There's really no secret when it comes to beating the Carolina Panthers. Stop their running game and you stop much of their offense.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart make up one of the NFL's best backfield tandems, but they've been unable to help the Panthers escape their winless stretch this season, which now extends to five games. Sound familiar, 49ers fans?
Fact is, Carolina, which hosts the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, has been awful in nearly every offensive category, ranking last in points per game (10.4), last in passing yards (136.4), last in total yards (236.0) and 20th in rushing (99.6). Williams has 317 yards in 68 carries to rank 20th in the league, but Stewart has just 119 yards and a 3.3 average per carry. Together they have two of the Panthers' five offensive touchdowns.
"Over the course the year, they're very productive in what they do," 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "Knowing which guy is in the game, we still (have) the same sort of game plan going in. But I think you've got to know what type of person's in the backfield because one is more of a physical, downhill player and the other one's more of an outside player. It's a point we've been talking about all week."
The Panthers will need a productive running game because they have a new quarterback, Matt Moore, who will be making his first start since Week 2. Moore replaces rookie Jimmy Clausen, whose shot at starting resulted in 52.2 passer rating and 47.3-percent completion rate.
One weapon Moore will have that Clausen didn't was wide receiver Steve Smith, who practiced this week and is expected to play for the first time since Oct. 3 when he sprained his left ankle. Smith has just 13 receptions but two TDs.
LONG ROAD TRIP: The 49ers (1-5) departed on a 10-day road trip Friday afternoon, flying to Charlotte, N.C., for Sunday's game against the Panthers for the first leg. They leave immediately afterward for London and their Oct. 31 contest against the Denver Broncos. Conversely, the Broncos don't leave for the game until next Thursday afternoon, but they'll have to deal with jet lag issues.
Asked about the challenge of such a long trip, coach Mike Singletary said, "Just make sure you don't get sidetracked by the distractions. We've got one game, and that's Carolina. And when we're done with that game, then we'll look toward the next game. But we really have to focus on this game coming up."
NO FINE FOR SMITH: Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Shaun Smith won an appeal of a $10,000 fine he received from the league for grabbing the groin of 49ers rookie tackle Anthony Davis on Sept. 26. Art Shell, the league's appeal officer, said there was no conclusive video evidence showing what Smith is alleged to have done.
Davis apparently has already forgotten about the incident.
"How many … what game was that?" Davis asked the Sacramento Bee. "You run into people like that sometimes. But I'm not mad at him. You can't blame him. He doesn't know any better."
INJURIES: Center Eric Heitmann (neck) was declared out for Sunday's game. Cornerback Nate Clements (ankle) and tight end Delanie Walker (ankle) are questionable. Listed as probable are tight end Vernon Davis (knee), linebacker Parys Haralson (calf), linebacker Manny Lawson (rib), wide receiver Josh Morgan (thigh) and defensive tackle Justin Smith (hand). Clements practiced Friday on a limited basis, but if he can't go, Will James will get the start.