The San Francisco 49ers had a prototype victory in their 23 – 10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs. The Niners relied on their defense to keep the team in the game and give the offense time to make the several key plays to generate just enough offense to win the game. The Niners want to turn football into complete physical and mental grinds, while they wear you out to take over in the later parts of the game. They executed their game plan perfectly and it all came down to the defense setting the tone throughout the game.
The Niners have one of the best defensive units in the league with potentially the best front-seven in the league. They have to personnel to play a much-more aggressive style of football, but they tend play a bend and don’t break style of defense. They are going to take away the running game, while playing off coverage with mostly a four-man pass rush. Their philosophy is to limit big plays and force offense to take more plays to get down the field, which the Niners’ coaches expect their defense to make a big stop or turnover before the opposing offense can move the ball down the field.
Against Carolina, the Niners’ defense played their brand of football. They limited the Panthers to just four plays of 20 yards or more, with one of those coming on the second to last play of the game. The Niners defense was able to hold the Panthers to under 100 rushing. They also forced the Panthers to fail to score a touchdown on three different red zone attempts.
Three of the Panthers’ first four offensive possessions showed what the Niners hope to accomplish on defense. On the first drive the Niners held the Panthers to seven yards or less on their first four plays, which gave the Niners defensive front plenty of chances to get to Newton. Newton would throw an interception, as the Niners’ pass rush would force a bad throw. On the next possession, the Panthers would have first and goal from the Niners’ six-yard line and the Niners defense would stuff the Panthers on four straight plays to force a turnover on downs.
The Panthers would get on the board following a perfectly thrown ball from Cam Newton to Steve Smith. Tarrell Brown had great coverage on the play, but Newton placed the ball perfectly over the outstretched hand of Brown. The final possession of the first half would again find the Panthers inside the 10-yard line of the Niners, but again the defense would not break and would force the Panthers to kick a field goal.
The second half was when the Niners’ defense began to exert their dominance over the Panthers. They would hold the Panthers to just 145 yards in the second half, with 59 yards coming on a single play at the end of the game. The defense would force two punts and a turnover, as they would shut out the Panthers in the second half. The Niners lead heading into the second played right into their game plan, as the Panthers had to try making plays throw the air. The Niners’ preference to playing coverage gave the pass rush enough to begin disrupting Newton in the pocket and he never seemed comfortable sitting back there in the half.
Overall, the Niners’ defense accomplished exactly what they wanted to do. They slowed down the Panthers running attack, while preventing big plays in the passing game. The lone Carolina touchdown came on a play that was well defended, but was placed perfectly. You want to play good enough that everything has to come together perfectly for a team to find success, because perfect rarely occurs on the field.
This is because the Niners played their game plan perfectly, as well. They kept Newton hemmed in the pocket on passing by maintaining their rush lanes, because the Panthers pick up most of their chunk plays when Newton escapes the pocket. The Niners would take a defensive performance like that day and day out, which has to give them a great amount of confidence heading into Sunday.