Radar Week 10: 49ers vs. Panthers

The 49ers are in a good spot coming off their bye week at 6-2. They kick off the second half of the regular season Sunday against the Panthers with some fresh faces on an invigorated roster. We break down the team's strength's and weaknesses before looking ahead at the NFC playoff race.

Statistics Through Week 9

Offense (rank):

Points per game: 27.2 (#5) previous week: 25.1 (#11)

Yards per game: 342.9 (#16) previous week: 335 (#17)

Passing yards (per game): 189.9 (#32) previous week: 191.7 (#31)

Rushing yards (per game): 153 (#1) previous week: 143.3 (#3)

3rd-down conversion rate: 40.19 percent (#11) previous week:37.76 percent (#16)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 62.96 percent (#7) previous week: 54.55 percent (#12)

Defense (rank):

Points per game: 18.1 (#4) previous week: 19.3 (#7)

Yards per game: 325.1 (#4) previous week: 326.1 (#8)

Passing yards (per game): 220.5 (#8) previous week: 219.4 (#6)

Rushing yards (per game): 104.6 (#12) previous week: 106.7 (#18)

3rd-down conversion rate: 33.04 percent (#3) previous week: 33.67 percent (#5)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 63.64 percent (#28) previous week: 70 percent (#31)

Misc.:

Turnover margin: +4 (16 takeaways, 12 giveaways) previous week: +4 (15, 11)

Penalties per game: 6.9 (#19) previous week: 7.3 (#25)

Penalty yards per game: 58.5 (#18) previous week: 61.9 (#23)

NFC West Standings

Seattle Seahawks (8-1)

San Francisco 49ers (6-2)

Arizona Cardinals (4-4)

St. Louis Rams (3-6)

What It Means

Fresh off their bye week, the 49ers appear to be in prime position to take a shot at the Seahawks for the NFC West title. They are getting healthy and have the remainder of their schedule against NFC opponents. Through eight games they are just one game back.

After the trip to London, the team came home and activated Mario Manningham, Tank Carradine, Eric Wright and Aldon Smith from the PUP and NFI lists. Even without those players, San Francisco was able to take advantage of its schedule and win five-straight games by double-digits for the first time since 1995. And although they started 1-2, they hit the halfway point of the season at 6-2, remaining one of three teams in the conference with at least 6 wins.

If the season ended today, the 49ers would be the No. 5 seed, meaning they would play in the divisional round of the playoffs on the road as a Wild Card team against the Dallas Cowboys.

Editor's Note: There's a good chance San Francisco ends up with a better record than one or more division winners. They would be a lower seed than those teams if they do not win the NFC West. That means there's a reasonable chance the team's playoff seed could swing four or five spots depending on if they win the division.

Seattle and New Orleans would have byes while the Panthers would travel to play the Lions in Detroit if the current standings hold up. But a lot will change.

Historically, being a Wild Card team isn't a terrible omen. Six teams since 1997 have won the Super Bowl without winning their respective division. Having to play an extra game isn't ideal, but the Cowboys have looked in the NFC East to this point, a game in Dallas doesn't appear to be un-winnable for this 49ers team.

Strengths

San Francisco has the league's top running attack, the fifth-ranked scoring offense and the fourth-ranked scoring defense. There aren't many holes to be poked in this team.

The offense has managed to convert more than 40 percent of its third-down conversions, jumping all the way up to 11th in the NFL after struggling in that area earlier in the season. That figure is likely to improve with the re-integration of Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham into the lineup.

Defensively, the team is allowing conversions on just 33 percent of third downs, good for third-best in the league. They allow five yards per play (sixth) and 0.278 points per play (fifth).

After the bye week, a major strength is the team's overall depth. They have gotten key players back while some new ones continue to get acclimated into the system. The defensive line will see an influx of talent with Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial joining the fold. Although it's unlikely Carradine will play Sunday against the Panthers.

"He's progressing and getting better," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "He's still fighting through his injury and learning the system and playing the way we want to play. He's making good progress. When he'll play, if he'll play this week, we haven't decided yet."

But the biggest piece of the puzzle defensively is Aldon Smith, who is likely to play Sunday after missing the team's five-game winning streak. It's unlikely Smith will play every snap, however, but there shouldn't be much drop off with Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier able to fill in. The duo played well in Smith's absence.

"After a six-week layoff, (Smith) might not be ready conditioning-wise," Fangio said. "Every game takes on its own personality, how many games your playing. How many games you're playing in a row. How many plays you're playing in different packages. It will be a fluid situation."

Areas To Improve

San Francisco owns the league's worst passing attack by volume. They have thrown the ball less than anyone and it's led to just 189.9 yards per game, the league low. But it's still tough to harp on the passing game considering the way the team has scored. If the offense isn't broke, then why fix it?

Colin Kaepernick played one of his best games of the season before the bye week against Jacksonville, completing 10 of 16 passes for just 164 yards and a score. But he also ran for two touchdowns on seven attempts for 54 yards.

The bright spot of the passing game comes on yards per pass, where San Francisco is averaging 7.6, good for sixth in the NFL. That tells us the 49ers' passing game isn't as inept as it is rarely used. And with Manningham and Crabtree due to return, the team is likely to start calling passing plays far more frequently than the current rate of 44 percent.

The 49ers haven't gotten much in the return game, particularly on punts. Kyle Williams has been asked to take fair catches in traffic in order to avoid any costly turnovers. But for a ball-control team that's so predicated on field position, the team could use a boost in the return game.

In London, Williams had his worst game of the season fielding kicks, leaving the door open for LaMichael James to get back into action. James has been inactive for three-straight games, putting his role with the team in question. The former second-round pick in 2012 hasn't had the opportunity this season after playing last season when Kendall Hunter went down with his torn Achilles in a November tilt against the Saints.

James said he's been working hard on punt returns, knowing his opportunity could come at any time.

"I have been taking more reps. Even after practice. Just seeing the ball and just trying to improve," James said.

James rarely worked on punt returns in college. But when he did, the ball flight from college punters didn't prepare him for the type of kicks he has fielded in the NFL.

"At first it was a little shaky. I think just never doing it in college," James said. "A lot of things come in the NFL. You have to know what you're doing, you have to study the ball and you have to play the wind. A lot of things just come with it that I have to grow and I have to learn. I feel like I'm well conditioned for it now."

With such an influx of talent to the roster over the bye week, it's still unknown if James will be apart of the active 46 Sunday against Carolina. The coaches haven't even told James, he said, and expects the decision to be made on game day.

Looking Ahead

The game against the Panthers will be a good litmus test for the 49ers given the way they have steamrolled their inferior opponents over the last five weeks. Carolina brings an energetic and talented defensive front that's one of the league's best against the run. Add Cam Newton's play-making ability and San Francisco's defense might face its toughest challenge of the season.

Editors Note: we will have more on Carolina later this week in our "Knowing Your Opponent" series.

After Sunday, the 49ers will travel to the site of last February's Super Bowl to play the Saints, who are back to form as contenders with head coach Sean Peyton calling the shots. They fallow that up with a long week to prepare for the Washington Redskins, who they will play on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12.

The underlying theme for San Francisco over those next few weeks will be the integration of players on the roster. No other team in the NFC is getting as many reinforcements, with three starters and potentially four or five reserves joining the team.

Considering the circumstances, finishing the first half of the season at 6-2 is huge boon for this team as it gears up for its playoff run with its roster intact.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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