In a battle of two surging teams in the NFL we can expect an entertaining game that should be close. Close is something the Panthers haven’t been accustomed to in their past four wins as they have won each by double digits. San Francisco is a different beast and will be the best team Carolina has faced since its Week 1 loss to Seattle.
A win would signify that this team is real and a serious contender in the NFC. A loss wouldn’t be the end of the world as the team will have an opportunity to prove itself on Monday Night Football against New England, but going on the road and walking away with a W would be big for Carolina. Let’s take a look at five keys for the Panthers in order for them to walk away with what would be their biggest win of the season.
Containing the run
The 49ers rank first in yards per game in the NFL at 153, but it’s not just that they can move the ball on the ground it’s how they do it. They wear you down with a physical rushing attack that is led by Frank Gore. Toss in Colin Kaepernick’s ability to run the football and you have an offense that can wear you down with physical runs then take advantage of their quarterback’s speed as a change of pace.
It isn’t going to be easy, but the good news is the Panthers are allowing the second least amount of rushing yards at 79.1 per game. It’s strength versus strength. We all know the Panthers have a physical defense, but they are going to have to continue that style of play on the road in a tough environment if they want to keep up with the Niners.
This matchup has me the most interested because if the Niners can’t get the ground game going can Kaepernick pick up the slack? We will find out Sunday.
Aggressive decision making
Riverboat Ron can’t disappear against San Fran. He’s made a drastic change in philosophy from where he was at the beginning of the season, but with the Panthers going up against an equal or superior opponent will he continue to be aggressive or will he revert to old habits? One would think he would stick to what has worked for him, yet none of Carolina’s opponents during its win streak has had a winning record or possesses the talent that the Niners do.
It’s much easier to be aggressive when you are more sure of the outcome. A 4th-and-1 against Minnesota isn’t the same as against San Fran. The Niners are more likely to not only stop the Panthers, but also more likely to turn that stop into points.
If Rivera freezes and opts to punt in similar situations he has faced recently it’s going to be hard for Carolina to steal one on the road.
Featuring Cam in the run game
The offensive line is going to have its hands full against the Niners. We saw how they crumbled against the Cardinals and that type of performance could easily repeat itself this week. That’s why offensive coordinator Mike Schula needs to dial up more runs for Newton in this one. By featuring Cam running the ball it will give Carolina another option to wear down this physical Niners defense. It may result in more hits than usual for the franchise quarterback, but to get a signature road win the Panthers are going to have to pull out all the stops.
Force Kaepernick to be a passer
If it weren’t for the wins the 49ers have been compiling there would be a ton of focus on Kaepernick and his struggles as a passer. He’s clearly taken a step back this season, which shouldn’t surprise too many with teams having enough tape and an offseason to prepare for how to stop the quarterback who took the league by storm last season. He isn’t nearly the threat he was as a passer as he was when he took over for Alex Smith.
The Panthers need to turn him primarily into to a passer on Sunday. Kaepernick has flourished running the football the last two games, but he isn’t being asked to carry the team by throwing the football. San Fran has limited offensive weapons in the passing game outside of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, so Kaepernick’s struggles as a passer aren’t entirely on him. Simply put, he doesn’t have the receiving options he needs to excel throwing the football.
Making him beat the Panthers through the air will be a huge factor if the Panthers hope to win.
Front Four Must Dominate
Everyone knows the strength of the Panther defense is the front seven, but it will be up to the front four to come out and set the tone. Getting penetration and allowing Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly to roam free to stop Frank Gore in the running game is going to have to happen for Carolina to stop the 49er offense. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are the big names on this line as the top pass rushers and they are going to have to come up with stellar performances.
When Kaepernick drops back to pass Carolina needs to harass him. This is a quarterback who isn’t the most confident right now in throwing the ball, so hit him early and it will lead to a difficult day for the young signal-caller.