49ers vs. Panthers: 5 questions with Cat Scratch Reader about Carolina's defense

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers and Panthers meet on Sunday in a playoff rematch of their Week 10 contest. We spoke with Cat Scratch Reader to learn more about the Panthers defense. New to Niners Nation? Sign up here and join the discussion!

The San Francisco 49ers travel east to face the Carolina Panthers this Sunday in the divisional round. Earlier today, we spoke with Edgar Salmingo, Jr. from Cat Scratch Reader to get a handle on the Panthers offense. This afternoon, we're back with a look at the Panthers defense. The Panthers defense is incredibly stout. They shut down the 49ers offense in Week 10, and while Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis will hopefully make a difference on Sunday, this is still not a defense to overlook.

CSR will have Tre9er's answers to their five defensive questions a little later today. In the meantime, head over to CSR to check out his responses to Edgar's questions about the 49ers offense.

Niners Nation: The Panthers routinely rushed four against the 49ers in the week 10 matchup, and wreaked havoc in doing so. Is that still their M.O. to this point, or would you say they're sending more rushers more frequently nowadays?

CSR: If they could, the Panthers would love to get away with rushing four only to pressure Colin Kaepernick. They have been very successful in doing so, but down the stretch, the four rushers seemed to wear down. This can be attributed to combination of things, including an injury to Charles Johnson, or rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short hitting the "rookie wall."

With their drop in production, Greg "Kraken" Hardy has stepped up mightily. He totaled 7 sacks in the final 2 games of the regular season. 49ers left tackle Joe Staley will have his hands full.

On occasion, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will send a linebacker or defensive back to blitz. In the first matchup, rookie linebacker A.J. Klein came in on a blitz downed Kaepernick for a huge loss. And in the last 3 games, a defensive back has tallied a sack. Pressure will come from the front four without question, but watch out for those DBs!

NN: What kind of coverages do you expect the Carolina secondary to show us this week? More man, zone, man-under with zone safeties deep, or just a very even combination? Bonus question: Will the Panthers secondary be in base or sub-package the most in this game?

CSR: Carolina has not made it a surprise that they like to run zone. In the first matchup, the Panthers ran zone almost the whole game (http://www.catscratchreader.com/2013/11/14/5098614/breaking-down-the-data-panthers-vs-49ers). With a strong pass rush and "average" secondary, zone helps mask the deficiencies in the back half of the defense. When the Panthers tried to play man coverage, they were toast (see first game against New Orleans).

To answer your bonus question, the Panthers have ran base and sub packages at about a 1:1 ratio. You can see the data here (http://www.catscratchreader.com/2013/11/14/5098614/breaking-down-the-data-panthers-vs-49ers)

NN: If the defense has a vulnerability, what is it? Is it a particular spot along the defensive line, or a particular player in the secondary?

CSR: The Panthers are vulnerable in the secondary, and it is no surprise to us. Carolina has gone the majority of the season starting undrafted free agent rookie Melvin White and the small Captain Munnerlyn. When going with a nickel coverage, Drayton Florence will play outside, and kick Munnerlyn to the slot. This unit is a mish-mash of unproven, small, or aging players, with nary a player in his prime.

Because the Panthers play a lot of zone, and because White is still learning on the job, they give a big cushion to their wide receivers. They can be beat with short stuff, as seen in the most recent Falcons game, or in the Monday Night New England Patriots game.

And if y'all can withstand the rush, this team can be beat deep. Whether it was Mike Wallace of the Dolphins, Marques Colston of the Saints, or Roddy White of the Falcons, teams have burned this secondary over the top. The Panthers just do not have that "lockdown corner" that can routnely stay with a man deep. Fortunately, the pass rush helps minimize these opportunities.

NN: Colin Kaepernick has been stepping-up (mostly up-the-middle) and taking off on called pass plays more often these days. Have the Panthers generally handled this well, or is it a concern?

CSR: If there is one place where the Panthers are strong, it is up the middle. Star Lotulelei has been a god-send, has been one the league leaders in run stuffs. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis do not get fooled by QB runs or screen passes at all. And up the middle in the secondary, free agent pick ups Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell are hard hitters that are better stopping the run than in coverage. If Kaepernick dares to leave the pocket, he may have easier time around the edges.

NN: Who's the one guy on the 49ers offense that scares you most, in terms of the Panthers being able to stop him?

CSR: Normally, I would say tight end Vernon Davis. He is a matchup nightmare, with his combination of size and fast straight-line speed. However, the Panthers have had to scheme against All-Pro tight ends all season, including Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham (twice), and Tony Gonzalez (twice). After keeping them all in check (relatively), I am confident this coaching staff has them ready for Vernon Davis.

So I will say Michael Crabtree is my biggest fear. The Panthers have not played against him yet, nor very many wide receivers of his caliber all year. Watching him against the Packers, he appears to be a smooth route runner that catches everything and is nearly open on every play. He will be a tough cover for whomever matches up with him on Sunday.

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