This Sunday the Carolina Panthers face their toughest game yet this season. They will be playing on the road, across the country, and against a formidable 6-2 team. Their performance on Sunday will give us a good indication of their post season prognosis. Win and the 2013 Carolina Panthers are division title contenders. Lose and they are likely chasing down a wild card ticket.
The 49ers are in some ways a mirror image of the Carolina Panthers. Both have stout defenses featuring a strong front seven. Both feature dynamic young quarterbacks and a solid run game.
The 49ers offense currently ranks a mediocre 16th overall in yards per game, but they rank 5th overall in points per game. That efficiency on offense is thanks to Frank Gore and the number 1 ranked rushing offense in the league.
Therefore, to stifle the San Francisco offense the Panthers must stop Frank Gore.
A quick look at Gore's tendencies reveals his strengths are running behind the center and sweeping out to the right. Gore averages over 5 yards per carry when running these gaps. When running left, Gore is mediocre at best, averaging only 3.1 yard per carry.
The good news for the Panthers is that they have a healthy defensive line with quality run stopping depth with Lotulelei, Short, Edwards, and Cole. Keeping these defensive tackles fresh by frequent rotations will make it much more difficult for Gore to wear out the Panthers defense. Around the edges the Panthers match up well with sure handed tacklers in Davis and Kuechly, who both currently lead the team in tackles.
The 49ers passing game is currently ranked dead last in the league. 49ers fans will point to injuries in their 2nd and 3rd receiving options, but that is a poor excuse. The 49ers still have Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, two formidable receiving threats. Those two by themselves should be able to provide a better ranking than last in the league given an adequate quarterback. WR Mario Manningham returns to practice this week for the 49ers but is unlikely to be activated in time for Sunday's game.
Colin Kaepernick currently has a respectable 87.6 QB rating. The interesting thing is that rating increases to 108.8 when facing a defense that is blitzing. Clearly the 49ers are excellent at blitz pickups and hot routes. However, Kaepernick's rating drops to a dismal 56.5 when under pressure from a base 4 lineman.
Look for the Panthers to blitz less frequently than they did against the Falcons. Instead they will rely on their front 4 to pressure Kaepernick, who has been sacked 15 times this season under these conditions. Kaepernick is averaging 10 yards when allowed to scramble. This has occurred roughly three times per game this season. The Panthers could spy Kaepernick with Luke Kuechly who matches his size and speed.
The Panthers have a tough task ahead of them this weekend but I believe they have a better shot at success than many in the media are giving them.