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San Francisco 49ers: Five Players to Watch vs. Panthers

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COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers return back to work after their bye week to take on the Carolina Panthers.

Despite a sluggish 1-3 start to the season, the Panthers have picked up their play, winning four straight. Thanks to a dominant run game and third-ranked defense, Carolina is only one game behind the NFC South leaders, New Orleans Saints.

San Francisco is also on a hot streak, winning five in a row. With a week off to recuperate, the team should be ready to go for the second half of the season.

Who are some key players to watch for in the 49ers-Panthers showdown? Find out below:

Aldon Smith

The 49ers received some good news for their ball club last week, as the team activated Aldon Smith off the NFI (non-football injury) List.

Although San Francisco gets one of its top defenders back, signs point to a limited workload in his first game back since Week 3. NFL's Mike Silver states that he'll need to earn his starting role back, and that Smith will be a "spot player."

Even if the 49ers' 2012 sack leader plays in only a small handful of snaps, his presence should only boost his teammates' confidence. From a performance standpoint, San Francisco's defensive unit could use Smith's athleticism in chasing down Cam Newton. Despite siting out the last five games, Smith still leads his team with 4.5 sacks.

Mario Manningham

The 49ers have activated Mario Manningham from the Physically Unable to Perform List (knee), and will likely make his season debut this week. According to CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, you can expect to see approximately 20 snaps out of the sixth-year wideout.

While Manningham may not be in football shape just yet, he will give Colin Kaepernick a weapon to target downfield. The 49ers lacked a legitimate deep-threat at receiver through the team's first eight games, so the addition of Manningham should provide the offense with a new, added dimension.

He won't pile up the reception totals on a weekly basis, but his one or two catches can change the momentum of a game. Last year Manningham collected two receptions for 45 yards in Kaepernick's first career start. The following week, he hauled in a 40-yard reception against the New Orleans Saints. The 27-year-old also had three carries for 64 yards in 2012.

The return of Manningham could not have come at a better time, as the Panthers boast one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Luke Kuechly

The 49ers have two of the top linebackers in the league in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. But Luke Kuechly is not far behind them. The second-year Panther was the NFL's leading tackler last season and is quickly becoming a star.

Kuechly is one reason why Carolina has the second-best run defense, surrendering just over 79 yards per game. The team also allowed only two rushing scores on the year.

San Francisco sports one of the league's top offensive lines and stable of running backs, but Kuechly stands in their way, and will make them earn every inch.

Cam Newton

The Panthers offense lacks national stars, but Newton is one of the league's best dual-threat quarterbacks. His blend of speed and size allows him to run by or through oncoming tacklers. The former first-overall pick also has a cannon-like arm, but struggles with accuracy.

Still, he has been playing well lately, as the Panthers have scored an average of 32.5 points over the past four weeks. Newton also leads all quarterbacks with four rushing touchdowns.

The 6'5'', 245-pound signal-caller has had the luxury of playing against some of the worst teams of the 2013 season. However, that tune changes when he and the Panthers travel west to face the 49ers' sixth-ranked defense.

Justin Smith

The Panthers' strength is built on Newton and his offensive line. In order to disrupt the quarterback's timing in both the passing and rushing attack, San Francisco needs Justin Smith to leave his imprint on this game.

Led by two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers rank eighth in rushing yards per game. When running to his side, DeAngelo Williams and Co. have 15 runs that have gone for at least 10 yards. When rushing to the middle or to the right, the team has just seven and eight runs, respectively, of 10-plus yards.

It will take a team effort to slow down the Panthers' quartet of rushers, but getting them into long passing downs is key.

Even though Smith only has 2.5 sacks, he is doing a better job of pressuring opposing passers this year. Based on the numbers calculated by Pro Football Focus, the defensive end has 20 quarterback hurries. Last season, he had three sacks to go along with 23 hurries in 14 games.

"The Cowboy" is the engine to the 49ers defense. His play will dictate how well they perform Sunday.

Travis Chan is a native of the Bay Area and a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers.

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