The San Francisco 49ers are going cross-country this weekend to face off against a team that beat them earlier this year. The Carolina Panthers are 12-4 this season, and riding on the high provided be one of the stingiest, most productive defenses in the NFL.
These teams faced each other in week 10 in a bruising, low-scoring, defense driven slugfest at Candlestick. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Carolina for San Francisco, and if they’re to have any hope of facing off against the winner of the Seattle Seahawks/New Orleans Saints matchup they’re going to have to step up in three key areas to win the game.
Limiting Cam Newton through the air, is going to be just as important as limiting him on the ground. The Panthers offense is the very model of spreading the ball around, and involving the entire team. With five receivers over 550 yards, two with over 700, and 3 taking at least 5 TDs to the house, Newton and his coordinators aren’t afraid of spreading the ball around to the targets who need it. Tight End Greg Olsen caught the most balls for Newton this year, and involving the tight end should be old hat for the 49ers defense at this point. After all they’ve been defending Vernon Davis for years now, and he’s a heck of a lot better than Olsen. Steve Smith might be getting old, but it’s certainly not stopped him from being a part of offense. After all, 64 receptions is nothing to sneeze at, and if you can expect an average of 11.6 yards a catch, first downs might not be that hard to come by. Expect his time talking about his injury this weekend to have been mostly posturing and misdirection.
Every team ends the season banged up. Even if it’s minor, you simply can’t escape the grueling season the NFL provides without getting banged up. This year, as seems to be the norm, the 49ers are banged up in their secondary. Of note, however, is that when these teams played earlier this year, Michael Crabtree was still on IR, Aldon Smith and Mario Manningham were both seeing limited snaps, and Vernon Davis went out early due to a concussion. While the defense is far from healthy, the offense has started clicking nicely. What this means, is that hopefully, the offense can help keep the defense off the field by extending drives, making the loss of starting CB Carlos Rogers sting less. Hopefully Perrish Cox and Eric Wright can keep up with the Carolina offense while banged up. What is a bit more troubling, is that safety valve starting FB Bruce Miller is on IR leaving Anthony Dixon and Will Tukuafu to pick up his ample slack.
It can’t be easy being an NFL coach. Most people second guess your decisions when you do something wrong, and even if you do things right, everyone from the media all the way down to fans watching from their living rooms question what you’re doing. If I have one gripe about the coaching, it’s the way that both offensive and defensive coordinators seem to go soft with plays that get called. I can suffer through the timeouts used to keep from getting a delay of game penalty, I can even suffer through the obvious run calls where nobody thinks it’s a good idea to audible out into a pass play. What I cannot abide is when the defense goes soft to prevent a big play, and allows first down after first down, and a chance to gain some momentum. You have a team that thrives on the attack. Beasts of pass rushers/run blockers in the front three, and multiple linebackers that are skilled and athletic enough that they can both drop into coverage and rush the QB. There’s no reason why Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman couldn’t all have a sack on Sunday afternoon, all while holding the 11th-best rushing offense in check.
Even if I wasn’t a 49ers fan, this is the game I’m most looking forward to this weekend. Two top-tier defenses slugging it out to move on, makes for great storyline in the playoffs. The fact that these teams already played each other once this season, should mean the gameplans should be well tuned, and well executed. I can’t wait to see how it shapes up. If the 49ers can hold on to these three keys, it should end up in a great win for them in Carolina.
Tags: San Francisco 49ers