Beating the Panthers: Five Keys

The 49ers will have their hands full when they host the Carolina Panthers Sunday, who own an impressive winning streak of their own. Inside we offer five keys to Sunday's game that could help guide San Francisco to its seventh victory of the season.

Buy the Bye

The 49ers have not lost a game coming off their bye week since Jim Harbaugh took over prior to the 2011 season. The only exception was last February's Super Bowl when the team had two weeks to prepare. And instead of taking time off following the team's trip to London, Jim Harbaugh and his staff returned right to work at the team's Santa Clara facility during the bye week to get to work on Carolina.

Expect San Francisco to be very well prepared for Cam Newton and company, keeping either NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis around to spy on the Panthers' talented dual-threat quarterback.

Carolina doesn't offer many looks the 49ers aren't used to offensively. Schematically they work in similar ways to what Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman draw up, although Newton's designed runs are very different from the one's used for Colin Kaepernick.

The most noticeable difference between the two offenses, according to Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, is Carolina's knack for using three-wide receiver sets in early downs. San Francisco often sticks to two-wideout looks that can vary with Vernon Davis either in a three-point stance or split out wide.

Speaking of Newton...

The 49ers will have to find ways to limit big plays from Newton, either deep down the field or on improvised runs.

Newton has had an outstanding season to this point and much of his success comes when the play breaks down and he's able to improvise. With Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon LaFell and Greg Olson, Newton has more capable down-field weapons now than at any point of his career.

The Panthers' passing attack is very balanced. Smith leads the team with 36 receptions, while Olson has 34, LaFell 27 and Ginn 21.

But perhaps the toughest part of playing against Newton is his ability to make plays when under pressure. According to our friends at Pro Football Focus, Newton is the league's best quarterback when facing pressure. He has completed 62 percent of his throws with pass rushers in the area, which only trails Peyton Manning (65 percent).

However, Newton's been sacked 22 times, which puts him in the bottom-third of the NFL. If there's an area in the passing game where Newton struggles, however, it's going deep down field. On passes of 20 yards or more, Newton has completed just 8 of 34 with five touchdowns to three interceptions.

Out of Position

The Panthers' offensive line will feature a player making his first NFL start...on offense. Nate Chandler converted from the defensive line to the other side in the offseason and makes his premier Sunday against one of the league's better defensive fronts. He's replacing Chris Scott and backup Jeff Byers, who is out for the season after undergoing Lisfranc surgery.

The 49ers have certainly taken notice, and will likely test Chandler early and often on different stunt plays and inside linebacker blitzes.

Coming off the bye, one of San Francisco's key objectives was to get its defensive line healthy. Ray McDonald's biceps injury won't be completely healed until he has surgery in the offseason, but Justin Smith (shoulder) and Glenn Dorsey (hamstring) certainly benefited from the time off.

With Aldon Smith back in the fold, he adds another fresh body the front that includes Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta and Ahmad Brooks. Brooks showed up on the injury report this week with a stinger, but he should be good to go Sunday.

If there's an area the Panthers' have struggled this season, it's been protecting Newton. And with Chandler making his first ever start on the offensive side, look for the 49ers' front to be in attack mode from the jump.

Shiny New Toy

Mario Manningham might be rusty, but he might play a big role in passing game Sunday. Kaepernick's overall numbers through the air have suffered because of his wideouts inability to get open on a consistent basis.

Manningham is dying to make plays, as he indicated this week, after being off nearly 11 months after suffering his horrific knee injury last December in Seattle.

The last time the 49ers debuted a big a time receiver this season, Anquan Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards. In that game, Roman and the offense were able to use the "unknown" to their advantage as no tape of Boldin was available with this offense. Although there is tape of Manningham, he brings he same element of the unknown considering the length of his absence and questions about his overall football shape.

Even if Manningham isn't targeted often, his presence on the field will be an upgrade over the other secondary receivers the 49ers have used to this point. Any time a defense can't key only on Vernon Davis or Boldin, it's a good thing for San Francisco.

Block, Block, Block

It will be a long day in the trenches for both sides Sunday. The common theme during the five-game winning streak has been the 49ers' ability to open up holes for the running game with pulling guards and varying looks.

Between Star Lotulelei, Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and others, the Panthers' defensive front is as sturdy as San Francisco has faced this season.

Carolina comes into Sunday's game with the second-best run defense in the NFL while the 49ers own the top rushing attack. Whoever wins the fight at the line of scrimmage is likely to come away with the victory.

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


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