Panthers vs. 49ers: Key Matchups

Christian Petersen

Two of the Leagues stingiest defenses will match up against two of the leagues premier rushing attacks on Sunday. This is time time where we figure out if the Panthers are "Pretenders" or "Contenders". The Panthers march into Candlestick with high hopes, in anticipation of a clash with the reigning, defending NFC Champions. We take a look at the key players in Sunday afternoons tilt.

Vernon Davis vs. Thomas Davis

Last week, Tony Gonzales carved up Carolina's defense during the first half, before being relatively shut down in the second. With Roddy White out and an ineffective running attack, Gonzales became the focal point of the offense, and Carolina responded well. Thomas Davis did indeed get beat a few times, but did a fine job of staying with the sure-fire Hall of Fame tight end.

This week, we see another premier offensive weapon in Vernon Davis. Davis is a fast tight end who can destroy opposing defenses. He's one of the few out there who excels at both blocking AND receiving, and has been a consistent weapon for Colin Kaepernick and Co. Thomas Davis appears to be the best guy to match up with V. Davis. Thomas Davis has quietly become a huge part of the Panthers defense, as he brings exceptional play with versatility. Davis can rush the passer, stop the run, seal the edge, all while doing a fine job of pass coverage. Davis possesses the speed and strength that is considered rare among NFL linebackers, and his skillset is perfect to match up with V. Davis. V. Davis will likely get split out wide a few times, but expect a lot of battling between these two talented Davis's

Aldon Smith vs. Jordan Gross

Aldon Smith is exactly the kind of player you don't want getting after Cam Newton. He's big, he's fast, and has exceptional pass rushing skills. He could harass Cam Newton who will likely have a tough time as it is with the 49ers defense. Smith will get moved around a bit to find a chink in Carolina's armor (which isn't hard to find) on the offensive line. But Aldon Smith will probably see a lot of Jordan Gross. If the line gets collapsed from the edges you can expect fire and destruction with the already weak interior. Players like Nate Chandler, Byron Bell, and Travelle Wharton will need help, so expect Jordan Gross to get the one-on-ones.

Patrick Willis/Navorro Bowman vs. Cam Newton

The last time the Panthers lost a game was against the Arizona Cardinals, a team with a sub-par offense but great defense. Cam Newton got harassed and sacked multiple times by Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. They ran essentially a delayed spy to shut down Cam Newton and keep him in the pocket. The game plan was perfect, as Washington possessed the speed to chase down Newton while Dansby was able to find holes in the protection by delaying his rush until after the initial blitz. With the spies keeping Cam in the pocket, he was forced to win the game with his arm as he got sacked over and over again.

This kind of game plan was perfect to neutralize Cam. Afterwards it seemed like things clicked for Cam, he can't be trying to do everything himself. Cam's been throwing the ball a lot better since then and his team has been rallying around him, jumpstarting a 4 game win streak. However, another factor in the win streak is that EVERY team we've seen runs a 4-3 defense. Cam has historically struggled against 3-4 defenses, and the 49ers appear to have the talent to do exactly what the Cardinals did. It will be important for Cam to not get flustered and maintain awareness of his receivers.

Greg Hardy vs. Joe Staley

The Panthers defense lost 2 of the 3 losses of the season against mobile quarterbacks. Russel Wilson and EJ Manuel both had the speed and quickness to improvise. However, our front seven faces a new kind of animal in Colin Kaepernick. He's not just fast or mobile, he can legitimately run the ball well. The only quarterback the Panthers have encountered who is this devastating running the ball would be RGIII, who got smacked around all game while his defense failed him. Carolina needs to execute this exact game plan against Kaepernick. Hit him, knock him down, sack him, make contact (all of this legally, we don't endorse bounties here ;p). Kaepernick cannot be allowed to be comfortable in the pocket, and it starts with our defensive ends. The 9ers have an outstanding offensive line that does a great job picking up blitzers, so I expect a lot of responsibility will be put on the 4 man rush. We need Hardy and Johnson to have big games, or Kaepernick might carve us up easily.

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