You must forgive me if I’ve up and gone to Carolina in my mind. The 49ers look to build off a big divisional win as they head east to Charlotte to take on a struggling Panthers team. DraftKings Sportsbook currently has the 49ers as a 6.5 point road favorite, odds that reflect a lack of confidence in Carolina as much as it does a strong belief in the 49ers
Here are a few things to watch for in this matchup.
Pressure bursts pipes
The 49ers currently lead the league in pressures with 91 through four games. The contributions are coming from all over the defense, with ten different players recording a pressure. Seven of those ten have recorded multiple pressures, led by DPOY candidate Nick Bosa who has a league-leading 30 of his own.
Carolina’s offensive line has allowed a respectable 31 percent pressure rate, which is just below the league average of 32 percent. Still, significantly lower than the 44 percent pressure rate the 49ers' defense has generated.
A matchup to watch will be 2022 first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu against Bosa, and this tenacious 49ers pass rush. Ekwonu had only seen one pass rusher of Bosa’s caliber early in his NFL career when he faced off against Myles Garrett in Week 1.
Garrett recorded six pressures and two sacks in that game, giving the rookie tackle a very early taste of what it is like to square off with an elite edge rusher at this level. It is worth noting that Ekwonu has looked much better since, but perhaps Bosa will be able to take advantage of the inexperience of a talented but very raw player in Ekwonu.
Keeping Jimmy Garoppolo upright
The 49ers' offensive line did a great job keeping Garoppolo on both of his feet in their win over the Rams, allowing just five pressures. San Francisco’s offensive line has surrendered just 28 pressures all season which is the fourth fewest in the league.
Their 26 percent pressure rate allowed is among the best in the NFL as well, with the number dropping to 22 percent if you isolate the snaps since Garoppolo took over midway through the second game.
Carolina does provide a good litmus test in this one, as they have had 16 different players record a pressure paced by the 20 Brian Burns has logged. Burns is arguably the best edge rusher the 49ers' offensive line has faced this season and should provide a tough challenge for an offensive line missing its foundational piece in Trent Williams.
Take advantage of the mismatch
Sometimes it’s best not to overanalyze things heading into a matchup like this. The Panthers currently have the 32nd-ranked offense in the NFL, while the 49ers have the top-rated defense in the league.
The 49ers are allowing a paltry 3.8 yards per play, which is fewer than any team in the league, and currently boast the league's 2nd-ranked passing and rushing defenses. There is no objective weakness on this side of the ball for San Francisco, and they will match up with a Panthers passing attack that is ranked in the bottom five in the league.
Carolina is averaging just 4.9 yards per play on offense, and the 56 first downs they have recorded rank dead last in the league. In addition, quarterback Baker Mayfield has had a rough start in his new home, posting a 54 percent completion rate and an uninspiring 6.4 yards per attempt.
Mayfield’s 53.3 completion percentage when blitzed is almost identical to the 54.8 percent he is posting when not blitzed, which should give the 49ers and their ferocious front four plenty of opportunities to disrupt things while dropping seven into coverage.
Mayfield has also had more balls batted down at the line of scrimmage than any other quarterback in the NFL this season, something to keep an eye on if the front four for San Francisco is able to get into a rhythm telegraphing Mayfield’s passes.
The “money” down
They call it that for nothing. Third-down efficiency usually makes or breaks a team's chances at victory in any given game, and the 49ers' defense has a significant advantage over the Panthers' offense in that area this season.
Carolina is currently converting just 25.5 percent of their third down attempts on offense, which ranks dead last in the league. The 49ers' defense, on the other hand, is only allowing teams to convert 32.7 percent of their third down attempts, which is the sixth-best mark in the league.
Things are much closer on the other side of the ball, where Carolina’s defense allows opponents to convert 39.1 percent of their third downs, putting them right in the middle of the pack at 17th.
The 49ers' offense is 22nd in the league in converting third downs at 37 percent, a number that is heavily weighed down due to their abysmal showing in Denver, where they went 1/10 on the money down.
Red zone defense
This is one of the only areas where Carolina has the advantage coming into this game. The Panthers defense allows touchdowns on only 37.5 percent of their opponent's red zone trips which ranks fourth in the league.
The 49ers' offense has struggled in the red zone this season, converting just 40 percent of their red zone trips, ranking 31st in the league. However, on a positive note, the 49ers' defense is ranked fifth in red zone defense, just behind Carolina, and the Panthers' red zone offense hasn’t been much better than the 49ers, where they are currently ranked 28th in the league.
The 49ers are the more talented team and should win this game. The only way I see Carolina making this competitive and stealing this one is if the 49ers' offense implodes the way it did in Denver and gifts the Panthers plus field position by way of an egregious turnover or two deep in their own territory.
I do think there is a chance this one is a bit closer than it should be based on the 49ers' inconsistencies on offense and the fact the Panthers' defense has more talent than it gets credited for. Ultimately I expect the 49ers to pull away and head into week six over .500 for the first time this season.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.