The Carolina Panthers came into Sunday's game in San Francisco playing for much more than their sixth win of the season and fifth in a row. This game against the defending NFC champion 49ers was about staking claim to a spot amongst the elite of the conference. After narrowly losing to the now 10-1 Seattle Seahawks on opening day, Carolina would finally get another shot against one the league's better teams after dominating a group of also-rans on its way to a 5-3 record.
The 49ers came into the game in a similar spot. Having gotten off to an uneven start to the season, including an embarrassing loss to the division-rival Seahawks, San Francisco had reeled of a string of dominating wins over some less-than-stellar competition.
The similarities didn't end there. The composition of the two teams' rosters is similar in a lot of ways. Both rely on a dominating defense led by a talented front-seven. Both the 49ers and Panthers are led by third-year quarterbacks with strong arms, fast legs and inconsistent accuracy. And both have an offensive identity built around power running games.
Sunday's game promised to be a physical battle, and it lived up to the hype.
San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in a press conference earlier in the week that the 49ers offense wouldn't do anything special to combat a good Panthers defense. "We're just going to run our offense," Roman said. "We need to execute our offense."
The 49ers M.O. under Roman has been built around the ability to run the ball using a lot of two tight end sets. On the very first drive of the game, Roman stayed true to that game plan. San Francisco worked exclusively out of one and two wide receiver formations on its first possession with a 5-to-3 run-to-pass ratio.
The Panthers countered that with a single-high safety look and brought down strong safety Quentin Mikell down to form an eight-man box. The 49ers like to take shots down field when the defense commits numbers to stop the run, but Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott had free safety Mike Mitchell line up 25 yards down field to account for any deep throws:
After a nice 11-yard run by Frank Gore put the 49ers near mid-field, they took a shot down field to Anquan Boldin that was nearly intercepted by Panthers conrnerback Captain Munnerlyn. The Panthers don’t do a great job of disguising their defense before the snap. With one safety deep and the cornerbacks playing off-coverage, Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick can easily read a Cover 3 zone defense. At the snap, the Panthers send five rushers and drop six into coverage, with three deep defenders and three underneath.
Kaepernick does a good job of looking off the safety to open up the seam for Boldin. Munnerlyn recognizes this and undercuts the route, but he can’t come up with the interception.
The next play, the 49ers line up in the pistol and run a Read Option at Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson. Johnson is a pure pass rusher and can struggle sometimes against the run due to a lack of athleticism, and San Fran takes advantage of this with a 17-yard run to the right side. Kaepernick reads a pausing Johnson and hands the ball off to Gore before the Panthers’ pass rusher can react.
The drive eventually stalled and the 49ers settled for a long field goal by kicker Phil Dawson to take a 3-0 lead.
The Panthers opening drive resulted in a three-and-out as Carolina’s receivers were unable to shake the 49ers' man coverage.
San Francisco is known for playing man coverage underneath (at least a kind of hybrid/man coverage) with two safeties deep while relying on its talented front-seven to take care of opposing running games; and they were able to do that over the first couple of drives for the Panthers. With two safeties deep, 49ers cornerbacks would be able to play aggressively underneath, knowing they’d have help on the back end. The Panthers had to be able to run, if the passing game were to have any success.
After having some success running the ball on their opening drive, the 49ers looked to open up the passing game on their second. It didn’t work. Panthers linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly (both excellent in pass coverage) did a good job of covering ground underneath and taking away Kaepernick’s intermediate options, while the secondary routinely dropped deep to take away any deep threats. And with the Carolina pass rush doing a good job of closing the pocket around Kaepernick and not giving him an lanes to escape, the 49ers signal caller had nowhere to go.
The first sack of Kaepernick came on great teamwork by the defensive line. Greg Hardy’s outside pressure forces Kaepernick to step up, but the interior pressure gives him nowhere to go and Dwan Edwards sacks him.
The 49ers caught a break after Jordan Senn blocked Andy Lee’s punt and the ball hit off a Panther into the arms of a 49er, giving San Francisco the ball at Carolina’s 41.
As the Panthers were able to start containing the 49ers running game, Carolina was able to play a seven-man front and commit more numbers to stopping the passing game of the 49ers, something the Panthers defense has been able to do consistently throughout the year.
"Carolina's an interesting team, because they believe they can stop the run with a seven man front," Roman said of the Panthers defense earlier in the week. "And they've been doing that quite well. From a football perspective, if you're a defensive coordinator and you feel good about playing seven-man [front] and stopping the run game, you are living large. They're the best team we've seen playing the run with seven-man [fronts]."
On the ensuing drive after the fumble, the Panthers played with two deep safeties on three of the four plays and forced Kaepernick into check down throws. The Niners had to settle for another field goal, taking a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter.
After trading possessions, the Panthers gave the 49ers a short-field once again. Facing a third-and-15 from midfield, a pressured Newton threw an ugly interception right into the hands of Niners cornerback Tramaine Brock, who returned it to the Panthers’ 24 yard-line. Two plays later, Vernon Davis caught a pass and appeared to fumble as he was hit by Mitchell. The refs somehow came to the conclusion that Davis had not performed a football act before losing control of the ball. But the damage had been done—Davis had suffered a concussion on the play and would not return.
The impact of Davis’ concussion could be seen immediately. Having already lost another tight end, Garrett Celek, the 49ers could not lean on their favored two tight end sets. And as they faced a fouth-and-one, they had to settle for yet another field goal due to personnel issues.
