49ers vs. Panthers: Carolina running game a big threat, too

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

There's much talk of the 49ers' running game against the Panthers' defense, but Carolina has plenty of options in the running game to hurt San Francisco, as well.

The Carolina Panthers have the No. 2 rushing defense in the NFL, while the San Francisco 49ers have the No. 1 rushing offense. They've bottled up players like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch this season, but the 49ers have rushed effectively against strong run defenses as well. It's one of the more compelling matchups to watch on Sunday.

But what of the flip-side to that? Not much has been said about the 49ers' rush defense going up against Carolina's roster of running backs. Clearly, Frank Gore is the best back in this game, but Carolina has multiple talented runners on their roster, including quarterback Cam Newton.

Meanwhile, the 49ers haven't been quite as effective stopping the run as they have in years past. That's likely due to the inside linebackers -- the best inside linebackers in the game, mind you -- being used more in pass coverage than last season. And there's also the small matter of the injuries at the nose tackle position.

DeAngelo Williams is their leading rusher with 127 carries for 519 yards and a touchdown. He's looked good, but he's taken a backseat to Jonathan Stewart, who just returned from injury last week. Cam Newton is the team's second-leading rusher, with 55 carries for 251 yards and four touchdowns. Mike Tolbert is another rushing threat, with 57 carries for 206 yards and four touchdowns of his own.

All four of those players can hurt the 49ers on Sunday. There will likely be an emphasis on keeping one of Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman spying Newton, leaving the other to cleanup the running backs. With Aldon Smith back, the 49ers will surely try and generate more pressure, so the job of bottling up these talented backs will be even more difficult.

in truth, there's so much variety to the Carolina run game, it reminds me of what the 49ers do week-in and week-out. This game could very well come down to which coach can make the proper defensive adjustments on the fly to deal with a versatile running game. The 49ers haven't always been the best at that, but I think the 49ers play-makers on the ground are more effective in the end.

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