advanced to the Divisional round of the playoffs thanks to the X factor, Colin Kaepernick. This week, the match up is against the Carolina Panthers. There is a lot to watch for in this game. It will be a physical game that will be a major test for both offenses. These two team have top notch defenses that are fueled by the play of their linebackers. The game in Carolina is in line to be the most physical one of the weekend. Here are five things to watch for in the 49ers vs Panthers game:
1) The Linebacker Play
Teddy Bruschi said it best on ESPN when he told us that we will not see a better group of linebackers on one field. The 49ers linebackers are one of the best units ever. Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks make up a complete team of linebackers. Smith is an elite pass rusher that will be at full tilt this time when these two teams play. He was coming off of a five week hiatus when they last played. Dan SKuta did play well but Aldon Smith is on a different level when he is healthy. Brooks is sound in all aspects of the game. Watch how he aggressively sets the edge against the stretch running plays that the Panthers like to use fro Deangelo Williams. He is also a very good pass rusher, showing very good closing speed.
It is no secret that Willis and Bowman are two players that are able to cover a lot of ground. Don’t be surprised if they both have double digit tackles in this game. Bowman was the selection for Defensive Player of the Year on my Pro Football Writers of America ballot. You will see him making plays all over the place. Defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio may dial up a few inside gap blitzes for Willis and Bowman. They are both very adepth at blowing up screen plays as well. Willis is one of the best at disrupting the screen game.
Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis are two athletic and fast linebackers. Kuechley made it hard for me to select Bowman as Defensive Player because of how well he has played. He is relied upon to drop back 20 yards in some zone packages that the Panthers use. That’s a lot of ground to cover. Kuechley’s instincts allow him to diagnose a play immediately and diffuse it. He registered his first sack against the 49ers back in October.
Thomas Davis is such an underrated player. The speed that he has despite having two knee surgeries is remarkable. Davis made one of the biggest plays of the game in their last meeting. He delivered a text book tackle on Kendall Hunter that forced him to fumble the ball. The speed that he has was on full display during that play. The 49ers were driving for what seemed like would be another score. Davis will be relied upon to make plays against the 49ers this week. He may even get the call to shadow Kaepernick.
2) The Greg Hardy Impact
Greg Hardy didn’t have any sacks in the first meeting between the two teams. He did however have an impact on the game. Hardy consistently got pressure on Kaepernick especialy with his outside pass rush. This caused Kaepernick to have to step up into the pocket as it was pushed back into his lap. As a result Dwan Edwards was able to regster two sacks on the day. Hardy is also very a depth at working his way up the line of scrimmage to the opposite side of the field and making plays against the run. Watch how he and Joe Staley battle in the trenches.
3)The Return of Michael Crabtree
Having Michael Crabtree back has done wonders for the 49ers offense. He is steadily making a case for a big payday. The play of Kaepernick is really handcuffed to the presence of Crabtree. He is becoming one of the best boundary receivers and has shown great catching ability even in the cold elements last week. Crabtree can be destructive from the slot position as well. It is very had to get a jam on him and that will keep the timing part of the passing game at the right flow. He excels at getting yards after the catch and contact.
Look for Crabtree to be a difference maker in this game because he will make the Panthers defense pay if they stack eight in the box and play man coverage on the outside. The Panthers corners simply can not cover Crabtree one on one. The 49ers had problems throwing the ball in the first meeting. That won’t happen this time. Crabtree will help keep drives going just as he did when he made some key catches on third downs to extend drives.
4) The Tight Ends
Both of these quarterbacks have big time wide receivers that they can throw to in Steve Smith and Michael Crabtree. However, they also like to get the ball to their athletic tight ends. Greg Olsen is a guy that Cam Newton will look for on various routes towards the middle of the field. He also will be a target on corner routes. He is a good option in play action as well. Look for him to contribute this week as the 49ers have given up some big plays to tight ends this year.
Vernon Davis is the vertical threat in the 49ers offense. They will let him run that bang eigtht route (skinny post) and if they get him against man defense he will run the seam. Davis was injured early in the last game that he played against the Panthers. He is a dangerous option when he sits down in windows against zone coverage also. The 49ers will also try to line him up by himelf out wide to get a favorable match up and use the all go out of 11 personnel. Watch for big plays from Davis off of play action.
5) The Kickers
Both of these kickers are capable of hitting field goals from afar. Graham Gano was good from 53 yards on one of his attempts against the 49ers. Phil Dawson made a 56 yard field goal to win a game against the Arizona Cardinals. He also hit the game winner last week in Green Bay. These teams have strong defenses that will tighten up once they ball gets into their territory. That will result in some field goal attempts. This game will come down to who will be able to capitalize on field positioning when they force the opposing offense to punt the ball from deep in their own territory. One way to do so is by way of the kicking game. Who will come through in the clutch?