The San Francisco 49ers (6-2), on a five-game winning streak, prepare to face the surprisingly hot Carolina Panthers (5-3), a team on a four-game winning streak of its own, at Candlestick on Sunday. The 49ers’ #1-ranked rushing offense should expect to be greatly challenged by the Panthers’ 2nd-ranked rushing defense. However, if the recently-activated Mario Manningham should play, giving Colin Kaepernick an additional downfield target and strengthening the wide receiving corps, the 49ers’ offense could steamroll the tough Panthers’ defense.
Few people predicted the Panthers to be performing so well halfway through the 2013 season with a 5-3 record. The team’s success can be attributed partly to its defense which ranks third in the NFL overall, allowing 299.9 yards per game. The Panthers’ rush defense, ranked second in the league, allows an average of 79.1 yards per game. This defensive unit has held elite running backs Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, and Steven Jackson to 43, 62, and 53 yards respectively. The Panthers’ defense has also limited impressive rookies Zac Stacy and Mike James to 53 and 39 yards rushing respectively.
Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly, the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, leads the team in tackles (64) and interceptions (3). Free safety Mike Mitchell also has 3 interceptions so far this season. Linebacker Thomas Davis has 61 total tackles, 40 of which are solo tackles, and 3 sacks. Defensive end Charles Johnson, who leads the team with 7 sacks, has 39 sacks since 2010. Fellow defensive end Greg Hardy also has 5 sacks in 2013.
The 49ers’ rushing offense, which leads the NFL with an average of 153 yards gained per game, will be tested by that impressive Panthers defense. Frank Gore, who has gained 618 yards this season and is second in the league with 7 rushing touchdowns, is up to the challenge. Gore has faced the formidable Indianapolis Colts’, St. Louis Rams’, Houston Texans’, Arizona Cardinals’, and Tennessee Titans’ defenses this season and gained 82, 153, 81, 101, and 70 yards on each team respectively.
The 49ers’ ground attack is aided by Kaepernick, who has rushed for 294 yards and 3 touchdowns this season, and Kendall Hunter, who gained 84 yards on 9 carries in the team’s last game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars. Deep at the running back position, the 49ers also have Anthony Dixon and LaMichael James available, although James has been inactive the last few games despite being healthy.
While the 49ers’ running game is undoubtedly strong, the passing game, ranked last in the league, is not. However, that could change with the recent activation of Manningham. If he plays on Sunday, merely having his presence on the field could help open things up for Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, Kaepernick’s main targets this season. If Boldin or Davis has a good game, and if Gore overruns the Panthers’ defense, expect the 49ers to demolish the overachieving Panthers whose five wins have come versus opponents with a combined 8 wins for the season.
Sara DeBord is an NFL writer for www.footballandfutbol.com and www.baysportsreport.com.