COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers come into their Week 10 matchup with the Carolina Panthers as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Winners of five consecutive prior to their bye last week, the 49ers are also getting some nice reinforcements back in the fold in the form of Aldon Smith and Mario Manningham, among others.
They will be taking on an equally hot Panthers team that has won four consecutive games in dominating fashion. While Cam Newton and Co. may be behind the proverbial eight ball by having to travel out west to face a team coming off a bye, they are going to be more than ready for the task at hand.
In order for the 49ers to pull off their sixth consecutive victory, they are going to have to see a few different players step up. Below are five players that you should watch in the 49ers Week 10 matchup against Carolina.
Over the course of the last couple seasons, Davis has morphed into an elite right tackle in the NFL. This comes on the heels of him struggling a great deal in his first two seasons in the NFL. Where Davis is one of the best run-blocking tackles in the game, he tended to struggle a tad against speed rushers early on. Interestingly enough, this trend has been somewhat reversed this season. Davis has actually been better in pass protection than run blocking, which is fine because of the meat along the interior of San Francisco's offensive line.
The former first-round pick will have one of his toughest tests of the season going up against Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who has recorded seven sacks in as many games. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson is the fifth-best pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end in the NFL this season. If Davis is able to seal off the ends, he will be able to give Kaepernick a clean pocket to find weapons in the passing game. This would also help the mobile quarterback get to the outside on designed run plays. On the other hand, if the pocket collapses and Kaepernick is hurried, he could be in for a long day.
Gore is averaging over 100 total yards per game over the course of the last six outings. He's also scored six touchdowns and is averaging over five yards per touch during that span. Statistically speaking, Gore has been one of the top-four running backs in the NFL during that span. The issue here is competition. San Francisco has played four games during that six-game stretch against teams that rank in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rush defense.
San Francisco now goes up against a Panthers defense that ranks second in the NFL against the run. Opposing running backs are putting up just 3.7 yards per attempt and have scored just two touchdowns on the ground in eight games. It, however, must also be noted that Carolina has gone up against four teams that rank in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rushing offense.
This really is strength against strength. If Gore and the 49ers running game is able to dominate against one of the best defensive fronts in the game, it will put the rest of the NFL on notice. The interesting dynamic here is that while Gore has scored four touchdowns in the past two games, he's only averaging 3.3 yards per attempt during that span. Let's see how he performs against elite competition that in turn hasn't necessarily faced the best running backs the NFL has to offer.
If San Francisco is able to take Panthers tight end Greg Olsen out of the game, this will put quarterback Cam Newton in a precarious position to find outside receiving targets against a defense that does a solid job covering the boundaries. Even as a rookie. Reid has showed exactly why the 49ers traded up for him in the first round and is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. If San Francisco can slot Reid against Olsen in single coverage a majority of the time, it will enable NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to focus on containing Newton on the ground and closing off the edge in the run game.
Equally as important, Reid has the ability to make a game-changing play. He has intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble in seven games this season. If the rookie is able to force a turnover on top of the stellar play we have seen this season, it could change the tide of the game.
Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was long considered the No. 1 overall prospect leading up to the 2013 NFL draft. A health scare with his heart at the scouting combine in Indianapolis a couple months prior to the draft led many teams to back off. Star ended up falling on to the laps of the Panthers with the 14th overall pick, where he provided value at a need position. He now goes head to head with one of the preeminent interior lineman in the entire NFL. Despite somewhat of a down season, Iupati is still the 13th-ranked run-blocking guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. While that's a far cry from his No. 2 ranking in that category last year, Iupati is one of the primary reasons that Gore has had so much success on the ground.
In order for San Francisco's offense to display the balance it needs, Iupati will have to win what is going to be an epic matchup with Lotulelei. If not, we could be looking at the 49ers having to rely too much on the passing game. That would be a less-than-ideal scenario.
It might not make a whole lot of sense to expect a lot from Smith in his first game back since Week 2, but a rare talent like Smith can make a huge impact, even in a limited role. The 49ers have gone on record indicating that their talented young pass-rush specialist will be good to go against Carolina. How much he plays is a completely different story. Even if we are looking at the amount of snaps that Smith took as a pass-rush specialist during his rookie campaign, about 32 per game, he's going to be San Francisco's top option to get to Cam Newton.The biggest factor Smith may have in this game is actually being able to contain Newton on the ground. He's the only 49ers defender who possesses anywhere near the athleticism to run with Newton when the quarterback decides to scramble. That could be huge. Even more importantly, San Francisco needs a boost in the pass rush category. It failed to tally a single sack against Chad Henne and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8. This has to be deeply concerning for Vic Fangio's defense.
Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.
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