Knowing Your Opponent: Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers come to San Francisco having won four-straight games thanks to Cam Newton's improved play and a strong defense. Inside we break down the team's hot streak, Newton's surge and one of the league's best young defenses.

Panthers' Statistics Through Week 9

Offense (rank)

Points per game: 25.5 (#12)

Yards per game: 332.8 (#20)

Passing Yards (per game): 202.6 (#25)

Rushing Yards (per game): ): 130.1 (#8)

3rd-Down Conversion Rate: 47 percent (#3)

Red Zone Scoring Rate (TDs): 60.87 percent (#10)

Defense (rank)

Points per game: 13.2 (#2)

Yards per game: 299.9 (#3)

Passing yards (per game): 220.8 (#10)

Rushing Yards (per game): 79.1 (#2)

Opponents 3rd-Down Conversion Rate: 36.27 percent (#9)

Opponents Red Zone Scoring Rate (TDs): 37.50 percent (#3)

NFC South Standings

New Orleans Saints (6-2, 2-0)

Carolina Panthers (5-3, 2-0)

Atlanta Falcons (2-6, 1-2)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8, 0-3)

Two Hot Teams

The Panthers come to San Francisco a mirror image of the home team. Both teams are on long winning streaks against weak competition with all the wins coming by double digits. Carolina has won four straight by a combined 130-48 while scoring at least 30 points each week.

The 49ers are on a similar run, winning five in a row by double digits and notching at least 31 points.

But is Carolina as good as those scores would indicate?

The combined record of teams the Panthers have beaten is 9-33, while they lost to the Seahawks, Bills and Cardinals. Sunday's game will go a long way toward indicating whether or not Carolina is a legitimate candidate for a playoff berth, their first since 2008.

Their most disappointing effort of the season was the 22-6 loss in Arizona coming off their bye. Cam Newton threw three interceptions and was sacked seven times, including a safety in the third quarter.

But it's difficult to ignore the way the team has played over the last four weeks. They've handled teams in the running for top-10 draft picks, but haven't slipped while the defense has become one of the more respected units in the NFL. The talented group allowed 10, 15, 13 and 10 points to Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, respectively.

Newton Turning the Corner

In his third season since being selected as the No. 1-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Newton is starting to resemble the game-breaking playmaker he was at Auburn. He's the eighth-highest rated passer in the league and has rushed for four touchdowns and 251 yards.

Colin Kaepernick and Newton were in the same draft class and even roomed together at the scouting combine. But it was Newton who was taken first, while San Francisco nabbed Kaepernick 35 picks later toward the top of the second round.

"I haven't talked to him since," Kaepernick said this week.

Statistically, Newton is having his best season by after his number slipped during his sophomore campaign. His 93.1 passer rating is improved over the 86.2 mark from 2012, in part to the offense's increased reliance on the running game.

The Panthers are asking less of Newton than last year, running the ball nearly 33 times per game, the third-most in the league. He's also throwing more underneath routes and taking what the defense gives him instead of attempting to make the big play that isn't always there.

Newton has become one of the league's best quarterbacks on third down. The team is converting on 47 percent, one of the highest numbers in the league. He will have his hands full with San Francisco's defense that allows just opponents to convert just 33 percent of third-down tries.

The 49ers' biggest challenge in stopping Newton will be when he extends the play. Newton has a knack for avoiding the sack, getting outside the pocket and finding a receiver down the field.

"When you play these types of quarterbacks, they're tough because you have to defend the play they're running and then you have to all of a sudden defend the second play because he's scrambling and buying time and creating," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.

"It puts a lot of stress on the defense, particularly in the pass-rush and then it puts it on the overage because there's that time clock in a lot of people's heads and this guy still has the ball and he's moving around, much like Colin does and (Russell) Wilson does. That makes it tough."

An Emerging Defense

The Panthers' defensive front is one of the best young fronts in the league. And although offensive coordinator Greg Roman says it about the upcoming opponent nearly every week, Carolina's front is likely the best San Francisco has faced.

"It's a challenge every week and Carolina's an interesting team because I really believe they think they can stop the run with a seven-man front and they've been doing that quite well. And that's always, from a football perspective if you're a defensive coordinator and you feel good about playing seven-man spacing against an offense and stopping the run game, man you are living large," Roman said.

Led by second-year starter Luke Kuechly, whom Jim Harbaugh stewed over after being unable to get him to Stanford, the Panthers' defense is the No. 2 in the league against the run to this point, although their numbers have come against teams that struggle in the ground game.

Their defensive line is anchored by rookie tackle Star Lotulelei, perhaps Eric Reid's top competition for defensive rookie of the year. Prognosticators pegged Lotulelei as a top-five pick, but he slid all the way to the Panthers at No. 14 in spring's draft.

Roman likened Lotulelei to another dominant nose tackle San Francisco has struggled against in recent seasons, saying "He reminds me a big of Haloti Ngata in a sense that he's big, strong, but he's explosive and he can penetrate and get off blocks. And that's what these guys have done. They got off blocks as good or better than anybody in the league."

But Lotulelei isn't the only force on the Panthers' defensive line. The 49ers' offensive line will also have a full plate with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who have seven and five sacks respectively. Their pass rush has helped the defense make 12 interceptions, the second-most in football. Safety Michael Mitchell leads the secondary with three.

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

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