The undefeated San Francisco 49ers return home after a two-game road trip to face off against the 4-2 Carolina Panthers in Week 8. Here are five key matchups that can decide this NFC duel.
1. LB Kwon Alexander vs. RB Christian McCaffrey
Kwon Alexander has brought added juice into the 49ers linebacker room. The fifth-year pro has registered 30 tackles, four passes defensed, one forced fumble and 0.5 sacks on the year. Alexander continues to help elevate the defense's play. The defense will be tested by one of the most dynamic running backs in all of football, Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers do-it-all running back has posted 923 total yards (618 rushing, 305 receiving), second best in the league, and nine touchdowns on the season, tied for a league best (Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook, Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones - 9).
2. RB Matt Breida vs. LB Luke Kuechly
Matt Breida has been a force in the friendly confines of Levi's® Stadium. The 49ers running back has rushed for 85-plus scrimmage yards in four of his last five games at home. On the year, Brieda has registered 411 rushing yards on 73 attempts to go along with 74 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The leader of the Panthers defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly will be the man in charge of stopping the 49ers vaunted rushing attack. The eight-year veteran, has 65 total tackles, five passes defensed and one interception through the team's first six games. Per PFF, Kuechly has the fourth-highest linebacker grade at 83.9 overall and owns a rush defense grade of 83.0, the eighth-highest among linebackers.
Welcome back Jimmie Ward. After being reinserted into the starting lineup in Week 5, Ward has posted 12 total tackles and two passes defensed. Those two passes defensed were on back-to-back plays in Week 6 against the Los Angeles Rams to stop them in the red zone. An offensive talent he will be tasked with slowing down is tight end Greg Olsen. The 13-year veteran has been a key target for new quarterback Kyle Allen. On the season, Olsen has hauled in 22 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Olsen currently ranks fifth-best in NFL history among tight ends in career receptions (688) and receiving yards (8,125). He also has the eighth-most touchdowns in history for a tight end with 59.
Nick Bosa is coming off of a standout Week 7 performance against the Washington Redskins where he posted a career high in tackles (seven) and tackles for loss (four). Bosa has 16 tackles, 4.0 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery on the year. The rookie also has the highest defensive disruption rate (quarterback pressures, hurries and sacks) in the NFL at 24 percent. Standing in his way will be five-year veteran Daryl Williams who has allowed seven sacks on his 372 snaps on the year.
For a more in-depth look at the battle among the offensive and defensive lines click here.
Let's not forget George Kittle on 'National Tight End Day.' The third-year tight end continues to be a go-to option for Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle has 31 receptions on the year for 338 yards and one touchdown. The bulk of Kittle's catches have come on money downs. Fifteen of his 31 receptions have been on third down, which is the fourth-most among pass catchers in the NFL. Trying to slow him down will be linebacker Shaq Thompson. The five-year veteran is just one of two players in the league with 50-plus tackles and 2.0+ sacks (Dallas Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith - 56 tackles, 2.0 sacks). Thompson has posted 60 tackles, 2.0 sacks and two passes defensed this season.