Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. This week, Plummer hits on some of the key aspects to this weekend's road contest against the Carolina Panthers.
Carolina has gotten only ten sacks this year, but the Panthers do have the potential to get great pressure on the quarterback. Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, and Mike Rucker are all former Pro Bowlers. Julius Peppers has 53 sacks in his career and has had over 10 sacks every year of his career. He is very capable of getting to the quarterback. Kris Jenkins went to his third Pro Bowl last year and is one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the game. One of the reasons they haven't been able to come up with the sack production is that their coverage hasn't been very good. They only have had eight interceptions and the sacks and interceptions go hand in hand. If you don't get pressure, you can't force the quarterback to throw errant passes. It puts a lot of pressure on your secondary.
The blueprint for the 49ers offensively is what went on last week in Arizona. You've got to spread out the defense and go with four wideouts. The 49ers went with an empty backfield set more against Arizona than they had combined all year. There are guys like Vernon Davis who can get up the field and stretch the defense even though he isn't a wide receiver. Even if you aren't getting guys up the field, putting four guys out opens things up inside and underneath for Frank Gore as was evidenced by his career high 11 catches last week. The saying goes if you can spread them you can shred them. The 49ers finally did that last week and expect them to do more of that against a team that hasn't been able to get to the quarterback.
I think the improved production was also a result of Trent Dilfer, who made a lot of quick decisions with the fact that there were more empty backfield sets than in previous games. The offensive line also played much better, and established the line of scrimmage. The 49ers offense hasn't had that kind of push in a long time. The other thing they were doing better than they have all year was preventing penetration by the opponent's defense. That is something you really have to account for when you go against guys like Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins.
Defensively, it looks like the 49ers should see Vinny Testaverde at quarterback, although he's not been able to stay healthy, so they could see David Carr as well. Carr, being a younger guy is more mobile, however neither are playing very well right now. Carr has a QB rating of 58.3 and Testaverde has a rating of 69.8.
Trent Dilfer would be considered a scrambling quarterback compared to Testaverde, who is in his 21st season. I don't see a big difference in game planning for either quarterback other than maybe blitzing up inside more against Testaverde if he plays. I think Carr has a stronger arm, so you may see some more deep routes by Steve Smith. In the few games Carr has played, he has already scrambled 17 times, so containment might be something to worry about, but this is a Carolina team that was built on the power running game, the play action pass, and a great defense.
Their best player on offense is Steve Smith. People talk about it all the time. You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him. He has missed a game due to injury, but he was able to come back last week against New Orleans. What is going to be great is to watch is Nate Clements, who was paid a lot of money to go against the other team's best receiver.
I think there is a huge drop off after Steve Smith. The next highest number of receptions belongs to Jeff King, their tight end. So you have to expect to get a double team on Steve Smith as much as possible. You can't let a guy like that beat you one on one. You can play some zone coverages, where you roll up the corner and jam him with a safety over the top. You have to be physical against him, which is so tough because he is so quick. I would expect a majority of the time to have help on him. One of the reasons he isn't having as great a year as you would expect is the fact that the Panthers have given up 24 sacks on the year. They have also had four different starting quarterbacks. Vinny Testaverde is the oldest quarterback in the league. David Carr hasn't panned out like they wanted, and was actually benched last week against the Saints for poor performance and was replaced by rookie Matt Moore. It's amazing how much production Smith has had given the fact he has played with four different quarterbacks.
I think after playing against a team like Arizona, that has three really good receivers, you have the confidence that you are going to be able to handle a team that only has one real threat at the wideout position. I would expect the 49ers to play more aggressively. Some guys who don't usually have a lot of playing time got some last week. You saw Mark Roman playing up in the slot. That gives him a whole new comfort zone or appreciation for playing the safety position. I think the 49ers will be pretty confident in terms of pass coverage.
As a defense you want to be able to pressure on the quarterback with just a four man rush, so I could see Greg Manusky sticking with a four man rush if it's getting enough pressure because it is so much safer having seven guys back in coverage. But he will take his shots. The timing last week was so great on a number of blitzes even when they didn't get to the quarterback. Kurt Warner was taking some big hits from backside pressure from the safeties. With an older, less mobile quarterback in Testaverde, who doesn't get the ball out as quickly as a Kurt Warner, I could see a lot of the same things that worked last week to be used against the Panthers.
The Panthers strength offensively lies in their rushing attack. Sometimes the change of pace you get with a guy like De Angelo Williams compared to a DeShaun Foster can be tough for defense to deal with, especially if your offensive line is playing well and knocking guys off the ball. That really hasn't been an issue for the 49ers run defense as they have been pretty solid all season long.
You can't say enough about Marques Douglas. The guy is just dominating in the run phase defensively every single week. You aren't seeing a lot of production from him in terms of sacks and pressure on the quarterback, but what people need to appreciate about him is that he is doing it the right way by playing run first. Whereas a lot of defensive ends are trying to jet up the field and get to the quarterback because that is where the attention and ESPN highlights come, Douglas is doing the dirty work and trust me, his teammates and the coaches know that by him playing the run first, it allows a guy like Joe Staley to have 18 tackles. When defensive ends jet up the field, it not only opens up a horizontal hole, but a vertical one as well. For every step you take up field, it opens things up inside for the running back to pop through there. By Marques playing stout on the line of scrimmage, he just forces play after play after play to the inside.
Patrick Willis is a great player, but without those guys in front of him, he's not going to make 18 tackles in a game. That's what is so fun about watching Marques Douglas do his thing. He'll be able to deal with more of a power runner in Foster and then be able to make that adjustment, because of great technique, to deal with a change of pace speed back in Williams who can bounce it to the outside.
The 49ers punting unit has been a weapon all season. Without the special teams performing at such a high level as they have been, the games the 49ers ended up losing closely would have been blowouts. With the 49ers last in the NFL in time of possession, it at least gives you a chance when you continually pin an opponent inside the 20. Statistically, teams having to drive 80 yards or more, for every five yards you back them up inside the 20, their percentages go down dramatically in terms of touchdowns scored. So that has been an advantage all season long for the 49ers, and anytime you can pin an opponent back inside the 20 and force them to punt from inside their own end zone is almost considered a turnover. In the defensive meetings, that is one of the things you talk about, forcing an opponent to punt out of their own end zone. Obviously that starts off with field position and with punt and kickoff coverage. The special teams have done a great job of that all year and then it's the job of the defense to keep them pinned. That was the difference in the game against Arizona. It really changes everything that you do offensively. There are offensive coordinators out there who's playbooks go from about 100 plays to about 10 when you get backed up in that area. And there is also a comfort level for the defense when you have the opponent pinned back, so the 49ers will have another big advantage there this week if they can continue with that type of solid special teams play.