Carolina came through the second quarter of the year 4-0 - remarkable. But I don't see quarter three being so easy.
I've said it before this year - even prior to 30 point wins - but I feel awful about this one. I don't see a win.
I can't say anything more about the design of this team. The 49ers are put together very well - and they're put together in a form that has a good shot at giving this Panthers team fits. An accurate running QB and a stellar defense have both made Carolina struggle, but you get both here.
I don't think anyone who has read this blog for any length of time between the end of '09 and the middle of '11 has much doubt for whether I wanted to hire Jim Harbaugh here. And though my opinion of Cam Newton has changed over time, at the onset of the '11 draft, Colin Kaepernick was my favorite QB in that lackluster quarterback draft (it's fair to say that Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder aren't worth it by this point). I never could've seen Justin Smith's dominance at 3-4 DE but I wanted him as a free agent here.
The design, of course, is similar to what's going on here. People commonly mis-appropriate Harbaugh as a WCO guy, and it's not at all true (though the version he ran to make something out of Alex Smith was definitely a conservative, short ball offense). Harbaugh and star OC Greg Roman are all Coryell. All the shifts and motions, and the power running, it's all the same stuff we use. A difference - instead of getting in the Pistol based on consulting, they drafted its muse in Kaepernick.
They've got a weakness offensively - their WR group is lacking - but it always kinda has. They have Anquan Boldin, who will get you fifteen yards when you need it. He won't have a lot short, he won't have a deep ball, but if you want the middle of the route tree or across the middle, he'll get you that. The deep slant/post, the back shoulder fade, all of that's where Boldin makes it happen, and he's very efficient.
It doesn't hurt to have Vernon Davis, either. A similar guy to Boldin, honestly, except he can get up the seam more quickly. Davis is where Kaepernick has his best deep threat, and profootballfocus.com signifies the corner route as the most significant way it happens.
Those are their top two receivers - a second receiver doesn't show up until Kyle Williams at 4, and then Jon Baldwin at 7, both with minimal production. Bruce Miller, the fullback, is third in receptions, but he gets his at a 12 yard/catch rate. San Francisco runs about 30% 22 personnel - two backs, two TEs - and will occasionally turn that into a 3 TE look. Backup TE Vance McDonald is a prototypical rookie backup blocking TE - massive, and essentially there for the blocking. The bizarre thing about the fairly accurate Kaepernick has been that he hasn't pulled off as good of accuracy short, and that appears what Carolina will leave to him.
Consequently, due to their heavy sets and lack of decent WRs, they do more slot stuff out of unbalanced sets, two receivers to a side, and sometimes balancing that with two TE to the other side. They shift a lot, so it's not a good week for Josh Norman-style miscommunication. They don't use the more traditional 3WR sets often at all, so it's likely the team keeps a corner or two in street clothes. Carolina gets a small boost there, doing a lot of cover 1/cover three and keeping a guy up. It also doesn't hurt that they're essentially playing two SS on the back half, and that Mike Mitchell has somehow had discipline in play action.
So, defensively, it may be a choice of defending the deep pass, or the top ranked rushing offense (9th in yards/attempt, if that has value). They definitely have a top OL, they load the 22 more than anyone, and you have to be ready for that with an extra lineman or LB.
On offense, you do get a break of sorts - their defense has fallen all the way to 6th (4th, points) from a traditional top two look in the past few years. Aldon Smith comes back this week but his snaps will be somewhat limited. Other than that, you can't pull rank or weakness on them - they have four good corners with the return of Eric Wright, so it's not like pulling a DL for a DB suddenly makes things better.
The minor weaknesses on a massively talented defense? Footballoutsiders.com has their DL as 19th best, and a low percentage of stuffed (typical for a two gap 3-4 set). Glenn Dorsey is playing acceptable NT as well. They're low in yards against power, too. They jump back up to 10th for 2nd level yards, not unlikely with Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis back there. 11th against the run compared to Carolina's 8th ranked rush O, so there's some level of movement there, but that won't help you if you get behind early.
With the ball in the air, SF is adept at the top receiver; they struggle, in the 20s for rankings, for the 2nd and 3rd guys, and against the RB. But they go way back up to 5th against the TE; so, Greg Olsen will have to spend a significant amount of time split out or used at TE and driven outward, away from Bowman and Willis.
The metrics sites throw SF short of their rankings. Carolina has minimal options if that's not true - you can't spread this team, you can't really pick on their rookie FS (Eric Reid). You can run on them to a point, but it won't open up the pass, as the 9ers play both S deep a high amount and aren't going to give up the big play.
So, at best, on the road as far west as Carolina will play this year, they face their hardest test yet. This could be a conservative, field position game with a pair of good defenses and a pair of strong running games. Or it could be a battle of third year QBs; third year head coaches. Either way it's not a game I see Carolina winning without some unexpected big plays.