The Carolina Panthers have faced the San Francisco 49ers before in Week 10, but they are not playing the same team. Most notably, 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree (who was injured) and tight end Vernon Davis (knocked out of the game) will start after missing the last game. In preparation of facing this potent offensive attack, Tre Faaborg of Niners Nation helped answer five questions we have about their offense.
Cat Scratch Reader (CSR): A big storyline in this game is that Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis will (presumably) play the whole game after missing the Panthers-49ers game in Week 10. Since their return, what difference do they make, really?
Niners Nation (NN): Crabtree and Davis are two key cornerstones of the offense, one that doesn't operate like the Peyon Manning or Tom Brady type offenses where they can make do just fine with any ole guy out there. Colin Kaepernick's numbers before and after Crabtree's return speak to this:
Weeks 1-12 (without Crabtree) he was 36.8% comp, 50.9 QB rating when pressured. After Crabtree came back, weeks 13-17: 54.8% comp, 95.4 rating.
Crabtree, like Anquan Boldin, can pluck the ball out of the air, even when poorly thrown, and rarely drops anything even remotely close to his area. He's also VERY good after the catch, though there are signs that he's still getting back to form there coming off the Achilles injury.
The other thing Crabtree has done is take coverage away from other guys like Boldin and Davis. Despite not being a speed-demon, he get's open consistently and commands respect.
Speaking of Vernon Davis, he never comes off the field when he's healthy. He's a blocker, receiver, plays in-line, the slot, and out wide near the sideline. He's the best deep threat on the team and is the leading non-QB scorer on offense with 13 touchdowns in the regular season, and has been great in the playoffs, including 254 yards receiving last post-season.
Suffice to say this is a totally different offense with these guys on the field.
CSR: Skimming through Niners Nation comments, there's a lot of criticism of 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. He has been a hot coaching candidate around the league; why the hate amongst 49ers fans?
NN: Greg Roman has called some curious plays throughout the season, mostly passing the ball over and over again inside the red zone (often inside the 10 yard line), and predictably using jumbo formations on short yardage, despite the relative lack of success running the ball in those situations. He's also had a tendency to get away from the run at times, which drives 49ers fans mad. Frank Gore and this offensive line should be allowed to wear-down teams and not put so much pressure on Colin Kaepernick or the defense to win games. I mean, that's how you'd think this team would play, based on how their built, right?
Still, Roman has had some really innovative play-calling and the team's success speaks for itself. I expect that he has a few tricks up his sleeve for the playoffs, too, and that may be part of the reason why the offense has looked rather vanilla at times.
CSR: Last time these two teams met, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had one of his worst outings in his career, amassing only 91 yards passing, 16 yards rushing, and one last minute interception. He was sacked 6 times to boot. What adjustments do you anticipate for the young quarterback and his offensive line?
NN: While I don't like to make excuses, the fact of the matter is that in the previous match-up the 49ers were not only without Crabtree, but they lost TWO TEs early in the game, meaning rookie Vance McDonald was the only TE at the disposal of a team that uses 12 personnel a TON, and often has three TEs on the field at a time. It totally changes what they planned to do, what they're built around, and unfortunately they weren't able to make the adjustment in-game to overcome that.
Still, Kaepernick has grown throughout the season and we'd expect him to play better in the upcoming game at any rate. He's been far more decisive not only throwing the ball, but taking off to run when he doesn't like what he sees, too. He's even starting to hit his check-downs! Yes, that was a bit of an issue at times, believe it or not.
The biggest thing Kap has to do is just take what the defense gives him and don't force throws, even if the play is designed to go to a certain spot. If he pulls the ball down or throws it away when things break down, he should have a great game.
CSR: Running back Frank Gore sure has a lot of mileage on his tires. In the past, they have even reduced his load as the season went on and shared his touches. Any chance that happens here? And has he showed any signs of slowing down?
NN: Frank Gore played 88% of the snaps vs. Green Bay, 56 snaps compared to Kendall Hunter's FIVE. They really haven't taken many carries away from him at all this year, and it's not really a surprise. He's had his seventh 1,000 yard rushing season and still remains arguably the best RB in pass-protection in the NFL. Simply-put: He can do it all.
That being said, though, I expect the 49ers to use their other backs more in these playoffs, mostly to throw in some new wrinkles using guys who are quicker to the edge. Of course I don't think it will be more than 10 snaps that Gore is removed from the field in favor of another player, though. He's just too good, too reliable to do that.
CSR: The 49ers have an impressive offensive line. Who is the "X-factor" of this unit?
NN: Despite being snubbed for the Pro Bowl, Alex Boone is the better Guard on that unit at the moment. Mike Iupati made it instead, despite missing time with injury and having a so-so year, especially in pass protection. So in terms of lesser-known guy who's really good? That's Boone. They use him pulling in the run game and he's an excellent pass protector, having played left tackle full-time at Ohio State and for the 49ers in spot-duty, prior to the change to Guard.
The aforementioned Iupati gives up pressure in the passing game at times due to some lunging and grabbing. He's definitely a better run blocker where he prefers to plow people over with his size and strength.