When the San Francisco 49ers’ offense takes the field at Bank for America Stadium of Sunday’s divisional round playoff game, it will be unrecognizable to a Carolina Panthers defense that bemused Colin Kaepernick and company when the two teams met in early November.
The Panthers offense did just enough to pull out a 10-9 win in San Francisco, but a significantly improved performance will be needed if Carolina expects to repeat the trick. A lot of the attention will be placed on Michael Crabtree’s absence from the game, but having tight end Vernon Davis for the entire contest would have far more reaching impact on the Niners' offensive attack.
Davis is maybe the most complete player at the tight end position outside of a healthy Rob Gronkowski. He can stretch the field vertically and blow the top off of a defense with elite speed; he can make tough catches in traffic; and, most importantly to the bruising 49ers, he is a very good run blocker. His versatility is a key to a very diverse attack designed by offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
In the first meeting between these two teams, the 49ers killed the Panthers on the ground in two tight end personnel groupings in the first half. In total, the 49ers ran for 71 yards on 14 designed runs in the first half – 51 of those yards were out of two tight end sets, while other personnel groupings produced 20 yards on seven carries.
When Davis went out with a concussion (coupled with Garrett Celek’s early injury) the 49ers couldn’t get into its favored 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR). In the second half, San Francisco ran only three plays out of a similar look but had to replace a tight end with an extra lineman. All three of these plays, unsurprisingly, were runs and came on the same drive.
In the passing game, Davis is just as vital. Even with Crabtree back on the field, Davis remains San Fran’s biggest deep threat, and Roman does a good job of using the former Maryland Terrapin as a decoy to get his wideouts one-on-one match-ups underneath, which the 49ers’ receiving corps is adept at taking advantage of, like in the video below.
As important as Davis is to the offense, the key to San Francisco’s offensive machine remains Colin Kaepernick, however. The young signal caller can make all the throws and threatens a defense with his top-line athleticism, but in watching this team on film, you still get the feeling that his inexperience is holding this unit back from being truly special. Kaepernick still tends to struggle once his first read is taken away – something the Panthers did an excellent job of doing in November. Against the Cardinals in Week 17, for example, almost all of his completions came on throws to his first read.
With Crabtree back in the fold and Davis available for the entire game, the Panthers may not have as much success taking away that first option, though. Against Green Bay last Sunday, Roman did an excellent job of creating favorable match-ups for his receivers, and credit Kaepernick for recognizing and capitalizing on those advantageous looks.
The Packers, however, play a completely different scheme from the Panthers. While the Packers played a lot of Man-Free coverage (that’s one safety deep with man coverage underneath) with some blitzing, expect Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to play Cover 3, which will allow the Panthers to have that vital eighth man in the box and to avoid one-on-one match-ups with Carolina’s less than stellar cornerbacks.
Green Bay’s man coverage played into the strengths of Kaepernick. When throwing the ball, he didn’t have to worry about diagnosing coverages and could just pinpoint the most favorable match-up. And when his receivers were covered, he had plenty of room to run with Green Bay’s defenders with their backs turned to the quarterback.
To compound the problem, the Packers corners played a lot of off-coverage, which opened up the quick hitch, one of the 49ers favorite concepts. The man coverage also opened up corner routes, which Kaepernick thrives on. San Francisco likes to combine a corner route with a seam route to create a Divide concept. They went to it on the crucial third-and-eight late in the fourth quarter, although Kaepernick ended up scrambling for the first down to extend the drive.
The Panthers coaching staff should be familiar with the concept, as it nearly resulted in a game-changing play back in November.
Early in the fourth quarter with San Fran leading 9-7, the 49ers run the Divide concept from a bunch set, with Vance McDonald going down the seam and Anquan Boldin running a "7-route". The Panthers counter with a Tampa-2. With Boldin occupying the safety, it's up to Luke Kuechly to cover the seam receiver.
Kuechly is just able to defend the pass to McDonald, but you have to think Davis would have gotten more separation. The Panthers need to be on the look out for this route concept come Sunday.
The 49ers offense will certainly be more equipped to put up a better fight than it did at Candlestick, but the rematch will be played in Charlotte, where the Panthers’ defense gives up only 10.75 points a game to opposing offenses. The Panthers have leaned on this unit throughout the year, and Sunday will be no different.