When San Francisco and Carolina take the field Sunday afternoon, two of the most physical teams in all of football will clash for the second time this season. The first time these teams met, Carolina pulled out a 10-9 victory in San Francisco. In that game Kaepernick and the entire offense had a season-worst performance, managing 151 total yards and allowing 6 sacks.
With Crabtree returning and Davis potentially playing a full game this time around (he left in the 1st quarter with a concussion), there is optimism that the offense can get rolling against a Panthers team that shares striking resemblance to San Francisco's own style of football.
If the 49ers want to advance to the NFC Championship, there are a few things they need to improve on from last week's game to ensure an 8th consecutive victory dating back to week 12:
Timeout management: Put simply, this aspect of the offense was downright terrible against Green Bay. Less than five minutes into the game, San Francisco was left with just one first half timeout after burning two on the opening drive. Then, before a single offensive snap in the second half, the Niners were forced to call a timeout when Kaepernick couldn't audible after forgetting his play-calling wristband on the sidelines. Much of last week's struggles have been a common problem all year, as Kaepernick and the offense has had trouble getting to the line with enough time to make necessary pre-snap adjustments to the defense, often resulting in using a timeout. Part of that is the chain of command on the play call, but mistakes like forgetting equipment are inexcusable. Last week the lack of timeouts didn't hurt San Francisco, but they cannot get in the habit of burning timeouts early in the half or it will eventually come back to haunt them.
Red-zone offense: The offense did a great job moving the ball between the 20's against a mediocre Packers defense. It's when they got into the red-zone that the problems began. Their first two drives ended in field goals after setting up a goal-to-go situation. Despite controlling the first quarter, the lack of touchdowns kept San Francisco from completely grabbing momentum with just a 6-0 lead, and sure enough, one Green Bay drive put the Niners in a 7-6 hole.
Against Carolina, the opportunities figure to be tougher to come by, meaning those drives need to result in touchdowns. There's never anything wrong with putting points on the board, but finishing drives – especially the long, time-consuming ones – with field goals doesn't seize the momentum (not to mention the scoreboard) of a game quite like a touchdown. San Francisco lost the first matchup to Carolina for that very reason. Dawson kicked three field goals, but the offense failed to punch it into the endzone. This time around the 49ers need to be more efficient with their scoring chances.
Kaepernick's decision making: He won the game for San Francisco with his legs and a few gutsy throws, so it's hard to really bash Kaepernick after that game. However, he did throw an interception in the 2nd quarter that swung the momentum in Green Bay's favor. That turned a potential 13-0 lead into a 7-6 deficit. He was also inches away from throwing a pick six on the final drive of the game, which could have easily lost it for San Francisco. Kaepernick is still working through his decision making process on when not to force throws after locking in on one receiver. He's getting better, but Carolina has an opportunistic defense that won't let him get away with as many ill-advised throws as Green Bay did.
Contain Cam Newton: Newton has a way of taking sure-fire sacks and turning them into game-changing runs, much like Kaepernick did last weekend. Getting penetration into the pocket is not enough; someone has to finish the play and bring Newton down. If he has a chance to escape the pressure and run downfield, he will. Those missed sacks not only hurt in terms of yardage, but they are huge momentum shifters as well. At the very least, San Francisco must make sure a defender is spying Newton just in case he does break free from the pass rush in order to minimize those scrambles.
Put the pressure on Carolina: On paper these teams are almost identical in any stat you want to look at. Where San Francisco holds an advantage is in something that can't be measured on paper; playoff experience. For a majority of the roster and coaching staff this will be the 7th playoff game in the last 3 years. Much of Carolina's roster and coaching staff will be making their playoff debut.
Inexperienced players have a tendency to get over-amped in these situations, especially playing in front of a home crowd. If the Niners can take control of the game early on, Carolina is going to make a few mistakes as a result of nerves and general over-aggressiveness. The difference in experience tends to take a back seat once the flow of the game kicks in, but early on it can be a factor in giving the Niners a bit of a head start if they capitalize on it.Back to the San Francisco 49ers Newsfeed