Cat Scratch Reader and Niners Nation are collaborating this week to cover the divisional playoff game on Sunday. Now we take a look at the under-the-radar players who could make a big impact on Sunday -- but who you may not have heard of.
The 49ers find themselves with numerous weapons back on the offensive side of the ball, which has opened the door for the passing game to open up with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. However, the bread and butter of this team has been the run game. Colin Kaepernick has a lot of potential as a quarterback, but there are still some inconsistencies that can drive fans crazy. The good news is the team has a strong run game to fall back on and grind out some wins.
As the 49ers face the Panthers fearsome front seven, I am thinking we see some decent looks from Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. In Week 10, Frank Gore had a solid final line (16 rushes for 82 yards), while Hunter rushed three times for eight yards and LaMichael James lost a yard on his one carry. I think this week the 49ers mix things up a bit and get Hunter and James some carries out on the edge. James in particular could see some work as the 49ers get him out in space away from the front seven. This could mean rushing, or passes out on the edge. The 49ers have not used James much outside of returning punts and kicks, so this could be that game where he really gets a sizable opportunity.
It might make 49ers fans laugh given his largely-ineffective three years in San Francisco, but Ted Ginn has found a home in Carolina. There's no confusion about who he is as a player -- a speedster with sub-par hands who can't run a complex route, but it turns out that's just what the Panthers needed on offense.
Ginn is breaking out in 2013 with 556 yards on just 36 receptions. He's not going to catch five passes a game, but when he does haul one in it's a big play. This has been the team's offensive modus operandi, especially with Steve Smith out. Set up a team with a series of short passing plays, then run a number of go routes to gash a secondary. So far it's worked pretty well.
The prime focus for Ginn on Sunday will largely be a decoy. I suspect we'll see him in the slot in an effort to force Eric Reid to stay home and create matchup opportunities for Greg Olsen on linebackers.
Much like last week, I think once again the under-the-radar player to watch on defense will be the nickel corner. I don't give a name because it could be one of three players. Carlos Rogers normally covers the slot man when the 49ers move to nickel, but he's dealing with a hamstring strain. He says he thinks he'll play Sunday, but we really don't know yet. His backup was Eric Wright, but he was leap-frogged by the recently re-signed Perrish Cox against the Packers. Cox did some good work, but Rogers' status leaves us wondering who will be out there.
Whomever is out there, I suspect we'll see Cam Newton attack them when the Panthers go three-wide. They seem to use a third wide receiver about a third of the time, so the moments should stand out. That is where the Panthers passing attack could be most dangerous.
Have you heard the name Mike Mitchell before? Let me refresh your memory. In 2009 he was the safety out of the University of Ohio who the Oakland Raiders selected with a second round pick, only to see ESPN analysts scramble because there was no video package and nobody had a draftable grade on him.
Mitchell's arrival in Carolina hasn't been dissimilar to Ginn. They're two over-drafted players hailed as draft busts who redeemed themselves with the Panthers. The now-veteran safety has been extremely good this season, totaling 67 tackles, four sacks, and four interceptions -- but largely overlooked in contrast to the stout front seven that's so often touted.
This will be a signature game for Mitchell's season. There's a good chance Luke Kuechly will be tasked with spying Colin Kaepernick, taking him out of coverage. This means Mitchell becomes the key player in stopping Vernon Davis, which is vital to the Panthers chances.