Panthers' pivotal front-line play

The Panthers don't blitz much, sending five or more pass-rushers on only 28 percent of opposing pass plays, one of the 10 lowest rates in the league. And they big-blitz with six or more defenders only 5 percent of the time. However, just because they don't blitz doesn't mean they don't bring pressure. Carolina led the league in sacks, and finished second in Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate, which accounts for pass attempts, quality of opponent and other factors. Greg Hardy finished third in the NFL with 15 sacks, and bookend Charles Johnson added 11 despite missing three games.

The 49ers haven't given up many sacks this year but don't be fooled: They have struggled with pass protection. They finished 11th in sacks allowed, mainly because they didn't pass very often, but they were 22nd in Adjusted Sack Rate.

On the rare occasions when quarterbacks have gotten past Hardy, Johnson & Co., they've usually found speedy linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis soon after. Not counting kneel-downs, the Panthers allowed opposing quarterbacks to run 29 times for 167 yards this year, an average of 5.8 yards per carry. They're one of the 10 best defenses in each of these categories. And they didn't just post those numbers against statues. They played four of the top 10 rushing quarterbacks this season (Wilson, Kaepernick, Ryan Tannehill of the the Miami Dolphins and Geno Smith of the New York Jets) and limited them to 106 yards on 16 carries. Meanwhile, they sacked those same quarterbacks 15 times.

This is not to say, however, that the Panthers never blitz at all, only that they do it differently than most teams. They sent defensive backs on blitzes about five times per game this season, and they gave up only 3.7 yards per play on those blitzes, better than anyone except Buffalo. There were six defensive backs in the league this season with at least three sacks, and half of them ( Mike Mitchell, Quintin Mikell and Captain Munnerlyn) played for Carolina.

That could be a dangerous tactic against San Francisco, though. The 49ers faced only 39 DB blitzes all year, the lowest total in the league, and for good reason: They averaged 9.3 yards per play on those blitzes, third best in football.

None of this means that victory for Carolina is guaranteed. The Panthers play copious amounts of zone in part to protect a flimsy secondary, and San Francisco's receivers will have chances to make plays downfield. And it's not as if Cam Newton will have an easy day against the San Francisco defense, either. The 49ers will need somebody to rise up, though, because it's hard to see Kaepernick faring much better against Carolina the second time around.

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