The five keys
1. RUN, RUN, RUN: Fantasy football owners all over America already are starting to give up on Kevan Barlow at midseason, but they are advised to give him one more try this week. The Niners will make it a point to establish Barlow and the running game early against a Carolina defense that hasn't been able to stop anybody on the ground this year. The Panthers rank No. 29 in the NFL in stopping the run, and that's an area the Niners must attack, because the Carolina pass defense remains strong. The lack of a consistent ground game is what has held back the San Francisco offense all season, but the Niners showed signs of life in that department last week against an exceptional Seattle run defense, and they don't figure to get many better chances the rest of the season to establish that aspect of their game than they'll get here. 2. LOOK FOR JOHNSON: Carolina's solid secondary likes to play a lot of man-to-man on the edges with safeties rolling over the top. That should leave some opportunities for tight end Eric Johnson in the middle, and the Niners must make him a big part of their game plan this week. Johnson will be isolated at times on linebackers and safeties Mike Minter and Colin Branch, and he has displayed the ability all season to shake free of that kind of coverage. Minter also is battling a knee problem, and that could work in Johnson's favor. Johnson obviously is quarterback Tim Rattay's favorite target, and with the Panthers figuring to load up the box with an extra safety in an attempt to stop the run, Johnson is going go find some open space in the middle passing lanes. 3. KEEP CONSTANT HEAT ON DELHOMME: The Carolina running game continues to be ravaged by injuries, so the passing of quarterback Jake Delhomme isn't just the best thing the Panthers have going for them on offense - it's about the only thing. Delhomme has thrown for 1,852 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he also has thrown an NFC-high 11 interceptions when opponents have pressured him into mistakes. That's what the Niners must do here, getting all-out efforts from ends John Engelberger and Andre Carter and consistent blitzing from linebackers to keep people in Delhomme's face. The Niners must keep sending defenders from different angles, because the Panthers protect Delhomme very well and he has been sacked just 11 times while throwing 285 passes. The Niners can't let Delhomme sit back in the pocket, because San Francisco is having big problems at cornerback, and Carolina receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Keary Colbert - who have combined for 66 receptions for 943 yards (14.3 average) and six touchdowns - can and will get open if they are given the time. 4. PROTECT THE SECONDARY: Will current starting cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Jimmy Williams be able to play? It's likely at least one of them will be available, but San Francisco's other options at cornerback are Joselio Hanson, Rayshun Reed and converted safety Dwaine Carpenter. Starting free safety Ronnie Heard also is bothered by a sore knee, so a beleaguered San Francisco secondary could be in even worse shape than it has been at any point this season. That's a scary proposition, considering how much that secondary has struggled already this season. The play of the secondary will be huge in San Francisco's chances Sunday, and here are the three ways the Niners as a team must help that unit hold up: 1. Control the ball and clock on offense to keep the secondary watching and resting on the sideline. 2. Don't give Delhomme time to throw, as mentioned above. 3. Get good drops and heady play from the linebackers in coverage to combat Carolina's underneath routes and allow the cornerbacks and safeties to focus on the Panthers' primary receivers. 5. WIN THE BATTLE OF SPECIAL TEAMS: Without injured Steve Smith, one of the NFL's premier kick returners, the Carolina return game has imploded. San Francisco's coverage units have been strong all season, so this matchup gives the Niners a chance to win the battle of field position, which could be significant in this evenly-matched, toss-up game. This should also be a good opportunity for Arnaz Battle to break another punt return against a Carolina coverage unit that ranks 16th in the league. The Niners also must be willing to turn to kicker Todd Peterson whenever their offense bogs down within his field-goal range. Peterson has proven that he can kick a 50-yarder; if the opportunity presents itself for a long attempt within that range, the Niners should kick away rather than playing for field position with a punt, as they have done in the past, because every point will count in deciding the outcome of this game. Carolina kicker John Kasay has attempted just eight field goals in eight games, so the Panthers don't give him many opportunities. Since Carolina ranks 30th in the NFL with 124 points, the Niners shouldn't pass on any opportunities to put points on the scoreboard, because the Panthers already have proven they have problems playing catch-up.
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