Suddenly, with that win, San Francisco's the hottest team in the league, though Carolina's record over time is better (and includes a win at San Francisco). Bring that up and you hear about how much better San Francisco is since then. But this isn't as remarkably different a team as you might think.
Michael Crabtree is a legitimate addition. Is he a tremendous matchup risk? He's 6'1 210, playing against physical DBs. He's good - last year he topped out at 85 receptions at 13/reception, and 9 scores. That's a slight uptick from normal for him last year, and of course he's been hurt, so this year's lower. He put up 100 against Atlanta, half that with a score against TB. Arizona shut him down for 3 for 29; against an awful Green Bay team without its top corner for a lot of the game, sure, 8/125. So he does well against terrible defenses, and allright against good defenses that stop him. Will they work him in? Absolutely. He, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis make for a good trio. It's not amazing, but it's there. They do well what they are best suited to do.
Davis, of course, came out of the Carolina game, unlucky for the 49ers (except that he was hurt on a play that clearly should've been a fumble, which would've been recovered by Carolina). Davis' 13 TDs are an outlier, suggesting that he will struggle to have success like that often (take his '09, also 13 TD, which he hasn't matched until now). That outlier suggests he's already exceeded statistical expectation. He's powerful, but he's not Jimmy Graham.
Crabtree got the bulk of the targets against Green Bay, so he'll probably get a little more attention. But you'll probably see a fair bit of cover 1 this game if Carolina DB show they can press well. Green Bay didn't seem to try; Carolina can.
This is a somewhat similar process to playing the Saints, cover well by redirecting and getting WRs off their timing. It's a counter to the longer routes and double moves that both teams provide. Not only does the receiver look covered, he's not where he should be. Cover1 without a lot of blitzing (and Carolina shouldn't) gives you a lot of options. Cover1 robber means a high zone and a low zone. Otherwise, you can still double whoever - you can have 'sun' calls that can push a LB into the flat. You can play a blitz read - it's man-free and if you're a LB, you're given a guy to cover (if he doesn't cover, blitz). That might not work as well with Davis, though if the SS has Davis, you can push a LB to bracket and you can still read the two backs.
The reads are good for the backs, to a point, where the 9ers spend a lot of time in playaction with both backs blocking; they run more 22 personnel than anyone in the league, and combine that with 12 and 21 a significant amount, too. Your base defense plays a significant amount in this one. They run more college type plays than most - not only pistol or zone read, they run bootlegs, and a lot of screens.
The key factor is Colin Kaepernick, who has struggled all year with good defenses. Carolina had him for a 42 QBR, Seattle 67.5 and 20.1, and only one of those three games did he rush for more than 35 yards.
Carolina must stop the run. It's somewhat inside-out - yes, they have to contain Frank Gore, though that happened last week with 20 for 66. What you absolutely can't do is drop 100 with Kaepernick. A lot of that's in better pass defense - playing good contain - and Gore's a guy who can make you pay but you execute and tackle? You have him covered.
On the other end, absolutely, Aldon Smith is more at high speed. Don't forget that Dan Skuta had a good day that day rushing, and that Ahmad Brooks was still out there (Brooks had 2 sacks). It's not as if San Francisco's rush game was totally neutered, or that Carolina had a massive game offensively to win.
That San Fran defense isn't tops in its class anymore. Carolina outperformed it most of the way, with a star performance against, well, these same 49ers. Seattle actually ended up narrowly knocking them off for #1 in points and yards, and I don't know if Carolina's so happy about that either. But back to the 9ers - still in the conversation as 3rd in the league in points, 5th in yards. But their time of posession and field position type offense will help you a little. Didn't hurt Carolina, either. But San Fran drops to 9th in yards per attempt for both run and pass. They can be run on, and they can be passed on. You have to be very careful doing it, but it's doable.
I'd love to see some new packaged plays. I see the team using the bunch concepts this game a good bit, which works into what I'd prefer to do to San Fran's LBs - get a few of them off the field.
That starts with 3 WR sets, which pulls a guy off the field. If that's a DL and then the two OLB are in tighter, it's easier to run. As well, 3 WR looks from base personnel or 21 personnel (Hartsock stays in, Olsen splits). You have to be able to run on the 9ers and you have to set it up so they have fewer LBs on the field. You achieve both, to a point, with 3 WR sets. With a little more spread, if necessary, pull LaFell to crack a LB with that zip motion Moose always ran (and turn it into a few drags when it's pass).
Carolina went to slants and dosed up the corner routes more with Smith gone, and I don't know if that would or should keep up (it suits the WRs but not Cam, especially if he's tense). I'd work in a fair bit of Olsen in 2 TE sets, having everyone else set him up in the traditional F-post, I'd have him get a couple shots down the field, but otherwise I'd have him work the middle at 15 yards behind the clearouts. Alternately, with the base defense being pretty strong, I'd play the 9ers' game and go 22 personnel against it a bit. If needed, pull Hangartner in the game. Big on big, so to speak. They're a good pursuit team but if you can find a seam on the outside zone after making them account for 8-9 gaps, you're going to bust one.
Absolutely, a full-speed Smith, Crabtree, Davis help SF. Carolina gets guys back, too. Carolina also directly caused the two big SF injuries (Davis, Eric Reed). Did they intend to? No. Were they physical? Absolutely. It's not 100% luck that Carolina got a boost from injury.
Yes, Carolina got some bounces (recovering their fumbles and SF's). SF got theirs in some good calls that bailed them out at home and a non-fumble call that meant points.
They still have to show up, but at the least it's an insult to be an underdog at home. They're still a remarkably physical team that can make you pay. It's not that I'm not remarkably nervous about this one. It's that Carolina's playing itself in this one. They're the same team - same roots, same offensive playbook, same third year quarterbacks. I love the makeup of both, and that's what scares me. It comes down to which version of the same exact thing works better.
I think Carolina can win it, and if they can get the breaks in the defensive secondary that Seattle tends to get, they're golden. If they start calling things like the first NO game, they're screwed. Anything in the median and it's all up to Newton to bring it home instead.