The San Francisco 49ers are headed back to the conference championship game for a third consecutive season after traveling to Carolina and exacting some revenge on the Panthers this past Sunday. The 49ers were able to pull away in the second half on their way to a two-score margin of victory, but as was expected going in, it was a game in which not much came easy.
For most of the first half, it felt as if the 49ers were once again going to struggle to generate consistent offense. Their first two drives were kept alive by penalties and resulted in field goals. That was followed by back-to-back punts. On the other side of the ball, Carolina steadily moved the ball down the field on their first four possessions. Thankfully, a Patrick Willis interception off a tipped pass and a goal line stand limited the damage. What could've easily been a multiple score Panther advantage was instead just a 10-6 lead entering San Francisco's final possession of the half.
From that point on it was a different game. Carolina would fail to score again while San Francisco would put together three consecutive scoring drives of more than 70 yards, taking up more than a quarter worth of game time in the process. So what changed? How did the 49ers suddenly start moving the ball? You know where this is going. To the All-22.
Change of approach from Carolina
Leading up to the game, I wrote about how Carolina was able to take the air out of San Francisco's offense the first time these two teams played this season. The Panthers stayed conservative in that game. They dropped a safety in the box to help against the run, played almost exclusively soft zone coverage behind a four-man pass rush, occasionally mixing in some five-man zone blitz concepts.
With their personnel, it was an incredibly successful approach. Carolina took away the downfield passing concepts that San Francisco prefers while their front four dominated the line of scrimmage and put Colin Kaepernick under near constant pressure. Considering how effective their game plan was, it was fair to expect the Panthers to come with a similar approach until the 49ers proved they were capable of moving the ball.
However, early on the Panthers had a much more aggressive approach.
We pick things up on the 49ers' opening possession. Facing third and nine, San Francisco comes out with their 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR); Carolina matches with their nickel package. Contrasting with the soft Cover-3 zone that Carolina played in similar situations in the first game, the Panthers are in press man coverage here while also showing double A-gap pressure with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
A protection breakdown combined with a perfectly timed delayed blitz from Kuechly leads to Kaepernick staring at two unblocked pass rushers as he hits the last step of his drop. The pressure comes so quickly that Kaepernick has nowhere to go with the football. About his only chance to produce a positive play would have been to dump it off to Gore in the flat, but with Thomas Davis is closing quickly it's unlikely that picks up more than a couple yards.
Considering the situation, it's difficult to blame Kaepernick for doing anything other than what he did. A checkdown to Gore isn't going to pick up the first down. He couldn't throw it away as he was still in the pocket. Without any better options, taking the sack and kicking a field goal was probably the best course of action. But it was the aggressive defense by Carolina that led to the negative play.
On San Francisco's second possession, a similar scenario played out.
Again the 49ers are threatening to score but are in need of a third down conversion. They come out in 11 personnel aligned in a Shotgun Trips formation – a favorite on third down. The Panthers are once again in press man coverage from their nickel package.
Rather than sending Kuechly as an additional pass rusher, Carolina opts to have him double Anquan Boldin underneath. With Vernon Davis running the only vertical route threatening free safety Michael Mitchell, he is able to provide inside help to Quintin Mikell, essentially doubling Davis as well. Toss in corner Drayton Florence getting a good jam on Michael Crabtree on the outside and Kaepernick is again left without a place to go with the football.
Crabtree is finally able to shake free and find some space after Kaepernick leaves the pocket, but a poor throw from Kaepernick sails outside of Crabtree's reach and the result is another San Francisco field goal.
This was the story on most plays for the San Francisco offense in the first half. The Panthers were physical with the 49ers' receivers on the outside, disrupting the timing of San Francisco's passing game. Though they managed only the one sack shown above, they blitzed more frequently than they did in the first matchup and put pressure on Kaepernick to get rid of the ball before he was ready to. If not for two unnecessary roughness penalties on the Carolina defense, it's unlikely San Francisco would've produced any points early on.
The 49ers make adjustments
I didn't feel as strongly about it when watching the game live, but after watching a second time through it was clear that Carolina controlled the first 26 minutes of the game. There were a few key plays that went San Francisco's way that prevented the 49ers from having to overcome a significant deficit, but the Panthers were just playing better football up to that point in the game. Then, seemingly from the moment Ron Rivera elected to kick a field goal rather than risk a second failed fourth down conversion from the one-yard line, that trend was reversed.
