Breaking down the data: 49ers vs. Panthers

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Numbers and pictures from the divisional round matchup

San Francisco was the better team last Sunday; they executed where Carolina could not.

I found it tough to look at one aspect of the game, and say, "this where the Panthers lost it", or "this where San Francisco won the game". The four plays ran from the one-yard line, with zero points, and a net gain of -1-yards, are damning without a doubt. I'd say the Panthers lost this game where they won most of their games this season, in the trenches.

On the four plays from the one, the Panthers offensive line was manhandled by the 49ers. Play-calling wasn't the deathblow. Inside the three-yard line the Panthers run three or so plays: Power from the I formation to Tolbert, Power from the shotgun with Newton, or a play-action roll out. Nobody has really been able to stop Carolina inside the one this year. The only one of those plays the Panthers didn't run was QB Power, and with the way the 49ers were getting into the backfield, it's probably a good thing they didn't. On the flip side of the coin, the Panthers were not able to get consistent pressure on Kaepernick, especially in the second half. San Francisco has, probably, the most talented offensive line in the game, and they showed up on Sunday.

Watching the game again can be hard. The 'what-if's' and the 'almost's' (I guess that's not a word) can stick with you, reminding you of what could have been. If Cam Newton reads his blocks correctly on a second quarter run from the seven-yard line, he walks into the end zone, giving Carolina a 14-6 lead. Instead he's tackled at the one-yard line. The 49ers first touchdown drive almost came to a screeching halt, when, at 2:35 left in the half, Colin Kaepernick's pass falls right through Luke Kuechly's fingers; if Kuechly makes the play, Carolina has the ball at midfield, with two and a half minutes left, a couple time outs, and a prime opportunity to advance their lead. Instead, the 49ers go on to score, pulling ahead for good. Or, what if the Gore/Kaepernick fumble at the four-yard line had bounced forward, towards a waiting Dwan Edwards, instead of backwards to the running back? Plays later the 49ers would score another touchdown.

But this is not all luck, it's execution. Patrick Willis made the play where Kuechly couldn't, making a diving interception on Carolina's first series, giving the 49ers the ball inside Panthers territory. Kaepernick, was able to score from a goal-to-go situation, on a similar play to Newton's.

Offensively, the Panthers didn't mix much up against the 49ers. Carolina did run much more from 21 personnel, which this season, had primarily been a passing set. In the first half the Panthers hit the Niners hard with 12 personnel, which managed to out produce 11 personnel, ten plays to seven. It wasn't until the fourth quarter where the Panthers leaned heavily on 11 personnel, running the final dozen or so plays of the season from the three wide receiver set. A bit surprising was the lack of plays seen from ancillary groupings, 22, 13, 01, 31, etc. The Panthers would line up in a myriad of formations, but they were fairly homogenized in their personnel sets. The only question for much of the game was whether it was Mike Tolbert, Ben Hartsock, or Ted Ginn who was in the game.

Personnel Runs Passes Total
11 4 22 26
12 8 7 15
21 5 1 6
22 0 1 2
13 1 0 1
23 2 1 3
Personnel 1st half 2nd half
11 pass 6 16
11 run 1 3
12 pass 5 2
12 run 5 3
21 pass 0 1
21 run 4 1
22 pass 0 2
13 run 1 0
23 pass 1 0
23 run 2 0

Carolina did make use of the read-option plays against the 49ers, running six plays for 32-yards. The read-option plays were very successful, with the only short gains coming on third-down conversions.

The 49ers love using heavy personnel groupings, which engendered the Panthers defense to spend a plurality of time in the 4-3. Whereas in the first half, San Francisco made a strong attempt to move the ball through the air, in the second half, and with the lead, the Niners were content with the running game.

Front 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 17 19 36
3-4 4 3 7
4-2-5 15 5 20

Looking at the pass defense:

Front & Coverage 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 Man 2 1 3
4-3 Zone 10 1 11
3-4 Man 0 0 0
3-4 Zone 3 1 4
4-2-5 Man 3 1 4
4-2-5 Zone 9 1 10

It's quite a disparity, 27 of San Francisco's 32 pass plays were called in the first half. The Panthers knew San Francisco was going to run, and they had a hard time stopping them. Again, kudos to the Niners offensive line.

The high point of the day for Panthers fans was Cam Newton's 31-yard connection with Steve Smith, which put Carolina ahead 7-6. It's been said more than a few times, Smith no longer possesses the physical abilities he did half a decade ago. That said, he is still a master of the wide receiver craft, which allows him to continue threatening defenses, even at the age of 34, on a sore knee.

Newton does a fantastic job on this play, looking off the safety, and dropping the pass in perfect position, but we'll focus on Smith here, running a 9-route.


Football is game of many things, among which is positioning. On long deep routes, against man coverage, smaller receivers have a much tougher time retaining their position. This is something a Brandon Marshall, or a Brandon Lafell don't have to worry about; they can't be bullied. Oftentimes you'll see corners reroute smaller WR's, driving them towards the sideline; taking away precious real estate necessary to make a catch in bounds.

