The San Francisco 49ers will look to keep their unbeaten streak alive against the visiting Carolina Panthers in Week 8. And to do so, the Niners will need to win these key matchups.


Week 8's contest between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers is going to be a statement game for whichever team walks away with the win. At 6-0, the Niners are facing arguably their toughest challenge yet, as the 4-2 Panthers have ridden the hot hands of quarterback Kyle Allen, who has yet to toss an interception since taking over starting duties in Week 3, and running back Christian McCaffrey, who is squarely in the MVP race after accumulating 923 yards from scrimmage this season.

Yet Carolina's defense has also been effective this season, particularly against the pass. Head coach Ron Rivera's squad actually leads the NFL with 27 sacks, whereas San Francisco's top-ranked pass defense has just 20 quarterback takedowns.

Both teams have injury concerns, too, which makes this bout all the more interesting. But if the 49ers expect to walk away with their seventh victory of the season, they'll need to win the majority of notable matchups against a Panthers squad coming off its bye week.

Here are five to look at this Sunday.

Kwon Alexander vs. Christian McCaffrey


McCaffrey's dual-threat capabilities make him a unique commodity to handle this season. As a runner, McCaffrey is averaging 4.9 yards per rush, which could present a problem for a Niners defense which has been gashed on the ground early in games the past two weeks. On the positive side, McCaffrey isn't quite as dangerous when he's not allowed to get into space, so those interior runs San Francisco saw in Weeks 6 and 7 against the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins, respectively, may not be as common.

But when McCaffrey does get outside, especially in the receiving game, he's more than dangerous. Averaging nearly 51 receiving yards per game, McCaffrey is a dangerous pass-catching weapon out of the backfield.

One of the primary 49ers defenders responsible for containing him in this area is linebacker Kwon Alexander, who ranks second on the Niners defense with 30 tackles and third with four pass breakups. It's likely defensive coordinator Robert Saleh gives McCaffrey extra attention than just one defender, but Alexander's efforts here need to be on point.

49ers Defensive Line vs. Panthers Offensive Line


Allen has yet to toss an interception on the season, but he has fumbled six times. And this is something San Francisco's upgraded defensive line has been able to exploit, as the team is averaging 1.5 forced fumbles per game on the year so far.

If McCaffrey is contained, Allen will likely be facing a lot of pressure in a matchup leaning heavily in the 49ers' favor. Just check out the difference between the Niners D-line and the offensive line Carolina is expected to put up in Week 8, courtesy of Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney:


San Francisco has surrendered an average of just 133.5 pass yards per game, which ranks best in the league. Based off this particular matchup, the trend should continue.

Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman vs. Panthers Run Defense


The Panthers also have an excellent pass defense, averaging just 5.1 pass yards against per play, which ranks third best in the league. But Carolina is vulnerable against the run, giving up 4.7 yards per rush, which ranks 23rd.

One would expect head coach Kyle Shanahan to keep with the trend of featuring a run-first offense, particularly against Carolina and its solid pass defense. So it's likely running backs Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman will see a lot of action in Week 8. The problem, though, is San Francisco will still be without fullback Kyle Juszczyk (knee), right tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee) and most likely starting left tackle Joe Staley (fibula), although there's an outside chance Staley suits up Sunday.

San Francisco's ground game has netted a combined 232 yards rushing the past two weeks, albeit averaging just 3.4 yards per carry during this two-game stretch.

George Kittle vs. Shaq Thompson, Eric Reid


As much as the 49ers would love to pound the ball against a suspect Panthers run defense, there are going to be times when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is going to be asked to make some key deliveries through the air, hopefully cutting down on his average of one interception tossed per game.

Despite picking up wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders earlier in the week, tight end George Kittle is still San Francisco's No. 1 pass-catching threat. Even if he's not impacting the stat sheet directly, Kittle being able to draw coverage away from other receivers, such as Sanders, will be vital to the Niners' passing offense.

Kittle has a tough matchup at hand, as he'll frequently find himself covered by Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson and strong safety Eric Reid, the latter looking forward to a "grudge match," of sorts, against his former squad.

Carolina has done a good job this season of defending the middle of the field, meaning Kittle won't have an easy day in Week 8. If he's opening up more chances for San Francisco's other pass catchers, though, it'll be worthwhile.

49ers Offensive Line vs. Panthers Pass Rush


The Niners have made a name for themselves this season, thanks largely to one of the best defensive lines in the league. But Carolina also boasts a stout defensive line and pass rush, too.

EDGE Mario Addison currently leads the Panthers defense with 6.5 sacks. The rookie, EDGE Brian Burns, is coming into his own with 4.5, ranking second for the Panthers.

But the net of 27 sacks means Addison and Burns aren't the only ones up front for Carolina capable of getting home to opposing quarterbacks. Garoppolo will need to get the ball out quickly on Sunday, and San Francisco's patchwork offensive line will need to maintain some serious pass-blocking efficiency in order to keep its quarterback upright.

The 49ers and Panthers kick off at 4:05 p.m. on Oct. 27 from Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.
  • Peter Panacy
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    Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to his Twitter account.