San Francisco 49ers vs Carolina Panthers: Divisional Playoff Preview

The first thing that Colin Kaepernick said when he was asked about the Carolina Panthers after their Wildcard round win over the Green Bay Packers was “We owe them.” This match up in the Divisonal playoff round will be an absolute battle. These teams are mirror images of each other especially with how physical they play.

The Panthers will look to get to Kaepernick early and often. Their front seven is able to get to the quarterback because of their ferocious pass rush. Greg Hardy leads the pass rush. He had 15 sacks on the year. Charles Johnson also provides an outside rush. Star Lotulelei is their anchor in the middle of the line.

When these teams last played, the Panthers got six sacks. They constantly got pressure on the quarterback. Hardy didn’t get credit for any of the sacks but if you watch the coach’s film, you will see how he helped others get them. His outside rushing made Kaepernick step up in the pocket, right into the pressure coming from inside.

The highlight of this defense has to be the linebackers. Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis are two of the more athletic players on the team. Davis was responsible for a forced fumble when he blasted Kendall Hunter in the last meeting. That fumble stopped a 49ers drive and gave the Panthers momentum.

Kuechley had 11 tackles, one sack and a pretty good pass break up against Vance McDonald. Kaeprnick threw a perfect pass to McDonald on a play in which Kuechley was called upon to drop back and run with the tight end on the seam route. McDonald got by him and the ball almost settled in his hands but Kuechley was able to punch it out at the last second. That catch would have put the 49ers in field goal range. Instead they had to punt it that series. Points are a premium in this kind of game. The 49ers left three points on the board at that moment. Kuechley is so instinctive. He has the ability to see what’s happening before it actually does. That allows him to get to the ball carrier in a hurry. He doesn’t use any wasted movement. He knows where to go right away.

Ahmad Brooks had two sacks the last time they played. Brooks will set the edge for them in the defense. He had two sacks against the Packers last week. Aldon Smith was just returning from his five week hiatus but this time he will be fully in the swing of things. He will be a major part of the 49ers pass rush.

The Panthers offense may take a hit with Steve Smith nursing a knee injury. He says that he will play but one has to wonder how effective he will be fighting for the ball and playing big like he does when he’s healthy. He gives Cam Newton a nice target especially on third downs. They like to run that deep comeback or deep out to him. Newton’s arm strength allows him to push the ball outside the numbers with pretty good accuracy. That happens only when he steps into his throw and towards his target. This is not something that he always does however. He failed to do so against the 49ers and Tarell Brown turned it into an interception in week ten. Even when he isn’t pressured, Newton will occasionally have a breakdown in mechanics. The 49ers must capitalize when this happens.

Deangelo Williams is a very dangerous running back that doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves. They like to use his speed to get outside on stretch plays and in the screen passing game. He is a very good open field runner because he is shifty but also runs with power. He scored the only touchdown in the last game. The play came on a counter play in which the Panthers motioned Brandon LaFell into the back field and gave the 49ers an option look. Williams got the ball on the counter play and ran in the opposite direction.

Frank Gore had a solid game against the Panthers earlier in the year. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry. He had 16 carries for 82 yards. If he would have gotten to the 20 carry mark that he should get every game, that would have given him 102 yards. Unfortunately, Vernon Davis went down early in the game. That hurt them severely because they were already short one tight end because Brent Celek was out. This made it a lot more difficult for the 49ers to run the ball out of 22 personnel. They did move Adam Snyder to tight end in their 22 package but that left no doubt that they were running the ball. Davis went down on a drive in which the 49ers were able to get deep into the red zone. Jim Harbaugh admitted to being put in a bad predicament and not being able to use their plays that they normally use with the correct personnel in that situation. That drive resulted in a field goal instead of a touchdown. Once again, points left on the board.

The passing game was non existent in the last game. No Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree made things very difficult for Kaepernick. Yes, Anquan Boldin played but he was not effective as the only threat. Davis and Crabtree will give Kaepernick two new weapons against the Panthers. Crabtree will extend drives just like he did against the Packers when he caught the 17 yard pass on 3rd and 10 during the last drive. He was the guy that Kaepernick continued to go to when they set the tone for the game on their first drive. Crabtree had 70 yards on that drive alone.

Davis is the best thing that the 49ers have when it comes to stretching the field as a vertical threat. He will match up well against the Panthers linebackers and safeties. It is not a stretch to say that Davis would have come down with that pass that McDonald didn’t. Things will really open up for Davis if the 49ers can get the running game going. They will be able to get him the ball on play action.

This game will come down to who will be able to take advantage of field positioning and turnovers. Both of these teams have stingy defenses. They will force the offenses to punt the ball from deep in their own territory. As a result, there will be drives that start with favorable field position. Those opportunities can’t go to waste.

Both of these teams have quarterbacks that are capable of making huge plays but also fully capable of making a huge mistake. If the latter happens, the team has to capitalize. Points will be at a premium here. They can’t leave points on the board. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone becomes an immediate thing that has to improve if this team is going to win this game and go on throughout the playoffs.

KEY MATCHUPS

Greg Hardy vs Joe Staley Hardy had 15 sacks on the year. He is a speed rusher that looks to get the outside rush. The Panthers were able to take away the outside runing lane and force Kaepernick to step up in the pocket which was collapsed by the Panther defensive tackles. Staley is a very athletic left tackle that is a good counter puncher to speed rushers. He gets back into his pass protection drops very quickly. Despite getting some pressure on Kaepernick, Hardy was held without a sack in their first match up.

Jordan Gross vs Aldon Smith Smith is a top level pass rusher. He has all of the tools except for a spin move. His bull rush is surprisingly strong, he has speed to get around the edge and he has long arms that he can use to get to the blockers before they get to his chest plate. His quick hands also help keep linemen off of him. Gross is a very good left tackle but he will have his hands full with Aldon Smith.

Captain Munnerlyn vs Michael Crabtree The Panthers may use some man coverage against the 49ers. That means they will at times match Munnerlyn up against Crabtree. When this happens, the advantage is largely in the 49ers favor. Crabtree wins outside and makes plays by breaking tackles to gain more yards.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Former 49er Tedd Ginn Jr. scored a career high five touchdowns this season.

Graham Gano had 63 touchbacks this season (3rd in NFL).

Cam Newton only gained 15 yards against the 49ers earlier in the year.

Mike Iupati suffered an injury that cost him the rest of that game against the Panthers.

The winner of this game will have a chance to regain home field advantage if the Seattle Seahawks lose.

Against a normal pass rush (four or fewer rushers) Kaepernick has a 61% completion rate, eight touchdowns to seven interceptions and a 61 QBR. He has been sacked 26 times this year. Meanwhile, Newton had a 64% completion rate with a 12-6 record. He has was sacked 17 times.

Here is your injury report:

Panthers:

Questionable:

DT Colin Cole (Calf) LP
WR Steve Smith (Knee) LP
RB Jonathan Stewart (Knee) FB

Probable:

TE Ben Harstock (Knee) FP
S Quentin Michelle (Thumb) FP

49ers:

Questionable:

CB Carlos Rogers (Hamstring) DNP
LB Dan Skuta (Foot) DNP

Probable:

LB Navorro Bowman (Wrist) FP
WR Michael Crabtree (Wrist) FP
DT/TE Demarcus Bobbs (Knee, Shoulder) FP
C Jonathan Goodwin (Not Injury Related) FP
RB Frank Gore (Knee) FP
Justin Smith (Shoulder) FP