On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers come to Candlestick to play the 49ers for the first time since 2004. Fresh off four straight victories, the Panthers present a stern challenge for a 49ers team that has feasted on a five game stretch comprised of opponents with a combined record of 13-28.
Featuring the leagues best defense, in points allowed, the Panthers are one of the few teams that have the personnel to match the 49ers in the trenches. Stud defensive linemen like Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei and Kewann Short wreak havoc at the line scrimmage allowing Pro Bowl MLB Luke Kuechly to seek and destroy ball carriers, presenting a challenge for the 49ers rushing attack.
With such a talented front seven, the 49ers must attack the Panthers few weaknesses in the run game in order to find any success offensively. While the defensive front is extremely physical and large, the linebackers behind them, Kuechly and Davis, sacrifice size for speed, something the 49ers could target. Let’s look at how the Buccaneers had found some success by attacking the smaller linebackers of the Panthers two weeks ago.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 11:58, 2nd and 9 at the TB 12, Buccaneers 3, Panthers 14
Formation: 3 Wide Weak
Offensive Concept: Dive
Pre-Snap: The Panthers spread their corners in man coverage with two high safeties providing deep zone coverage behind them. This leaves only 6 defenders in the box, 4 defensive linemen and linebackers Kuechly and Davis.
Post-Snap: RG Joseph fires off the ball to join C Larsen to double team NT Cole at the point of attack. Once the point of attack is solidified, Joseph reaches to the second level to engage LB Kuechly, who along with fellow linebacker Davis are flowing downhill to plug the hole. In the backfield, FB Lorig lead through the A gap hole for RB James on the dive run right.
The size difference between RG Joseph and LB Kuechly becomes evident as RG Joesph manhandles him. Additionally FB Lorig stuffs LB Davis and C Larsen holds off NT Cole creating a cutback lane for RB James.
RB James bursts through the hole and into the second level without being touched until CBs White and Munnerlyn wrestle him down after a 15 yard gain.
Summary: The smaller Panther linebackers were exposed with this downhill running play. With Kuechly and Davis listed at 235 pounds, they lack the size to take on blocks head on from offensive linemen and consistently fill the hole. Knowing this the Bucs and other teams have had relative success, the Panthers do lead the league in rushing defense, by attacking the Panthers linebackers head on with downhill running plays.
Unfortunately, for the 49ers, it’s not that simple as the Panthers’ defensive front usually dominates the line of scrimmage and occupies blockers, allowing Kuechly and Davis to utilize their speed. The Bucs used a 3 wide formation to force the Panthers into their nickel package, something that the 49ers will struggle to do as they still lack the weapons on the outside to force teams into a two high safety look. Instead look for Greg Roman to used motion to drag defenders out of the box and create space.
Later in the same drive, the Bucs loaded up with heavy personnel but called a misdirection run to use the speed of Kuechly and Co. speed against them.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 11:15, 2nd and 10 at the TB 27, Buccaneers 3, Panthers 14
Formation: Heavy I
Offensive Concept: Counter left
Pre-Snap: The Panthers expect a run and pack the box with 9 defenders leaving CB Florence in man coverage with S Mitchell in a deep zone behind.
Post-Snap: The 3 Panther linebackers flow to their left as QB Glennon hands the ball off to RB Leonard on the right side of the formation on the counter run left. C Larsen pulls left and FB Lorig cuts left to create a duo of lead blockers for RB Leonard to follow. Additionally, OL Carimi initially double teams DE Johnson before getting downfield in position to cut off the Panthers linebackers pursuit.
After cutting across the formation on the counter, RB Leonard turns up field off LT Penn with every immediate defender accounted for; S Mikell has been kicked out left by C Larsen, FB Lorig is squaring up LB Davis, OL Carimi cuts off LB Kuechly and LT Penn holds off the pursuit.
Luckily for the Panthers, LB Kuechly disposes of OL Carimi with shocking ease, clearing the path for him to tackle RB Leonard after a 7 yard gain.
Summary: A perfectly executed counter except for Carimi’s block on Kuechly. The initial action draws the LBs the wrong direction creating wonderful blocking angels for the Buccaneers. Before Kuechly destroyed Carimi, a former first round pick that has been a complete bust, this run looked to be a potential touchdown with Jackson in position on the CB downfield leaving only Mitchell between Leonard and the endzone.
Seeing how aggressive and fast the Panthers linebackers are, misdirection is effective at drawing them out of position and creating running lanes. With Greg Roman’s creative mind expect the 49ers to sprinkle in multiple misdirection plays with the hopes of breaking one for a big play.
Attacking the Seam: As a run first team, the 49ers will need to establish the run game. The Panthers frequently use of Cover 2 will present opportunities for Vernon Davis down the seam. Let’s look at how Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez did just that two weeks ago.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 2:00, 2nd and 9 at the CAR 17, Panthers 14, Falcon 3
Formation: Trips Shotgun
Offensive Concept: Texas (Seam route with cross underneath)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 2
Pre-Snap: The Panthers walk SS Mikell forward and align over the 3 WRs and TE Gonzalez on the outside, showing a Cover 1 man coverage.
Post-Snap: SS Mikell drops rapidly to his left and S Mitchell drops slightly right into deep half zones of a Cover 2 defense. Expecting this coverage, the Falcons run a variation of Mike Holmgren’s Texas concept, with WR Johnson running an underneath route and TE Gonzalez running a seam route behind it. LB Kuechly drops with TE Gonzalez as he has a deep middle zone responsibility in a Cover 2 defense.
While the shallow hook of WR Johnson doesn’t suck up Kuechly, he does peer back toward the line of scrimmage turning his hips and allowing TE Gonzalez to get behind him. QB Ryan anticipates this and delivers the ball into the open space, in the deep middle part of the field.
Ryan’s pass sails over LB Kuechly’s head and into Gonzalez’s hand for an easy touchdown.
Summary: A seam route by a tight end of Gonzalez’s caliber is a death sentence for a Cover 2 defense. Kuechly got beaten badly on this play but he is one of the premier cover linebackers (he picked off Ryan in Cover 2 earlier in the game) due to his great anticipation and speed, so the Panthers will give him a lot of coverage responsibilities by playing Cover 2 defense.
Given the Panthers tendencies to play Cover 2 look for the 49ers to attack the down the seam with Vernon Davis’s elite speed. If the Panthers safeties cheat towards the middle to take away the seam route, look for smash concept, short hook to occupy the cornerback underneath and a corner behind it, on the outside.
Prediction: The 49ers will struggle early adjusting to the physicality of the Panthers’ defensive front after playing weaker teams like Jacksonville recently. But give Greg Roman two weeks and he will deliver a tailor made game plan to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition. Overall, I expect the 49ers to come out early throwing to keep the Panthers off balance and eventually put up 24 or so points on offense.