According to DraftKings SportsBook, the Niners are 6.5-point road favorites to beat Baker Mayfield and the Carolina Panthers. A line that big speaks volumes. There’s obviously little faith in the home team. Furthermore, that’s a lot of faith in the team coming cross-country into a different time zone.
In 2019, these teams faced off in what served as Nick Bosa and the defense’s announcement to the league that he was a burgeoning superstar. Now the Niners’ defense has already established itself as one of the best in the league, and they can only further prove their dominance against a floundering Panthers offense.
To help us prepare for this week’s matchup, Walker Clement from Cat Scratch Reader answered all my questions. (If it feels like these Qs are coming from a place of confidence, I’ll just say that Walker’s first question for me was about how DeMeco Ryans as a possible replacement for Matt Rhule.) You can read that here.
1. The Niners have assembled a fearsome defensive line built around centerpiece Nick Bosa, who currently leads the league in sacks, pressures, and uncalled holding penalties. We also know he has a bit of a history with the current Panthers' starting QB dating back to college. What I’m asking is, should we pitch in to get Baker Mayfield a new identity and plane ticket out of America by Sunday, or does he stand a chance behind the Carolina line?
Usually, this is a question about how bad Carolina’s offensive line is. And by usually, I mean weekly since 2013. The Panthers' offensive line has actually held up well for the most part of this season. Rookie left tackle Ickey Ekwonu has had some understandable struggles against premier pass rushers and NFL officials alike, but he’s definitely growing into that role. Weekly 2021 scapegoat Pat Elflein has been remarkably unremarkable at center (a massive improvement). Combine that with upgrades at both guard spots and right tackle Taylor Moton maintaining his usual excellence, and what you come out with is a common excuse that is not currently available to explain Mayfield’s poor play.
The Niners' front seven will definitely make their mark on this game, just don’t expect them to be an every-down difference due to poor opposing OL play. That is reserved for the winning tandem of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s play calling and Mayfield’s ‘mechanics’ for lack of a better word. Let’s just say I’d be surprised if Bosa had to eat crow after this game.
2. The Panthers' defense clearly has some talent and has shown promise over the first quarter-ish of the season. Who should Niners fans be keeping an eye on to make a big play on Sunday? As 6.5-point favorites, should they be worried?
Brian Burns is the former first-round pick, big-name pass rusher on the team, but he isn’t the only name who would be mentioned by national media if this team bothered to field a competitive offense to balance them. Derrick Brown is another first-round defensive tackle pick who is coming into his own as a centerpiece. He typically rates up with the likes of Aaron Donald on double-team rates. The Niners will lose track of him at their own peril. Following them is the breakout, fifth-year veteran Frankie Luvu. He’s an edge player who has made equally as many game-changing plays rushing the passer as he has in coverage.
This is usually the spot where I would mention Jeremy Chinn, a safety/linebacker ace who just landed on injured reserve this week. Instead, I’ll pivot to last year’s first-round pick: CB Jaycee Horn. This kid is a revelation in coverage and is poised to make a big name for himself once he takes his second contract to a better managed team.
3. In 2019, the Niners took the second most highly-rated defensive tackle in the draft class, Javon Kinlaw, at the fourteenth overall selection. The Panthers took the top-rated DT, Derrick Brown, at seventh overall. He and Kinlaw have both underperformed when held up to the standard of a first-rounder, but fill a necessary hole. Three years later, how do you rate that pick?
I should have read this before answering your last question, but editing is for teams worth writing about. I’ll reiterate that Brown is stepping up this season. It’s a bit of a chicken/egg scenario between how the coaches utilize him (predominantly as a three-tech tackle this year) and his getting more comfortable in the league. At this point, I have no regrets about the pick.
4. At this point, what are Panthers fans wanting to see out of this season? Are you hoping that Sam Darnold returns to outplay Mayfield and take the starting job back? Do you want to lose every game to get the #1 pick? Do you want to see Matt Rhule run out of town on a rail?
The only thing worth watching is the Panthers' defense in the first half of a given game. That is when they are fresh enough to be talented. By the second half, they are clearly getting a little gassed because the Panther's offense treats the football like they have a severe allergy to it. While Panthers fans have traditionally been more defensive oriented by nature of the team’s long-tenured philosophies, this year, we are less into defense and more into.. you know what? I’m not going to make that defenestration joke. It’s more violent than I actually feel, even if the wordplay is there. I’m just rooting for Rhule to get left on the tarmac somewhere, even if it’s somehow by the Niners' plane leaving Charlotte. It honestly doesn’t seem out of place for him to end up fired in the wrong place.
5. Who do you think will win, and why is it the 49ers?
The 49ers will win because of NFL-caliber coaching and quarterbacking. That’s a winning combination when employed by only one of two teams.