By Jerrell Richardson
Carolina Panthers (5-3)
Head Coach: Ron Rivera
Players to Watch: Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Luke Kuechly
The 49ers are in the midst of a five-game winning streak and facing a team on a similar run. The Panthers have won four straight games and their offense has scored at least 30 points in each win. While this is a big test for the 49ers, the fact remains that they are rested, at home, and the better football team. While San Francisco can’t brag about their most recent drubbing of the winless Jaguars, during their four-game run, the Panthers opponents are a combined 5-27, and their only other win this season was against the 2-6 New York Giants.
The key to this match up will be how the 49ers respond to their week off. They have had an extra week to prepare their game plan, so as long as the players are sharp then San Francisco will handle the Panthers, and pull away late. Though, if there are any ill effects from not playing last week, it could be the 49ers winning streak that is snapped.
When the 49ers Have the Ball: Advantage San Francisco
The Panthers defense is no joke. Two players lead the stat sheet who do a bit of everything. Linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the team in tackles with 56, is second on the team with two interceptions, and safety Mike Mitchell is fourth on the team in tackles and leads the team with his three interceptions. While they have faced some less than impressive teams, this defensive unit has lined up against the Minnesota Vikings and come into this game with the second ranked defense against the run, so running the ball will not be easy. San Francisco is the top ranked run offense for a reason, however, and with the use of the read option and as long as they stick to it, Frank Gore and his backfield mates will have success on the ground.
On paper the 49ers have no shot passing the ball. They are dead last in the NFL in this category, and facing the 10th ranked pass defense. San Francisco’s numbers are skewed a bit, due in large part to the immense success of the running game, but it’s no secret that their aerial attack is not the strong suit of this team. Colin Kaepernick does have two weapons in a now 100 percent Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin if something is needed from the passing game and the offense should be able to score 30 points for the sixth-straight contest.
When The Panthers Have the Ball: Advantage San Francisco
Carolina has a threat at every skill position. Cam Newton is a legitimate dual threat quarterback, with a talented running back, tight end and wide receiver surrounding him. San Francisco, however, has the players to match up across the board and while it will be far from easy, if they play together they should have no real problem containing the Panther offense. The key will be stopping running back DeAngelo Williams while keeping an eye on Newton who is the team’s second leading rusher. Williams comes into the game with a 4.2 yard per rush average and sets up everything for this offense. With Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman the 49ers have to like their chances of limiting his effectiveness which will take away any real threat of Newton running. This will force the Panthers to beat them with the pass.
The Carolina passing attack gets the same pass (no pun intended) as San Francisco. While statistically they are 25th in the NFL, it’s because they are a run first team. It’s no surprise that leading their team in receptions and tied for the lead in touchdowns is veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who is one of the most respected players in the league at his position, and tight end Greg Olsen leads the team in yards and is second in touchdowns. The San Francisco secondary has the speed and size to cover both of these weapons but a breakdown or missed tackle can be disastrous, especially with Smith.
No Way to Overlook Carolina
The fact that the Panthers are on a roll is not the worst thing for the 49ers. They are not sneaking into this game, and showed up loud and clear on the San Francisco radar. This could be the biggest test for the 49ers since their winning streak started, but not a game that they should lose if they stick to their game plan. A lot will be answered after each team gets a few drives to see how sharp San Francisco is playing. If flat, they could find themselves in a battle. If the bye week only helped add to the momentum the 49ers built up before their break though than the home team should be able to get some separation on the scoreboard early and take control of this game on their way to their sixth-straight victory.
For more 49ers news and updates, visit 49ers Central.
Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.