Each week, I run the NFL head coach hot seat watch for the SB Nation mothership, and from the beginning, Ron Rivera has been on that list. Rivera is not secure in his job due to some recent failings and a struggle to maintain a coherent offense. Obviously, he's a defensive-minded coach, so what the team really needs to see is him live up to that status.
It probably would have taken a much poorer season than the one Carolina has had thus far for Rivera to lose his job. A few more wins and I'll probably take him off that hot seat watch -- there are other coaches in far more danger across the league. But despite the Panthers not being quite bad enough to lose their head coach his job, how good are they?
Honestly, it's hard to tell. The best two teams they've faced to date are the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills. Their best performance to date was likely a 12-7 loss to Seattle. Since that game, they've fallen to the Bills and Cardinals, and managed to dominate all of the New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons.
Carolina boasts the No. 10 passing defense in the league, allowing just 220.8 passing yards per game, and the No. 2 rushing defense in the league, allowing 79.1 rushing yards per game on average.
That rush defense is probably as good as advertised. They bottled up both Marshawn Lynch (43 yards) and Adrian Peterson (62 yards), but they have also faced some particularly poor rushing attacks to bolster those numbers. They've faced the No. 18, 23, 24, No. 30 and No. 32 rushing offenses this season.
Carolina has dealt with one-cut power runners particularly well this season. Star Lotulelei has the highest run stop percentage among all defensive tackles in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Inside linebacker Luke Kuechly ranks fourth in run stop percentage among inside linebackers, as well.
Meanwhile, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both rank among the top 10 defensive ends in pass rushing productivity, so they are not sacrificing the pass rush to stop the run. They only have 23 sacks on the season, but they are getting a fair amount of pressure. Needless to say, Frank Gore and the 49ers' offensive line will have a tough task ahead of them.
As far as the passing game is concerned, the Panthers give up a good deal of yardage, but also manage plenty of interceptions. They are tied for third in the NFL with 12 interceptions, and rank highly in the passing game on PFF, as well. That number is bolstered by some of the poor quarterbacks they have faced, to be sure, but Colin Kaepernick certainly can't force any passes on Sunday.
To put it simply: the Panthers are an opportunistic team that play aggressive football. They can be taken advantage of, but it won't be an easy game. Fortunately, outpacing their offense isn't too difficult when you have a solid defense as well, which the 49ers do. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the Panthers stand when it comes to their raw stats given the poor teams they've faced thus far, but we work with what we're given.
My guess is the best method of attack would be to get outside as much as possible. Get Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller working the outside and look for Vernon Davis up the seam as often as possible. I don't expect a big game out of Anquan Boldin or Frank Gore at this point.