The San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers get down to business on Sunday, and so it's time to start wrapping up our week of cross-blog content between Niners Nation and Cat Scratch Reader. Big thanks to James and Jack for joining up in a week of content. Both fan bases have had their share of trolls come through, but such is life on the Interwebz.
Yesterday, both sites took a look at why their respective team would win on Sunday. Today, we're going to take a look at why we think each team will lose on Sunday. I think most of us on each side of the aisle think our team will win on Sunday, but somebody does have to lose. Both teams have their share of weaknesses, and it's worth exploring them in a little more detail. Stevie Mercury from CSR joins me today in this discussion. Panthers reasons are below, followed by 49ers reasons.
Why the Panthers will lose...
Ten years ago today, the Carolina Panthers faced the St. Louis Rams in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. It took an electrifying 69 yard touchdown reception in overtime to vault the Panthers past the Rams into the NFC Championship game. The receiver? Steve Smith. Unfortunately, a decade later "Smitty" is on the downswing of his career, and those kind of explosive plays have been coming much fewer and farther between than they did in years past. With Smith aging and further hobbled by a knee injury, I doubt the upcoming tilt against the formidable 49ers defense will be decided by another of Smitty's miracles (though I will probably break down into tears of joy,
possibly followed by a heart attack if it does). No, the Panthers find themselves woefully bereft of a receiving threat the likes of a young #89, which is why the Panthers will lose this game.
Cam Newton is a rising star in the league, but he can't do it all on his own. Yes, the Panthers have some pretty good weapons in DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Greg Olsen, but all of those weapons play right into the 49ers strengths. The Niners can stop the run as well as any team in the league and have very strong linebackers and safeties
who should be able to limit Olsen. The weakest link on the 49ers' stellar defense is the cornerback group, but the Panthers just don't have the weapons on the outside to exploit them. Sure, Cam will make some plays with his feet and keep the game close, but in a game that seems destined to be low-scoring, the Panthers just don't have that sure fire
home run threat that can blow the top off the defense. You know, unless Ted Ginn has revenge on his mind... *wink*
I'll be honest; this is a tough post to write for the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers defense really is out of this world, and even trying to be as objective as I can it is hard to find any big faults to harp on. You've heard all the stats, so I am not going to bore you with a lot of statistical analysis. The Panthers have a defensive end duo in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson that can get after the quarterback, but are also extremely adept at maintaining gap integrity against the run. Led by rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the defensive tackles are a talented and deep group. Luke Kuechly is developing into the Peyton Manning of the defense. Physically speaking, he is probably already the best 4-3 middle linebacker in the game, but his uncanny ability to diagnose offenses, call audibles, and get the rest of the defense in position is what makes him a truly transcendent player. Thomas Davis is a beast on the strong side, and the committee of A.J. Klein and Chase Blackburn hold down the weak side admirably.
The vulnerability comes on the back side of the defense, though it is often masked by the overwhelming strength of the front 7. At the cornerback position, the Cats have a 5'8 former 7th round pick starting on one side in Captain Munnerlyn and a rookie undrafted free-agent starting on the other in Melvin White. At free safety the Panthers are starting Oakland castoff Mike Mitchell, a fan-favorite for the attitude he brings, yet he has proven to be a liability in deep coverage several times this year, and the strong safety by committee of Quintin Mikell and UDFA Robert Lester are collectively slow as molasses.
This is where the Panthers lose the game. The front 7 are going to limit the 49ers running game as they have all year long, but they are also going to have to get quick pressure on Colin Kaepernick on every single dropback, or else Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin will nickel and dime the defense up and down the field. This will pull the safeties up a little, and the next thing you know Vernon Davis will make everyone look silly with a deep seam route up the middle for a long touchdown.
The 49ers O-line was embarrassed in the last meeting between these two teams, allowing Kaepernick to be sacked 6 times on his way to his worst game as a pro. They are an extremely talented group and are going to be fired up for this rematch. If they can keep Kaep clean, his receivers will do the rest...
Why the 49ers will lose...
The 49ers offense has come on strong lately with the return of Michael Crabtree, but there have still been some hiccups along the way. Colin Kaepernick is getting into a groove, but there are still instances when he seems to be a step off. Against a front seven like that of the Carolina Panthers, a step off can mean disaster. Back in Week 10, they harassed him all day long. The Panthers sacked him six times, and while they only had one interception late in the game, another was dropped early in the game.
The Panthers will win this game if they can harass Kap in a similar fashion. He can still get out of the pocket and scramble, but he is facing a much more athletic defense than what he faced last week against the Packers. Given the weakness of the secondary as compared to the front seven, the Panthers will win this game if they get the consistent pressure that keeps Kap from seeing guys like Crabtree, Boldin and Davis. They are huge weapons for him, but if he is spun around trying to get away from Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, or anybody else, he can't actually throw to his receivers.
And if he does try and throw amidst the turmoil, turnovers become a distinct possibility. The 49ers are thoroughly dominant when they win the turnover battle, but not remotely good when they lose it. They are two extremes. Pressure can lead to turnovers, and if the Panthers defense can force turnovers (and their offense protects the ball), they will win this game.
The 49ers defense is likely to be missing Carlos Rogers on Sunday, but otherwise it is about as healthy as it could be this time of year. A year ago this time, Justin Smith was playing with a torn triceps muscle, and Aldon Smith was playing with a partially torn labrum. This year, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have gotten considerable rest all season due to depth along the line, and of course, Aldon Smith missed five games due to his rehab stint.
While the unit is healthy and relatively rested, it doesn't guarantee effectiveness. The 49ers pass rush has been inconsistent at times. Vic Fangio is not one to use very many blitzes, so it is up to the defensive front to create the pressure. Last week, I said the 49ers would lose if they did not get pressure on Aaron Rodgers. The group had one of its more solid performances of the year in getting pressure on Rodgers. He had his moments where he had time, but they got enough pressure that he was somewhat ineffective in the big picture.
Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks need to get at Cam Newton. He and Kap are arguably the two most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, and they both can create a serious workout for defenders. This game very well will come down to which team can get more pressure on the opposing quarterback. If the 49ers let Cam Newton run free, they're in trouble.