Playoff Primer: 49ers @ Panthers

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Finding two teams that are more identical in pretty much every conceivable way isn’t possible.

Say, you mobile quarterbacks types, feel like running? NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis will be handing out concussions free of charge today, and so will Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. By the sheer force of will, though, trucking and running will happen because eventually if you run into a reinforced wall long enough, some crumbling might take place. Oh just maybe, but there’s even less faith for the Panthers in that regard due to the utter lack of lengthy runs given up by San Francisco.

That’s just one example in the search for something that resembles separation. I fear it’s a flailing and fruitless search in a game destined to end in so very few points and many bone erasing hits just as it did when these two tams last meet back in Week 10, a defensive snot dislodger the Panthers won 10-9.

But hey, we can try. To the numbers…

Panthers offense 49ers offense
Total yards P/Game 316.8 (26th) 323.8 (24th)
Passing yards P/Game 190.2 (29th) 186.2 (30th)
Rushing yards P/Game 126.6 (11th) 137.6 (3rd)
Panthers defense 49ers defense
Total yards P/Game 301.2 (2nd) 316.9 (5th)
Passing yards P/Game 214.3 (6th) 221.0 (7th)
Rushing yards P/Game 86.9 (2nd) 95.9 (4th)

If you’re the sort who enjoys scoring and offense, this will not be your brand of football. However, a crucial element was missing from the 49ers’ offense during that Week 10 game, and it was largely absent from the numbers above too. It’s name is Michael Crabtree.

The other numbers that matter: As expected, Crabtree introduced a missing dynamic to the 49ers offense when he returned from an offseason Achilles injury last month to play in the final five regular season games and last week during Wild Card Weekend. His 284 receiving yards during the regular season were good enough for third among all 49ers pass catchers, which says a lot about both how much Colin Kaepernick likes him some Crabtree, and the little wide receiver depth San Fran has beyond Anquan Boldin.

During last week’s win over the Packers when he had 125 receiving yards (his second +100 yard game in six weeks following a major injury), Crabtree showed that he’s back at full health, and Kaepernick recognized it by targeting him 13 times even in the frozen Green Bay conditions. Crabtree is at his best when he’s targeted in abundance like that, and given opportunities in space to get creative. Last year towards the end of the season with Kaepernick under center he had six double-digit target games, and the result was a pretty loving relationship.

Crabtree was targeted on 39.6 percent of his routes with Kaepernick as his quarterback, behind only Brandon Marshall in 2012. During last year’s playoffs Kaepernick had a passer rating of 139.7 while targeting Crabtree, and the league’s best catcher was even more important when times became crunchy…

So that’s one dividing element which didn’t exist previously, and quick throws to Crabtree’s trusted hands will help Kaepernick deal with a Panthers pass rush that led the league with 60 sacks. Between Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the Panthers boast two pass rushers with double digit sacks set to fire off the edges.

Even with Crabtree, that pressure should contain a 49ers passing offense that was surprisingly chunky considering how little Kaepernick, you know, threw ever. The 49ers were dead last in total pass attempts with 417 during the regular season (Carolina wasn’t far ahead in 30th, though they had 473 attempts), and yet still despite that extremely limited throwing and a concentration on Frank Gore’s ageless pounding, Kaepernick completed 10 passes for 40 yards or more. For perspective, that ties the Lion’s deep heaving, and Matthew Stafford needed 634 attempts to get there.

That’s yet another similarity here. Whether it’s the quarterback or one of the many running backs in deep backfields on both sides, these are two run-oriented teams. But between Crabtree and Vernon Davis, or Steve Smith and Ted Ginn, deep looks will lead to some honesty among both front sevens. Ginn was targeted sparingly by Cam Newton this year (only 68 of them), yet he still recorded six catches for 30 yards or more despite just 36 total receptions.

If Steve Smith is limited, Ginn is the next man up. About that…

The injuries that matter: Carlos Rogers will miss his second straight game due to a hamstring injury, leaving the 49ers without their top cornerback once again. But although he’ll play, Steve Smith’s injury will likely be an equalizer. Smith was a really funny guy while randomly picking health percentages all week, and that also makes him the best. But he’s likely not at all even a little bit close to full health as he nurses a knee injury, and that will restrict his downfield burst which was already limited due to the natural process of a body aging and a human gradually dying with each passing day.

I’ll be happy to eat delicious crow on this, but I don’t see Smith being a major factor in this game. Instead, deep shots may primarily run through Ginn and Brandon LaFell.

The difference maker(s): Bowman and Willis. Yes, that’s two people, though they pretty much operate as one. Between Newton’s running and the chugging from the three-headed beast of a backfield comprised of Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers’ running game is mostly focussed on causing physical harm. Yet so are Bowman and Willis.

With those two as the anchors, San Francisco’s longest run allowed this year was only a 30-yarder, a league low. But as mentioned, they’re matched by Davis and Kuechly, and a Panthers run defense that allowed only four rushing touchdowns, tying a league low.

The matchup to watch: Vernon Davis vs. the other Davis and Kuechly. See, the Panthers’ linebackers serve another purposes, as they’re terrific in coverage. Kuechly will often be seen dropping back deep down the middle to track a tight end, which led to four interceptions. They allowed only 49.5 receiving yards per game to the position this year, and back in Week 10 Davis was held to just one catch for two yards, though that wasn’t a true showing as he left early with a concussion.

The 49ers will win if… Kaepernick makes the right decisions in the face of intense pressure, continually either throwing it away, or finding Crabtree or Davis on hot reads. Deep passing could be extremely limited again, just as it was in Week 10 when Kaepernick’s longest completion went only 14 yards, and he finished with just 91 yards overall while being sacked a career high six times.

The Panthers will win if… Gore doesn’t find any holes. That was the only weakness in the previous matchup, as Gore had a decent day with 82 yards on 16 carries, meaning he accounted for 53.6 percent of the 49ers’ total offense (just 151 yards).

The 49ers came into that week having scored at least 30 points in six of their eight games. Then they were held to only nine, without a touchdown.

Fearless prediction you can maybe laugh at later (or now?): Panthers 13, 49ers 10