"We were out of a couple personnel groups that we would have like to have been in," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. "Both Celeck and Vernon Davis were out. That factored into [the decision to kick the field goal]."
The 49ers rely on two tight end formations in their base offense, not just short yardage, so the Davis injury would have a big effect on the rest of the game.
"We're very fortunate to have that stable [of blockers], where you can move, mix, match and move people around and shuffle the shells around, as they say," Roman said of his team’s ability to run block. With two tight ends down, San Francisco no longer had that luxury.
The Panthers offense was struggling at this point. Newton had missed a couple of throws and the wide receivers weren’t exactly helping him out. The running game was getting some decent gains, but nothing substantial. After coming into the game as the best team in the league at avoiding three-and-outs, Carolina had two on its first four drives of the game to go along with a turnover, and the failures of the offense would undoubtedly be placed on Newton.
"He's the quarterback, and we all know the quarterback is going to get a lot more credit and a lot more blame during wins and losses, or production or lack of," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "In the passing game, we were just a little bit off, whether it was throws or catches or protection."
Facing a third-and-long with under five minutes to go in the half, Newton started to get in a rhythm. He used his eyes to open up a throwing lane to hit Branden LaFell for a first down. He found LaFell again a couple plays later for another chain-moving reception. After a tipped pass somehow found its way into the hands of Greg Olsen, Newton had the Panthers in 49ers territory with two minutes left in the half.
Shula dialed up a play the Panthers hadn’t run since the opening week loss to Seattle. That play had ended with a DeAngelo Williams fumble that ultimately ended the game.
Facing another NFC West opponent, the Panthers ran it again—this time, with a much more pleasing result.
After having chipped away at the Niners run defense with some decent gains, the Panthers finally broke one as DeAngelo Williams ran 27 yards for the game's only touchdown, thanks to a total team effort.
"One of the plays that really showed what happens when you sustain blocks and block down field was DeAngelo's touchdown run," Rivera said. "We had some offensive linemen get to the second level and give him a chance to cut, and then we had some receivers downfield blocking."
The Panthers went into half-time trailing 7-9.
Without Vernon Davis for the second half, the 49ers offense was in trouble. The 49ers offensive line was having trouble stopping Carolina’s front four, and Davis was San Fran’s only real vertical threat in the passing game. With the pass no longer really a threat, the Panthers went back to cramming the box to stop Gore. And with Carolina’s secondary playing deep and getting good pressure on the quarterback, Kaepernick was limited to short, quick throws, which aren’t exactly his strong suit.
Kaerpernick’s accuracy problems—his completion percentage dipped down to 56.4 percent after Sunday’s game—make it hard for the 49ers to dink-and-dunk their way down field. And with the Niners struggling to get in a groove offensively, they struggled to get creative with their play-calling.
"When you’re not in the rhythm picking up first downs and being able to get in deeper to your playbook, get into the screen, get into the movement game, keep things off-balance, it’s frustrating to all," Harbaugh said after the loss.
The Panthers’ offense started to figure out how to attack the 49ers through the air. Shula started calling for outside throws, staying away from the strength of the San Fran defense: linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in the middle. The Panthers repeatedly picked up third-down conversions on comeback routes near the sidelines, which put the cornerbacks on an island and negated the help from the safeties over the top.
As the 49ers shutdown the Carolina running game, Newton’s ability to move the chains became all the more important. The onus was on Newton to carry the Panthers to a win, and he stepped up with a ridiculous throw (on a another comeback route!) with the Panthers facing a third-down trailing by two early in the fourth.
The 49ers send a blitz to Newton’s blind side—something that troubled him in losses to Buffalo and Arizona earlier in the season. Newton feels the blitz, rolls out to his right and sees Steve Smith breaking open on a comeback near the sideline. On the run, Newton fires a 20-yard strike off of one foot right into Smith’s chest for a first down.
A few plays later, Graham Gano, having already missed from 48 yards out, nailed a 53-yard field goal to give the Panthers their first lead at 10-9 with just over ten minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Making things harder on the struggling 49ers’ offense, the Panthers special teams did a wonderful job of putting San Francisco in a hole before their drives even started. The ensuing kickoff return left the 49ers at their own 12 thanks to excellent kick-off coverage.
"It's the hidden yardage that people don't realize," Rivera said of his special teams’ performance. "When you can keep a team pinned down, it's very hard to go 99 yards or 90 yards to score points."
After a couple of heart-stopping fumbles forced the Panthers to punt with 70 seconds left in the game while clinging onto a one-point lead, the Carolina defense had another shot at closing out a game—an opportunity the unit had squandered many times throughout Rivera’s coaching tenure, including a tough loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 2.
If the Panthers were going to grab this signature win, the defense would have to exorcise some demons. It didn’t take long to happen.
On the first play of the Niners' last drive, Edwards brought down Kaepernick for the Panthers’ sixth sack of the game. A play later, Drayton Florence sealed the game with an interception.
The Panthers had won a close game against one of the NFL’s elite, something the team hadn’t done in a long time.
"The Carolina Panthers needed this type of win" Newton said. "Going back, looking at what type games we've won, we won games where we put up 30-plus points and won handily. We haven't had this type of win under our belt consistently."
The Panthers had earned their sixth win of the season; and, more importantly, they had earned the respect of the league.