The defense obviously had a hand in the turnaround – they didn't allow a single point after that field goal – but better execution and a few adjustments in the 49ers' passing game were really the big differences.
One thing that you'll notice about the two plays I highlighted above are the spread formations that San Francisco is aligned in. Given the amount of zone coverage Carolina played in the first game, along with the fact that both plays came on the first two possessions of the game when the 49ers were likely to still have been working from their scripted plays, this makes sense. Spreading your receivers across the field like that will stretch the defense and can exaggerate the holes in the zones, giving your receivers more room to work.
Once Carolina showed that they were going to be playing more press man coverage, two important things happened: 1) San Francisco's receivers actually started defeating the press coverage and 2) the 49ers started using more bunch formations to make it more difficult for the Panthers to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Here, the 49ers have Davis and Boldin in a stacked alignment to the right of the offense with Crabtree split wide to the left. Corner Melvin White is still up in press coverage on Crabtree, but as you can see, Captain Munnerlyn and Quintin Mikell have backed off on the opposite side because of the bunch alignment. Both Davis and Boldin get free releases on their vertical routes while Crabtree gets to work one-on-one with White.
Crabtree releases to the inside on the stem of his dig route and does a good job fighting off the bump attempt from White, not allowing it to hinder his progress down the field. With inside position established, he's able to create just enough separation when he makes his break across the middle.
Crabtree ends up making a fantastic leaping grab, picking up 20 yards on the play. As good of a catch as it was, the part of this play that stands out to me the most is what Kaepernick does. Perhaps my biggest criticism of Kaepernick's play this season is his tendency to bail from the pocket before he needs to. Often times he'll leave plays on the field because he looks to escape the pocket rather than stepping up and delivering a throw even though he knows the hit is coming. But that is exactly what he does on this play.
Dwan Edwards and Greg Hardy are both closing in on Kaepernick as he's preparing to throw. All too frequently, he would either look to spin around Hardy to the outside or attempt to take off up the middle and split the two defenders. He does neither here.
Kaepernick steps up in the pocket and releases the ball just before Hardy makes the hit. The pass is a bit high, but it's over the underneath defender and away from the corner in a spot where Crabtree has an opportunity to make a play. Considering the situation, it was one of the more impressive plays I've seen Kaepernick make this season.
In the third quarter, we see the bunch formation again leading to good things in the passing game for the 49ers.
This time the receivers are flipped; Boldin and Davis are stacked on the left side with Crabtree split wide to the right. White is forced to play off coverage because of the alignment from Boldin and Davis while Florence gets his opportunity to play press man against Crabtree.
Kaepernick initially looks to Crabtree on the wide side of the field but Kuechly is also dropping underneath to that side, causing Kaepernick to move on through his progression. About this time, Boldin is making his break inside on the dig route into the space behind the linebackers and in front of White, who is playing over the top. Kaepernick climbs the pocket to avoid pressure from the outside and fires a strike to Boldin just as he clears Robert Lester's underneath zone.
San Francisco's adjustments in the passing game combined with a couple of crucial mistakes from the Carolina defense – a blown coverage on the 45-yard reception to Boldin and over-pursuit by Carolina's front on the 39-yard gain by Gore – were the difference in the 49ers ability to move the ball over the final 34 minutes of the game and produce the points needed to put the game away.
One aspect that I chose not to focus on but that was also very important was the play of the offensive line. In the first matchup between these teams, Carolina sent Kaepernick to the ground a season-high six times. When the Panthers consistently bothered Kaepernick early, it looked like it might be another long day for the big guys up front. But the entire unit played much better in the second half, giving Kaepernick plenty of time to make throws.
The 49ers will face another top flight defense this week when they travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks for the third time this season. I'll have more on the details of Seattle's defense in the next couple days, but many of the challenges the 49ers were forced to overcome against the Panthers will undoubtedly present themselves again this week. The 49ers will have to defeat press man coverage while also keeping a front four that can get after the passer at bay. It's not an easy task, but it's one that San Francisco has shown they have the ability to accomplish.
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