One of the storylines leading up to Sunday's divisional matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers was the dominance of these two front-sevens. The 49ers and Panthers are built in similar fashion, and on the defensive side of the ball, it starts with the front. Neither team employs a lot of blitzing in part because they are comfortable with a limited number of players getting at the quarterback.
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis have been dominant for several years now, but this past week we heard so much talk about how maybe Luke Kuechly (and others) are better. Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith can bring the heat in the pass rush, but it was all about Greg Hardy, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson. While I don't think the 49ers defense was being disrespected, I do think they were being underestimated to some extent.
24 hours removed from the game, it's safe to say people learned their lesson. The 49ers defensive front took control of this game, and that was one of the deciding factors. NaVorro Bowman showed off his blitzing skills in getting a key sack. Patrick Willis had 11 tackles, several big stops, and an interception on the Panthers first drive. Shortly before the interception, Greg Olsen easily got past Willis for a six yard gain, and then Brandon LaFell added a seven yard gain. It looked like it might be a long day in coverage for Willis. And then a pass was tipped and Willis dove for the key interception, while providing quality coverage on Olsen.
Aldon Smith had a hit on that interception, but Ahmad Brooks might be the guy who deserves defensive MVP honors for the day. Brooks finished the game with six tackles 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and a tackle for a loss. More importantly, he played a key role in the 49ers two goal to go stops in the first half.
At the end of the first quarter, the Panthers had a first and goal at the 6-yard line. Mike Tolbert picked up three yards on first down, Cam Newton grabbed a pair of yards on second down, and then Tolbert was stopped by Ray McDonald and Patrick Willis to set up 4th and 1. Cam Newton went for the sneak, but Brooks was in to stuff him.
Two Panthers drives later, they had another first and goal, this time at the 49ers 7. Cam Newton picked up six yards on the first place to set up 2nd and goal at the 1. On the next play, Brooks got in again to sack Newton for no loss, setting up 3rd and goal at the 1. This time Bowman made the stop, and the Panthers settled for a field goal. Speaking of this drive, this brought us Brooks going over the top to try and reenact his famous leap and sack at Virginia.
The 49ers faced a third and goal, so there was no way the encroachment would get a first down. So why not take the risk? The 49ers stopped them after that, so no harm no foul. And it also gave us a classic Cam Newton flop. Here's a better angle of that:
The 49ers front seven did not get through for lost yardage sacks until the second half (Brooks' second quarter sack was for no loss), but that might have been in part based on game-planning. The 49ers brought some pressure in the first half, but it seemed like we saw more of it in the second half. NaVorro Bowman has emerged as a great blitzing linebacker, and he showed it in the second half. He had the one sack, and was part of plenty of pressure the rest of the time.
And Brooks? He has 4.5 sacks this postseason, and 6.5 for his career. He is one sack from tying Charles Haley for the franchise record. Given his run the last two games, I suspect we see the Seahawks game-plan against him a little more than the Panthers and Packers did. If that happens, do we see Aldon Smith get through and snag a sack or two?
The 49ers front seven is in about as ideal a position as they could hope to be in heading into Sunday's NFC title game. The group is healthy, playing as well as they have in some time, and they have considerable depth. Tony Jerod-Eddie is playing inspired football rotating in behind Ray McDonald and Justin Smith. Yesterday, we saw Dan Skuta sack Cam Newton and then get hosed on a bogus roughing penalty. He and Corey Lemonier are not getting the opportunities like Jerod-Eddie, but they provide the team with a chance to get Aldon and Ahmad a little bit of rest. This is exactly what the team needs heading up to Seattle.