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

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

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 offense, as it is currently situated. New to Niners Nation? Sign up here and join the discussion!

The San Francisco 49ers are back in action this weekend in the divisional round of the 2014 NFL playoffs. They travel to face a Carolina Panthers squad that defeated them 10-9 in Week 10. Things have changed for both teams since then, so we took a few minutes to chat with Edgar Salmingo, Jr. from Cat Scratch Reader.

We asked him five questions about the Panthers offense, and five questions about the Panthers defense. We'll have the defense questions later this afternoon. Additionally, head over to CSR to check out Tre9er's responses to Edgar's questions about the 49ers offense.

Niners Nation: It seems like Cam Newton has flown a little bit under the radar at times this season. How has he developed in his third year?

Cat Scratch Reader: Let's start with a comparison. Who would you rather have?

Player A: 310/517, 4051 yards passing, 706 yards rushing, 60% completion rate, 21 pass TDs, 14 rushing TDs, 5 fumbles, 17 INTs, 84.5 QB rating

Player B: 280/485, 3869 yards passing, 741 yards rushing, 57.7% completion rate, 19 pass TDs, 8 rushing TDs, 10 fumbles, 12 INTs, 86.2 QB rating

Player C: 292/473, 3379 yards passing, 585 yards rushing, 61.7% completion rate, 24 pass TDs, 6 rushing TDs, 3 fumbles, 13 INTs, 88.8 QB rating

Who are these mystery men? It is Cam Newton, in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. A pedestrian look at these stats would show that Newton has seemed to regress, throwing for much less yards, rushing for much less, and scoring for much less than his rookie year.

But this version's Cam Newton is better.

The previous iterations of Cam put up gaudy numbers throwing and running ball, something that he can do if asked. But this new offensive regime, headed by offensive coordinator Mike Shula, has a different expectation on him.

Win.

While his stats may be lower, Newton has developed an uncanny ability to close out games with ball control and timely 3rd down efficiency (ranks 3rd in the league in 3rd down conversions), while at the same time de-emphasizing the deep ball. He and head coach Ron Rivera entered the season with a miserable record of 2-13 in games decided by a touchdown or less. In 2013, the started 0-2, but have since won their last 5 games decided by a touchdown or less.

So yes, a casual observer could say Cam Newton has not developed and his functional stats are depressed. But those that have watched him all year know that he has developed something even better: a winning mentality.

NN: Can you describe how your running game works? It sounds like Jonathan Stewart may be back. Will he be involved? How will they use Mike Tolbert, and how does Cam Newton fit into it?

CSR: You're not the only one that wants to know how the Panthers running game works! I will try my best to explain it.

The primary lead back is none other than the reliable DeAngelo Williams. He has been there all year, carrying the load out of the backfield for the majority of carries and touches. Unlike Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart, he has big-play ability. At a moment's notice, he can take a carry or a pass and take it to the house. (See: Week 10 touchdown against the 49ers.)

Because of his smaller size, he struggles in the short game. If it is a short down, and 1 or 2 yards are needed, the Panthers call on their wrecking ball, Mike Tolbert. After hardly giving him any touches last year, Tolbert has resurrected this year, doubling his rushing attempts, scoring more, and making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. When given room to roam, he is extremely dangerous (See: Week 10 rush against Eric Reid) and has a great ability to catch the ball as well.

Jonathan Stewart has been non-existent for the Panthers for the majority of this year, for all intents and purposes. After missing the first 9 weeks of the season, he came back for a handful of games before he was shelved again.

I honestly do not see Stewart playing a big role in this game, but I could be wrong. The Panthers tend to run and play better without Stewart, as Williams and Tolbert can get into a better rhythm and flow in-game without an extra guy. When all three are sharing touches, it looks like a hot mess.

NN: Can you explain why Ted Ginn has found success in Carolina? It leaves 49ers fans (and I imagine Dolphins fans) baffled.

CSR: Ah, the resurgence of Ted Ginn, Jr. To be honest, most Panthers had very little expectations, as we saw him as simply a "dangerous returner" coming into training camp. But one by one, wide receivers fell by the wayside, and Ginn earned the WR3 role entering the season.

I think both Ginn and this Panthers team are great fits for each other. In Carolina, not much is expected out of Ginn. He was not a high draft pick for us, nor did they lose any assets to acquire him. He was someone new that first-year general manager Dave Gettleman took a flier on. If he does anything positive, it is great. If he has a game where he only has two catches (see Week 10 against the 49ers), it is no big deal.

On the other hand, Ginn only needs a handful of opportunities per game to shine, which was something he was not getting consistently in San Francisco. Whether it is a long bomb, an end around, or a simple catch on a Newton "improv" play, he is getting his chances here.

Do not get it confused; I doubt he will ever be more than a WR3 on this team. He has had his share of crucial drops and miscommunications with the Panthers too. But given a few chances in this ball control offense, similar to DeAngelo Williams, he could take any opportunity and take it for long distance.

NN: Tell us a little bit more about how the "Riverboat Ron" mentality has changed this offense.

CSR: The Legend of "Riverboat Ron" has given this young offense the confidence it needed to win close games. The turning point was Week 2 in Buffalo, where Rivera decided to go for a field goal deep in Buffalo territory rather than going for it on fourth down and 1. While the kick was made, it gave the Bills and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel the ball and a chance to win on the final drive. They scored a touchdown in the waning seconds, and Panthers fans lamented that if they had only gone for it and converted, the game would have been over.

Since then, Rivera has not been afraid to go for it on 4th down as he sees fit. He has had ungodly high 4th down conversion rate of 82% (!) this year. Whether it is his calculations, or just simply knowing that he has the best short yardage QB (Cam) and RB (Tolbert) at his disposal, Riverboat Ron's risk-taking has sparked this team's turnaround.

What it has also done, is made this team a complete mirror of its head coach. Rivera, a former Chicago Bears linebacker on the 1985 Super Bowl team has had the reputation of being tough and physical. Not only does the defense have this mentality, but now the offense also has this mindset that they will punish their opponents on their side of the ball too. There is not official stat, but the Panthers have an unusually high rate of injuring defenders, and in a clean, legal way. By hogging the ball and converting 4th downs for a long time of possession, it has worn out opponents as the game goes on.

NN: Tell us about your offensive line. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the group?

CSR: Of any positional unit on the team, the Panthers offensive line is the whipping boy. Fair or unfair, the Panthers' fans perception is that it needs an upgrade, and it needs an upgrade fast.

But it not all bad. The left side of the line is solid. After bringing back left guard Travelle Wharton and with the return of All-Pro center Ryan Kalil from injury, this side of the line is as good as any. The run and the pass game can heavily rely on these three and be perfectly fine.

But on the right...

As former head coach John Fox would say, "It is what it is." Right tackle Byron Bell has his turnstile moments. He is an undrafted free agent, who has played his heart out to get a starting job as right tackle the last three years. Unfortunately his talent can fall short and his man can get a free shot or two on Cam.

At right guard, Nate Chandler has done an admirable job, if anything. He used to play defensive tackle for the Panthers, but injuries to the first and second string, and the release of last year's starter, left this position woefully thin. Oddly enough, his very first start was against the 49ers in Week 10. He had a lot of growing pains, but he seems to do better run blocking than pass blocking. When schemed right and not much is asked of him, he is more than serviceable.

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