Here Smith extends his arm into the ribcage of the CB, not pushing off, and not holding, but creating a physical boundary between himself and the defender, preventing the Niner from running him to the sideline. Note the yards between Smith and the sideline; this distance gives the WR plenty of real estate to adjust to a ball thrown back shoulder, or to the pylon.


Defensive backs are taught to play the WR's hands and eyes when in man coverage, reacting when the receiver shows his hands, or when his eyes' go wide. Another excellent maneuver, Smith doesn't show his hands until the ball is literally, right on top of the defender, giving the DB no chance at a play. If the WR shows his hands too early, the DB will turn and make a play on the ball.


Smith catches the ball with his hands, before bringing it to his body, not taking any chance of bobbling the ball against his chest. Meanwhile, the DB is left flailing, unsure of where the ball is. It's good coverage, but a masterful play from Smith.

With no Jonathan Stewart available, DeAngelo Williams had a poor day running the ball, which, along with the deficit, resulted in his only having five carries.


The opening series of the second half, the Panthers, facing only a six-man box, run a strong-side Power play, pulling Travelle Wharton.


The play has Williams run off-tackle, following Wharton in the alley set up by nice blocks from Byron Bell and Greg Olsen; the two manage to set up a fantastic running lane. Williams however, either doesn't read Bell's block, or completely misreads it; OLB Aldon Smith has leverage to the left. The play calls for Williams to run to Bell's right. Williams chooses to go left.


Smith disengages from Bell, and tackles Williams after a three-yard gain. Just an aside, Aldon Smith is a fantastic player. His snap count recognition and first step gave him some incredible jumps, completely overwhelming LT Jordan Gross on a few occasions, and giving the appearance that he was offsides. Smith is an elite pass rusher.


A look at what could have been; should Williams have followed Wharton, and the OG have gotten a hat on the crashing safety, there was no one (with an angle) between the RB and the end zone. C'est la vie.

Williams' three-yard gain brings up third down and four.


Carolina goes with a simple concept. If Newton reads man coverage, he looks to Smith running the skinny post, and Tolbert  on the outlet route.


The 49ers play man and Newton goes to Smith. As the WR is making his break, the DB jams him.


The pass comes about a second too soon. On routes run across the middle of the field, the receiver needs to/should square his shoulders with the passer, and the azimuth of the pass. It's the same principle as boxing out in basketball; in doing so, you eliminate the defender's angle at the ball, and your arms/hands. Smith doesn't have time to square his shoulders to the pass.


The DB is able to deflect the pass away, forcing the Panthers to punt. Not a bad pass, but it came a second too earlier. Football is also a game of milliseconds/inches. San Francisco would score a touchdown on their next possession.

Mentioned above, the Panthers struggled putting pressure on Colin Kaepernick. Sacked six times in the first meeting, Kaepernick was only grounded once. With a clean pocket the QB was able to find open receivers.


This play occurs in the aforementioned third quarter drive. Carolina is in their 4-2-5, with Greg Hardy in a two-point stance.


At the snap, LT Joe Staley gets the jump on Hardy, and delivers a strong punch, jolting the DE, and disrupting his pass rush.


Staley escorts Hardy out of the pocket, while all of the other Panthers pass rushers are otherwise similarly engaged. There is no pressure on Kaepernick as he surveys the field.


The QB steps up into the pocket and delivers a strike to Anquan Boldin cutting across the field for a gain of 16, putting the 49ers into field goal range.

I'll close with franchise quarterback Cam Newton.

This play occurs on the drive Jaxon so aptly dubbed the eight minute drive to nowhere.


With a first and ten just inside San Francisco territory, the Panthers are in 12 personnel, drawing the 49ers to match with their 3-4 front. This leaves LB Dan Skuta in man coverage on Brandon Lafell. For all the derision he receives from Panthers fans, deserved and undeserved, this is a matchup Lafell will win nine times out of ten.

Against the Cover 2 coverage Lafell is running a 9-route which should split the safeties. This is where the Peyton Manning's and Tom Brady's will absolutely shred you. For my third football maxim, football is a game of match ups, and the Panthers have a winner in this one.


Ten-yards downfield Lafell has already beaten the LB. All Newton has to do is look off the safety and make the throw.


With great protection, Newton is able to sit in the pocket. A second or two later he doesn't even need to look off the safety; if he puts the pass to Lafell in stride, the Panthers have a touchdown. Newton even has Steve Smith crossing underneath Lafell, out of reach of the safeties.


There's no pressure, but Newton doesn't make a throw.


Newton instead takes off, picking up five-yards before going to the ground.

The third-year QB made strides this year. I'd like to see him improve in two areas for next season, his awareness of match ups on the field, as is the case here, and decisiveness, which we did see improvement in as the season matured.

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