It was a tale of two halves for the San Francisco 49ers in their 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The important thing, as always, is getting the win. At the end of that day, that's all that matters when you're in the big dance. In gearing up for an NFC Championship showdown against Seattle next week, the 49ers have some positives they can take away from this game, and some negatives they must improve upon if they want to earn a trip back to the Super Bowl.
First and foremost, it seems that the episodic lack of adjustments and unwillingness to change scheme by this coaching staff are the primary reasons the 49ers struggle.
I'd normally say that the interviews this week served as a distraction for Greg Roman but how he called the 49ers game in Carolina was exactly the same as what he would have any other week...and that's the problem. Roman consistently refuses to call passing plays that allow receivers to get the ball in space. Outside of the 45-yard bomb to Boldin in the third quarter, you really didn't see 49ers receivers getting separation. That's been the story throughout the season; the 49ers are one of the very worst teams in yards after the catch (YAC), ranking 30th in the league. Yes, they were playing one of the league's best defenses but the 49ers also boast one of the NFL's best defenses, and opposing offenses seem to be much better at scheming their wideouts to get open against them. Heck, Ted Ginn had a good day on Sunday. Roman has a top-flight running game to keep defenses honest and a plethora of weapons in Crabtree, Boldin, and Davis, but he shackles this passing offense as if the 49ers are still fielding Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson out there.
Stubbornness pervaded to the other side of the ball as well. In the first half, it's was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the defensive unit. They had the interception and two goal-line stands...but outside of that and a stout run defense, they played pretty poorly. An extremely average Panther offense made the 49ers defense look silly on several occasions during that first half. Everything Carolina was calling was working until, thankfully, the 49ers shut them down at the goal line. Vic Fangio has a penchant for almost never rushing more than four men and that reared its head several times in the first two quarters on Sunday. In some situations, a four-man rush is a great concept and viable plan, but there are others in which you must rush five or six and get to the quarterback. The 49ers refusal to do so can allow opposing quarterbacks an obscene amount of time, so much so that even if the coverage is initially there, the play eventually breaks down and the quarterback finds a wide open receiver.
The story of the first half was poor game-planning by the coaching staff, an inability to capitalize on opportunity (field goals instead of touchdowns), and injuries. Again, it ultimately came down to the offense's inability to get the ball in the end zone in the red zone. . Great teams cash in on those chances because you never know if you'll have the chance again. The interception and goal-line stand resulting in nothing for the 49ers were a huge detriment to the team in the first half. This game looked exactly like the first matchup against the Panthers, and very similar to last week's game against Green Bay during the early going. Injuries were an alarming first half development as well. Tukuafu did not return to the game after being dragged down from behind and Crabtree clearly battled what looked to be a bad shoulder issue. Thankfully, the 49ers came alive just before half time and tightened things up.
Anquan Boldin absolutely dominated the final drive of the first half with several big downfield receptions, while Michael Crabtree chipped in with an acrobatic snare on a high pass from Kaepernick. A late touchdown drive (thanks to some great footwork by Vernon Davis) allowed San Francisco to carry a three-point lead going into halftime.
San Francisco's defense became the aggressor in the second half, pitching a shutout in the process. The front seven started to get much better penetration and was able to harry Newton, while the 49ers' stifling run defense carried over into the second half. Ahmad Brooks continued to play like a man possessed; a trip to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro designation have never been more deserved (more on that below). After an absolutely abominable roughing-the-passer call on Dan Skuta in which Cam Newton ran into him during a sack, Donte Whitner served up some poetic justice in intercepting Newton shortly after.
On the offensive side of the ball, Colin Kaepernick began to make plays and find a rhythm. Perhaps his biggest impact was with his feet, pushing through the line on quarterback sneaks to convert two key third downs and finding pay dirt on a designed run coming off the heels of that 45-yard pass to Boldin. Frank Gore also picked up steam in the second half. In typical fashion, No. 21 had a monumental late-game run to move the chains on a desperately needed third-down conversion, helping to seal the victory for the 49ers.
MVPs of the game
- Anquan Boldin- Boldin continues to be a wide receiver the 49ers haven't seen in a long, long time in San Francisco. It's no disrespect to Michael Crabtree, Boldin has just been doing this for a long time and brings some different elements to the table. He notched another 100+ yard performance, this one coming against arguably the league's best defense. His 45 yard catch in the third quarter set up a Colin Kaepernick touchdown to put the Niners up ten, and they never looked back
- Ahmad Brooks- Brooks has been building toward this kind of season since 2011 and it's great to see him getting the recognition. Even as a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, one could argue he's still underrated. With two goal-line stands (stuffing Newton on the first one was sheer power and a thing of beauty), and 2.5 sacks Brooks was the clear-cut defensive MVP of this football game. He now has 4.5 sacks in the postseason which leads the league in that category
- Frank Gore- When the 49ers need a big play, Frank Gore answers the call. On a crucial 3rd and 1, Frank Gore busted out a vintage run, embarrassing a defender with a midfield cut en route to a 37 yard gain. If Whitner's interception was the turning point, the run by Frank was the nail in the coffin
- Donte Whitner- While playing a solid game overall, the reason his name appears here is for one reason: the interception in the 4th quarter that nullified an "are-you-kidding-me" roughing the passer penalty against Dan Skuta
- Phil Dawson- Phil Dawson turned in another great performance, going 3 of 3 on field goals including a 49 yarder.
In terms of sizing up next week, the 49ers can draw from the fact that they got the job done against one of the best defensive units on the road in Carolina, but they can't continue this trend of not cashing in on early opportunities. That won't fly in Seattle. The key to a victory against the Seahawks is starting out hot and not allowing the crowd to make a big impact in the game. The Niners also have to be able to move the chains with greater frequency on first and second downs. It would be wise to dial up some passing plays with check-down options built into them as opposed to the one-read and done plays Roman can be keen on. Spreading the ball around would also go a long way (Anquan Boldin had 136 of the 49ers' 196 passing yards against Carolina). I'd say that clock management has to improve so the team doesn't burn unnecessary timeouts and garner delay-of-game penalties, but that hasn't changed all season... so I won't fool myself into expecting it to this week.
On the other side of the football, Vic Fangio has to scheme a way to keep Russell Wilson contained to the pocket. That four-man rush on third downs just won't cut it. Wilson is an entirely different quarterback when he doesn't have the ability to squirm away from defenders and seize upon coverage breakdowns. The 49ers did a phenomenal job against ultra-mobile Cam Newton in the second half of the Carolina game and bottled up Wilson considerably well in their most recent meeting with Seattle, so you can be sure they'll look to that game film in devising a plan this week.
There will be no shortage of motivation this week; the 49ers have a chance to conquer their demons in Seattle and get back to the Super Bowl for a chance at a sixth Lombardi. Justin Smith and Frank Gore aren't getting any younger and after paying their dues on some putrid teams early in their careers, this game represents a chance to get one step closer to the ultimate prize and put an exclamation point on two remarkable careers. The time is now and this team knows it. After the regular season finale in Arizona, Harbaugh professed that where the 49ers were going was "only for the tough, and we have been toughened." San Francisco has to continue to heed that call and be the bully this Sunday. If they do, they'll find themselves in the Super Bowl three weeks from now in New Jersey.