1. Tight end George Kittle vs. Panthers’ Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson
With Goodwin listed as questionable, if the 49ers have any success in the passing game, it has to start with Kittle.
The only target Kittle had against Kuechly was intercepted, but that wasn’t on the tight end. Kittle’s damage came against Thompson, where he caught all three of his targets for 30 yards. Each of those passes went for a first down as well. Kittle has a reception on both Panthers safeties Eric Reid and Tre Boston, too. Both of those receptions went for over 25 yards. Nearly half of Kittle’s yards came after the catch. Kuechly may have won on the play, but Kittle won the battle against Carolina’s defense.
2. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo vs. safety Eric Reid and the Panthers’ secondary
Shanahan will need to be smart with his play-calling on Sunday and put the 49ers’ offense in good situations to avoid turnovers against a stout Panthers’ defense.
Shanahan vs. Ron Rivera looked like what I imagine a heavyweight champion versus a welterweight champion would look like. Haymaker after haymaker and the fight is over before everyone gets to their seat. Garoppolo threw the interception, but he also spread the ball around and did what he was asked to do. It was the misdirection from Shanahan that confused the Panthers secondary. Can you remember a time when you saw an offense have so many receivers running freely down the field? Or a group of running backs that didn’t have to make anybody miss until they made it ten yards down the field? What a performance by the 49ers fresh off their bye week. Wait a minute...wrong team.
3. Running back Christian McCaffrey vs. 49ers’ run defense
If the 49ers don’t let McCaffrey run wild, they may have themselves a W on Sunday.
McCaffrey may have had the quietest 140 yards from scrimmage of the season. He came into the game with MVP hype and did not disappoint. McCaffrey had two runs to the edge that both went over 35 yards. He also had a couple of runs called back. He forced four missed tackles and ran the ball well in general.
This takes us to rushing versus receiving. I said before the game that it’s imperative to stop McCaffrey through the air. The “MVP” finished with four catches for 38 yards. One of those went for 24 yards. The 49ers took away McCaffrey by getting after Kyle Allen. The second-level defenders should get credit for corralling McCaffrey before he was able to get a head of steam.
McCaffrey is too skilled to keep in check for an entire game. He’s going to get his against anyone. Holding McCaffrey in check through the air was the key to winning for San Francisco, and they passed the test with flying colors.