Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Panthers-49ers Review: Game Gold Nuggets

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The San Francisco 49ers are still one of the elite teams in the NFL, but they did not prove that on Sunday in the loss to the Carolina Panthers. The loss was even more surprising because the Niners were coming off a bye-week.

There was not much to be positive about in the loss, other than the defense is still top-notch and they did their part. The offense on the other hand played like the year was 2005 and rookie Alex Smith was under center.

Outside of the 49ers faithful, most fans will write the 49ers off as being a top-notch team and Kaepernick as a reliable passer when counted on. Sure, the loss showed some glaring holes, but the 49ers have a great opportunity to silence all of the doubters: by winning on the road next week against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

Let’s hand out some Game Gold Nuggets.

(Game Gold Nuggets Scale)

pngpngpngpngpng= OUTSTANDING

pngpngpngpng= VERY GOOD

pngpngpng= GOOD

pngpng= AVERAGE

png = TERRIBLE

OFFENSE

coal

For the second time this season, the 49ers offense received a lump of coal for their efforts. A lot of credit is due to Carolina’s defense for their dominance of the Niners’ offense in Week 10. The Panthers played like a defense on the verge of something special. Almost like a defense of a Super Bowl team. Having said that, the loss was also on the shoulders of Colin Kaepernick because of his inefficiency running the offense.

All told, San Francisco’s offense had their fewest net passing yards since 2005 and their fewest net yards since 2006. Kaepernick finished with a 42.0 QB rating and one interception. The Niners’ offensive stats from Week 10 looked like that of a team with one or two victories:

  • 49ers offense was averaging 27 points and 343 yards per game. Against the Panthers they totaled nine points and 151 total net yards.
  • San Francisco had only three first-half field goals, mainly because Kaepernick had 52 passing yards in the first two quarters.
  • In the final seven offensive possessions, the 49ers scored zero points. Those drives ended because of the end of the first-half, a punt, lost fumble, punt, punt, punt and interception.
  • In the second-half, the 49ers only managed 45 total net yards.
  • Kaepernick was 0-for-6 on passes of 10+ yards.
  • The offense had five three-and-outs.
  • Mario Manningham played 42 snaps of 53 and had a team-high six targets. He finished with three catches for 30 yards and dropped two passes.
  • Kendall Hunter’s fumble in the third quarter was the beginning of the end for the Niners in the game.
  • The lone bright spot on offense was Frank Gore who managed 82 rushing yards on 16 carries.

The Panthers managed to pressure Kaepernick all game and finished with six sacks. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy led the way, with Johnson recording 1.5 sacks (8 total yards lost) and Hardy getting one sack (6 yards lost). Johnson and Hardy’s harassment of Kap took away the quarterbacks first read. And we all know when Kaepernick’s first read is taken away he seems to abandon going through his progressions.  With pressure on the outside relentless, Carolina’s middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards were able to limit the damage done by Gore on the ground.

For the last two-and-a-half quarters the Niners offense was without tight ends Vernon Davis (concussion) and Garrett Celek (hamstring). Without two of their best TEs in the game and Kaepernick’s favorite target in Davis no longer available, the offense struggled. But great quarterbacks figure out ways to make plays in close games, no matter who is on the field.

It makes me wonder, have the good defensive teams in the NFL figured out Kaepernick and how to effectively stop him?

DEFENSE

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The 49ers defense limited Cam Newton and his offense to only 250 total yards, 15 first downs and 10 points. Most of the time that stat-line equals a win for San Francisco when their defense dominates. But that was not the case in Week 10. Thanks in large part to the failures of the 49ers offense.

Despite losing defensive tackle Ray McDonald (ankle) and safety Eric Reid (concussion) for much of the second half, the defense still managed to limit the Panthers to just three points. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman led the defense with seven tackles. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks finished with a team-high three sacks for 22 total yards lost and one pass defense.

A lot of attention was on the return of Aldon Smith after he missed the past five games. I had thought Smith would start and be on the field for most of the game. However, he played in only 12 snaps, while he watched his defensive replacement, Dan Skuta, record four tackles, two passes defenses and a tackle for a loss. The Niners linebackers kept Newton in check all game as he finished with a 52.7 passer rating and 17 rushing yards.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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Kyle Williams is no longer returning punts and kickoffs, but his replacements didn’t fare any better. LaMichael James returned three punts for an average of 11.7 yards. Anthony Dixon handled the kickoff duties, but he only returned one in the game for 18 yards.

Even though Andy Lee punted seven times, his kicks traveled a total of 341 yards, for an average of 48.7 yards per punt. When your placekicker leads the team in points, you know your offense is having a bad day. Phil Dawson made all three of his field goals of 53, 43 and 25 yards.

COACHING

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In the second quarter of Sunday’s game, my wife asked me why the 49ers didn’t go for it on 4th-and-1 from Carolina’s 2-yard line and instead settled for a field goal. I told her rarely, without the game on the line, will a coach take that big of a chance. I told her what Jim Harbaugh was probably thinking at the time: The Niners can take a two-score lead late in the second-half against an offense was equally inefficient.

My wife is a casual Niners fan. She will watch the games with me in between checking Pinterest and watching movies on Netflix. After the game was over and after she came back from walking our dog, she asked if the Niners had won. Her next question, “what was the score?” She followed up with her last question: “So had the 49ers went for the touchdown in the second quarter, they would’ve won, right?”

What’s that saying about hindsight…?

Grant it, the 49ers could’ve gone for the touchdown on fourth down and came away with zero points. Thus we would be talking about why Harbaugh didn’t just kick the field goal and give his team a two-possession lead.

Really, the 49ers loss is because of a great game plan drawn up head coach Ron Rivera and his defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott. The Panthers, and any team for that matter, knew they had to stop Gore and Kaepernick from running all over them if they wanted to pull out a victory on the road. They accomplished that by allowing only 105 net rushing yards. McDermott also knew he had to take away Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin as an option in the passing game. Davis was taken out by injury and after that Carolina’s defense was able to focus in on just stopping Boldin.

Harbaugh and his coaching staff did not necessarily come up with bad game plans; they were just outcoached and overwhelmed by the Panthers defense. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman need to figure out a way for Kaepernick to trust going through his progressions.

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