Game Preview By Chris Schisler
Coming off a thrilling last second win In Green Bay the San 49ers play the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. The Panthers are a tough team to beat. They have a stingy defense and a dynamic quarterback in Cam Newton. If San Francisco is to make their third straight NFC championship game they will have to beat the NFC South Champions and the number 2 seed in the NFC.
These teams met earlier this season and it resulted in a 10-9 Carolina victory. The rematch looks to be another defensive slug fest. The Carolina Panthers defense is the perfect defense for Colin Kaepernick. The defensive line keeps him in a collapsed pocket and makes him beat them with his arm alone. The Panthers secondary has been very comfortable in their Tampa 2 defense. The big play is not there on most plays. Kaepernick is not known for outstanding patience nickel and diming down the field. The Panthers also stop the run very well. The 49ers offense can not become 1 dimensional or the Panthers will have their way.
Kaepernick is a good passer but he is not a great one. There are times when he makes perfectly delivered passes look easy. For example, when he hit Vernon Davis down the seam before the linebacker could turn around to play the ball against Green Bay. There are also times when Kaepernick struggles. His strengths are rolling out to the right where he can throw or run the football. His running ability opens up options in the secondary because when he kills you with a big run the defense has to respect that. But when Colin rolls out to the left it he struggles with accuracy. He is not an inaccurate pocket passer but I don’t think he is programmed as one. I think the special “wow how did he” plays are when he plays fast rolling out to the right. He seems to see the field better, making for better decisions.
If the 49ers are going to win this game they must pound Frank Gore with tremendous success. If he can average near 4 yards a carry and crank out 80-100 yards that would be their comfort zone. The running game will make play action a real problem for the defense. The Tampa 2 defense requires the middle linebacker to get great depth. The run threat could make him hesitate to drop and I would like to see the 49ers try to split the two deep zones with play action getting behind the linebacker in conflict. I also think Jim Harbaugh needs to call a good bit of the zone read. If the defensive end crashes and Kaepernick gets some big runs it could really boost his confidence.
San Francisco needs to be patient with the passing game. The Tampa 2 defense that is a big part of what the Panthers do; allows the short pass in the middle of the field to be open. Playcalling must allow Kaepernick an option in these windows. The New England Patriots had great success on third downs against Carolina because their receivers were willing to sit in the windows and Brady picked them apart.
When they see man coverage they need to create the best possible match up with formations and motions. The goal should be to have a big day for Vernon Davis when they play man. There is not a defender in the world that does not have trouble covering the veteran TE from Maryland. If the Panthers bracket Davis there is likely to be a 1 on 1 match up for Anquan Boldin or Michael Crabtree.
The Panthers need to have a strong running attack against the 49ers. The runs can come from Cam, they just need the threat of the run or the 49ers pass rushers will pin their ears back and give Cam Newton hell. The Packers had very good success running the football against San Francisco in the wild card round. Green Bay rushed for 124 yards rushing and averaged 4 yards per carry. The running game was very instrumental in turning it around for the 1st quarter stifled Packers offense. If the Panthers can mirror the Packers ground game they can definitely win this game.
When you have two powerful teams with similar strengths the outcome is on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Cam Newton is having a phenomenal season and this is an intriguing challenge for Carolina’s Super Cam. The 49ers had several plays where they seemed to have a sure sack on Aaron Rodgers only to see Rodgers slip away and make a great improvisation play. If the 49ers could not finish taking Rodgers to the ground, good luck doing it to Cam. Newton is even more athletic than Rodgers and he thrives outside of the pocket. If a play breaks down and Cam Newton does his thing, can San Francisco’s secondary stay with the receivers? It’s going to be hard for the 49ers to play a lot of man coverage in this game.
If you made me pick between the quarterbacks in this game it would be hard not to take Newton. I think he is a better passer and has less problem areas than Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is a streaky player, if he gets hot, look out. This is such an intriguing pairing of quarterbacks. Both players have similar skill sets. Colin Kaepernick has struggled this season but much of this is because of his receivers’ ability to get open against good man coverage. Cam Newton has really grown this season though; he has harnessed his strengths and really improved in the areas he had previously struggled. I never thought I would say this before this season but I am a huge Cam Newton fan. A game like this comes down to the quarterbacks and I like Cam Newton to pull through in this game.
This is a heavy weight fight between two physically imposing teams. This is the game to watch if you love smash mouth football and defense. It will be a blast.