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Panthers-49ers Preview: Attacking San Francisco's Vaunted Defense

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The offense’s stat line wasn't pretty when the final whistle blew on the Carolina Panthers’ hard earned 10-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers back in early November. But a win is a win, and style points don’t matter much in the NFL, and they matter even less in the survive-and-advance world of playoff football.

But let’s be clear: Another ten-point performance will not be enough to defeat a battle-tested team like the 49ers come Sunday. Let’s also be clear on another thing: Contrary to popular belief, the Panthers’ offense has the ability to put some points on San Francisco.

Based solely on his stat line, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had a pretty miserable day under center when these two teams first met up. A 16 of 32, 169 yard and one interception performance isn’t going to impress anyone, but after a slow start to the game, Newton put on what might have been the best display of the progress he has made in his third year. The 49ers were able to keep Newton from scrambling, so he had to work from the pocket in order to bring Carolina back from an early nine-point deficit.

The most impressive part of the display was that it came against a defense as good as the 49ers’ unit. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will do some interesting things with line stunts and combination coverages, but the key to his defense’s success is simple: talent.

The San Francisco front seven is probably the best in the league – Carolina is really the only one that comes close (really close) – which allows Fangio to keep two safeties deep at almost all times while still being able to defend the run.

"From a football perspective," Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman said back in November, "if you're a defensive coordinator and you feel good about playing seven-man [fronts] and stopping the run game, you are living large."

Ironically, Roman was talking about the Panthers defense, but the concept still applies to the 49ers.

On the back end, the 49ers are mostly a man or combination-man team, where they’ll play zone coverages with man concepts once the receivers' routes develop. (For a more detailed look at these concepts, check out this piece by Grantland’s Chris Brown).

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(via Grantland.com)

Because Fangio likes to combine these coverages, it’s often difficult to diagnose them even when watching them on film, so you could imagine how difficult it must have been for Newton to read with a defensive line harassing him. But the former Heisman winner consistently did a good job of finding the open man in November. It was his accuracy that let him down during his slow start.

After starting the game 2 of 11 for 13 yards and a pick, Newton finished the game 14 of 22 for 155 yards in the last 35 minutes of the contest. And that includes two stone cold drops by Steve Smith (atypical for him) and Ted Ginn (very typical for him) that killed Panthers drives near midfield.

Those stats aren’t going to wow anyone, but it was the little things that don’t show up in the box score (and that Newton is not consistent enough in doing) that that made this performance stand out.

Take the following play, for example. The Panthers are trailing by 9 late in the second quarter, facing a third-and-seven. They line up in a 3-by-1 formation with Smith and Ginn running deep outs on the outside and Brandon LaFell running a deep dig route from the slot. The 49ers counter with a "2-Read" call (the defense covered in the Grantland article linked to above).

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Newton wants LaFell on the dig, but linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are in position to defend it. So as Cam drops back he focuses his sight on Steve Smith, which manipulates Willis into drifting over that way, opening a window for Newton to hit LaFell for the first.

That's Newton fully understanding the concept the Panthers are running, recognizing the defense the 49ers are in and knowing how to manipulate it to his liking. He was able to think a couple moves ahead of the defense -- his next step will be doing that consistently.

Coinciding with Newton’s improvement over the course of the game, Panthers offensive coordinator started figuring out how to attack the Niners’ defense as the game progressed. I would expect the Panthers to use some of these tactics more on Sunday.

The first of which is isolating the 49ers cornerbacks on the outside and running comeback routes. Fangio’s schemes often leave the outside corners one-on-one with little safety help over the top. They must take any threat of a deep route seriously, which leaves them vulnerable to comebacks.

The player most dangerous on these routes is Ginn, whose speed is always a threat to defensive backs. A number of times against San Francisco, he was able to get a lot of separation by eating up his defender’s cushion, causing them to open up to defend a streak route and then planting his foot in the ground and coming back toward the line of scrimmage.

With linebackers and safeties guarding the middle for the Niners, Ginn’s speed isn’t as big of an issue inside, so expect Ginn to line up outside more often than you’re used to seeing.

The 49ers defense depends on correctly identifying which player is whose assignment, so any attempt to make that more difficult should be effective against Fangio’s defense. In the previous game between these teams, the Panthers ran some plays out of bunch looks that got some receivers wide open, and I’d expect to see more of the same in the upcoming match-up.

On the first play, ignore where the ball ends up and focus on tight end Greg Olsen:

Speaking of Olsen, who led the Panthers in receiving this year, the Panthers will have to get their tight end more involved this game – in the last meeting, he caught only one ball for 14 yards. One way the Panthers can do this is by using certain personnel groupings in order to get him a favorable match-up.

When the Panthers went to personnel groupings with only two wide receivers (22, 12, 21, etc.) the 49ers countered with their base 3-4 personnel every time. On one such play, the Panthers were able to get Olsen lined up against outside linebacker Dan Skuta.

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Olsen ran a wheel route, while Smith and LaFell ran in-breaking routes that occupied the defensive backs on that side, leaving the tight end one-on-one with a pass rusher. That’s a match-up he should win every time, and one the Panthers should look to create as often as possible in the rematch.

All of these tactics are great in theory, but it will ultimately come down to execution and who wins the one-on-one battles in the trenches. If the Panthers can run the ball and force the 49ers out of those two-deep looks, Newton should have an easier time passing the ball.

Of the four games on the slate this weekend, this might be the hardest one to predict, but there is one thing we do know: The Panthers will need more than ten points will not be enough to overcome the 49ers on Sunday.

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