On Sunday, the 49ers will be in Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in a battle between two of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Panthers come into this game having won eleven of their last twelve games. On the other side of the field, the 49ers bring a seven game winning streak with them.
The 49ers will be looking to avenge a week 10 loss at the hand of the Panthers. In that game, the Panthers defense suffocated the 49ers offense, holding them to only 151 yards on the day.
With that as a backdrop, here are 5 burning questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome of the game.
1) Can the 49ers be successful on 1st down?
Success on first down has been a key for the 49ers all season, so it should come as no surprise that they struggled in this area during their week 10 meeting with the Panthers. The 49ers have averaged only 2.8 yards per first down play in their four losses in 2013 compared to 6.3 yards per first down play in their 13 victories. Back in week 10, the 49ers were able to muster only 60 yards on 21 first down plays (2.9 yard average), which is not a good thing when facing a defense with a pass rush as good as Carolina's.
2) How will the return of Michael Crabtree impact the 49ers offense?
There is no comparison between Crabtree and the receiver he has replaced since returning from his injury, Mario Manningham. During the week 10 matchup, Manningham was targeted with 6 passes. He was able to bring in 3 of those for 30 yards but also had 2 drops, both of which would have resulted in first downs.
The effect of Crabtree on Colin Kaepernick's passing performance has been big. During the eleven games when Crabtree was out of the lineup, Kaepernick posted a passer rating of 87.2. With Crabtree during the last six weeks, Kaepernick has posted a passer rating of 95.7.
The 49ers have faced all 3 of the teams remaining on the NFC side of the playoffs. In those four games, the 49ers posted a record of 1-3 and Kaepernick had a passer rating of 50.7. The only win among those came with Crabtree on the field.
3) How effective will Steve Smith be?
Smith injured his knee early in the Panthers 17-13 win over the Saints in week 16. All signs point to him playing on Sunday, but how effective will he be? According to reports from Charlotte, Smith had trouble making cuts during practice on Thursday.
Smith is the Panthers version of Michael Crabtree. With Smith out of the game the last 2 weeks, Newton saw his completion percentage drop from 62 to 58% and throwing for under 150 yards.
With Smith off the field, the Panthers lose their deep threat, which will put more pressure on Newton to create plays on his own.
4) How will Tarell Brown hold up?
The 49ers right cornerback will be a key this week against Newton. The reason I am singling Brown out has to do with Newton's ability to throw to his left. On the season, Newton has a passer rating of 106.2 on throws to his left, compared to 86.9 on throws to his right.
During the week 10 game, Newton threw to his right on only 7 of his 32 pass attempts, and his only interception of the game came on a throw to the right. Of his 16 completions, 7 were given up by Brown for 68 of 169 total passing yards.
5) Can the 49ers offensive line hold up against the Panthers front 7?
The Panthers defense led the NFL with 60 sacks during the regular season. Six of those, including 5 on first down plays, came against the 49ers in week 10.
The 49ers have been successful this season against teams with a good pass rush. The St. Louis Rams, a team the 49ers defeated twice, finished the season 3rd in the league with 53 sacks. Look for the 49ers to move Kaepernick around similar to what they did in those Rams games this weekend.
49ers 19 Panthers 17