Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The 49ers are dried off, cleaned off, and back to the cozy confines of home for this Sunday’s NFC match-up against the Carolina Panthers. While the Kaepernick-led 49ers had success against the Panthers in the playoffs, the 49ers haven’t knocked them off in the regular season since 2001. The Panthers are currently 4-2, one spot behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, so what do the 49ers have to do to make sure they leave the Bay Area with their tail between their legs?
Carolina will be starting undrafted free agent Kyle Allen for the fifth straight game Sunday. While Allen isn’t the dual threat Cam Newton is, that’s not to say he isn’t effective. In his four starts this year Allen has thrown for 901 yards, 7 touchdowns, with zero interceptions. While Allen thrives in the pocket, pocket awareness has been a bit of an issue for the young quarterback; while he’s put up some gaudy numbers, he’s also been sacked 10 times and fumbled six. Allen doesn’t exactly have the benefit of a sturdy offensive line either.While tackles Dennis Daley and Taylor Moton have played well in 2019, the offensive line is susceptible to pressure up the middle.
Carolina’s offense runs through third-year back Christian McCaffrey. Through the first six games of the season McCaffrey has seen his workload increase substantially, his average touches per game have gone from an impressive 20.4 in 2018 to a robust 26.0 this season, which has correlated to an average of 153.8 yards of offense per game. McCaffrey is blossoming into the “do everything” back that the Panthers hoped he would be when they selected him eighth overall out of Stanford.
For the 49ers to be successful this Sunday they need limit McCaffrey as much as they can and let Kyle Allen try to beat them. While McCaffrey is a special talent, and the 49ers defense hasn’t seen a player of his skill yet this season, they have the players on the second level of the defense capable oflimiting his damage. Linebackers Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner,along with safety Jaquiski Tartt, should be able to mitigate the damage McCaffrey will inevitably do. That should allow the 49ers’ front four to dominate another subpar offensive line and make life tough on the young quarterback.
Early signs point to the return of left tackle Joe Staley on Sunday.On Wednesday, the 12-year veteran practiced for the first time since suffering a hairline fracture in his leg in Week 2. If Staley is able to go, that should push rookie tackle Justin Skule to right tackle and let Daniel Brunskill slide into the back-up tackle spot. Since losing right tackle Mike McGlinchey to knee surgery two weeks ago, the rushing attack has had trouble finding its rhythm. Carolina’s strength, much like the 49ers, is their defensive front. This offseason saw the addition of former Buccaneer Gerald McCoy and rookie stand out Brian Burns as Ron Rivera sought to bolster his pass rush. There’s hope that the return of Staley will help the 49ers’ running game return to its early season form.
Also added to the mix Sunday will be newly acquired receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders practiced with the team Wednesday and went through extra reps with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and he should help take some of the pressure off of George Kittle in the passing game and force Carolina to play defense even across the board and not sell out to stop the rushing attack.
The 49ers are currently second in the NFL in time of possession, averaging 34:46 per game. If the running game can get moving and keep McCaffrey and Carolina’s offense off the field they stand a good chance to improve to 7-0. Also working in the 49ers favor is Carolina’s struggles on third down where they rank twenty-third, converting only 34.21 percent while the 49ers’ defense is first in the NFL in forcing three-and-outs on 50 percent of the opposition’s possessions.
I think Sunday should be the toughest test for the 49ers on both sides of the ball, but I think they come out of Sunday with the win and look toward their first divisional game still undefeated.
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