When you watch the tape from Nov. 10 the San Francisco 49ers' offense was hard to recognize.
Missed assignments, mistakes and injures played a big role in the one-point defeat to the upstart Carolina Panthers, who played their way to the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. Beating the defending conference champs was a huge step for a franchise that muddled in mediocrity since its last playoff berth in 2008.
Now the 49ers head to Charlotte, N.C. on a seven-game winning streak and have the feel of a drastically different team from their previous match up. The passing game that struggled so dramatically midway through the season has turned a corner since Michael Crabtree's return, while the defense is fully in tune for another Super Bowl run with Aldon Smith back to All-Pro form.
November's defeat was alarming on a couple of different levels. First, it was the first loss following a bye week since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011. Second, the team's offensive struggles against stout defenses was becoming a downward trend that, if continued, made a third-straight trip to the playoffs an uphill battle. But they managed to turn that around since then.
Improved execution along Crabtree's return has transformed the passing game. Prior to his coming back after tearing his Achilles, the 49ers were averaging 189.9 passing yards per game, last in the league. In his six games back, Colin Kaepernick has passed for an average of 214 yards.
"You have to pick your poison," Anquan Boldin said before Sunday's tilt against the Packers when prompted about Crabtree's return. "Who do you double? Me, Crab, Vernon? Put eight guys in the box to stop the run game? It's kind of hard to do."
In the 11 games prior to Crabtree's comeback, Kaepernick's passer rating rating was a pedestrian 86.6. That number's jumped to 96.79 in his six games, including Sunday's win in Green Bay.
What happened in Week 10's game that led to the 49ers loss, aside from Crabtree being out? Let's take a look...
Two Tight Ends Go Down Early
The 49ers' offense uses two-tight end sets as often as any team in the NFL and suffered greatly when Vernon Davis (concussion) and Gerrett Celek (hamstring) left the game in the first half with injuries.
Prior to Davis' departure, they ran 46 percent (11 of 24) with multiple-tight end sets. But after he left - leaving Vance McDonald as the only healthy tight end available - they were unable to use any multiple-tight end groupings and struggled. The 49ers finished with just 151 total yards of offense and didn't score a touchdown, losing 10-9. Carolina outgained San Francisco 250-151.
To that point, Davis was the team's leader in touchdowns with seven while Boldin was second with just two. No other players had caught touchdowns from Kaepernick to that point, and that didn't change until Week 14 when Crabtree caught a first-quarter scoring pass in Tampa Bay.
Having gone through that, the offense is more equipped to handle such a situation should it come up again.
"I suppose so, that we learned something from that and understand and understand how to adapt to that better than we did going into that game," Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday.
Bowman's Out-of-Character Moment
NaVorro Bowman's highest levels of production came late in the year, highlighted by his 89-yard touchdown return for a touchdown at the end of Week 16's win over Atlanta. He followed that up with a gem of a performance the next week in Arizona, getting an interception, sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery all in the same day. He also tied Eric Reid for the team lead with 10 tackles.
But there was a play Bowman didn't make in the Carolina game Week 10 that ended up costing the 49ers dearly.
With the Panthers driving into San Francisco's territory before the end of the half, Cam Newton was looking for Greg Olson over the middle on a 2nd-and-3 play from the 41. Bowman was in prime position to make a leaping interception giving the offense a chance at extending the 9-0 lead just before the two-minute warning near midfield.
Instead, the ball deflected right off Bowman's hands and into Olsen's for a 14-yard gain. The very next play, DeAngelo Williams broke two tackles and scored the game's only touchdown rushing from 27 yards out.
"I pushed a button on my cleats so I could jump a little higher," Bowman said of his missed interception after the game. "I knew that he had a lot trajectory with his ball, but I just have to jump a little higher."
"They didn't beat us. We gave it to them and I'm going to leave it at that," he said.
Bowman's play in the regular season will garner consideration for defensive player of the year. But he has stiff competition, including a linebacker that will be on the opposite sideline Sunday...
Kuechly Led a Dominant Defensive Front
The 49ers' offensive line had it's worst game of the season that day, allowing six sacks the Carolina's defense that's been put into the conversation of the best in football.
Led by star inside linebacker Luke Kuechly - a former recruit of Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, who selected Boston College instead - the Panthers' finished with the second pest scoring defense (15.1 points per game) and second in yardage (301.2 per game).
On that day, Carolina's defensive front dominated the 49ers in a way that has been rare among opponents.
San Francisco was held to just 2 of 13 on third downs and failed to scored a touchdown. The offense could only muster two field goals off turnovers, including a rare fumble recovery of their own blocked punt late in the first quarter and Tramaine Brock's interception return to Carolina's 24 in the second.
"Overall we didn't do a whole lot of good things. We only scored nine points. We moved the ball well early but didn't finish in the red zone," tackle Joe Staley. "And the run game was just kind of...it was a weird game."
Kuechly led the charge with 11 tackles, two for loss and a key pass breakup on a long play down field to Vance McDonald that prevented the 49ers from getting into field goal range early in the fourth quarter. His emergent season has tabbed him as one of the league's best linebackers alongside Bowman and Patrick Willis.
"He's a beast…I compare him to our guys," Frank Gore said of Kuechly. "I respect him."
Harbaugh doesn't believe Kuechly is a player that can be slowed down.
"I don't know that neutralize is a possibility. He is a fantastic football player and we definitely got to get him him blocked and do a great job of blocking him and sustaining...Fundamentals and technique are going to give us the best chance to do that with a player of his caliber," said Harbaugh.
"We'll shoot for A-plus-plus, but don't know if that's realistic in his case because he's a fantastic, fantastic player."
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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