"They didn't surprise us at all. We just didn't execute."
Those were the words of Colin Kaepernick following his offense's dreadful performance against one of the league's up-and-coming defenses.
The Panthers' defensive front dominated the 49ers' renowned offensive line, sacking Kaepernick six times while he struggled to get in any sort of rhythm. Not even the addition of Mario Manningham - easily the team's most talented healthy receiver outside of Anquan Boldin - could save the passing game.
The 49ers netted just 151 yards after the sacks counted for 45 in the wrong direction. They had just 45 net yards in the second half.
And for the second time this season, San Francisco lost without Vernon Davis, who has become the team's only mismatch for opposing defenses in the passing game. It's clear the offense can't effectively stretch the field with Davis on the sideline.
That was never more apparent than early in the fourth quarter, when Vance McDonald dropped a long pass down the middle that would have put the 49ers deep in Panther territory with a chance to take the lead. Budding star Luke Kuechly grabbed his arm and prevented him from making the catch, but it was a ball the team has seen Davis catch on multiple occasions.
Coming in, the Panthers' defense allowed opponents to convert on just over 36 percent of their third downs. The 49ers went 2 of 15 tries (15 percent).
"That was a tough game," fullback Bruce Miller said. "We knew it was going to be a tough game and we knew they have a physical, solid defense and they play well together. They complement each other well and it was a physical game."
Injuries Taking Their Toll
The physicality of the game cost the 49ers in a few different ways Sunday. They came into the game healthy, off a bye, but lost four key players to injury.
Vernon Davis left the game after sustaining a concussion following his incompletion (although it should have been ruled a fumble) deep in Panthers' territory in the second quarter. Two plays later, the 49ers lined up to go for it on 4th-and-1 and attempted to draw Carolina offsides. They failed, took the delay-of-game penalty and kicked a 25-yard field goal to make it 9-0.
As the team proved earlier in the season, it would have likely gone for it at that point on fourth down, which would have made it a 13-0 game had they come away with a touchdown.
But they had just one tight end. Garrett Celek left the game in the first quarter after sustaining a hamstring injury.
"We really were out of a couple personnel groups that we would have liked to have been in at that situation," Jim Harbaugh said. "And we needed some time to move some personnel around to accommodate that situation, but that factored into it."
Eric Reid left the game in the third quarter after taking a big blow to the side of the head from running back Mike Tolbert. Reid appeared to be knocked out cold initially, but would walk off the field before heading to the locker room.
Reid's absence wasn't felt as much from a defensive standpoint. But it was the second time he had to leave a game with a concussion this season, which could impact his potential absence going forward. San Francisco would have a hard time filling the void with the Saints on the horizon next week.
The Defense's End of the Bargain
San Francisco's defense was good enough enough to win, which Patrick Willis indirectly pointed out following the game when he said the defense's goal is to allow 17 points or less each week.
"And we reached that goal. But, us as a defense, we don't want to give their offense anything and we let them go down the field before halftime and score," Willis said.
But what turned out to be a minor mistake at the time had devastating ramifications on the game.
With the Panthers driving in the San Francisco territory at the end of the half, NaVorro Bowman leaped, missed the interception and deflected the ball directly to tight end Greg Olsen for a 14-yard gain.
"I pushed a button on my cleats so I could jump a little higher," Bowman said. "I knew that he had a lot trajectory with his ball, but I just have to jump a little higher."
DeAngelo Williams scored his 27-yard touchdown run on the very next play, making it a 9-7 game at the half.
"They didn't beat us. We gave it to them and I'm going to leave it at that."
Kaepernick's Struggles With Pressure
The 49ers could not solve the Panthers' pass rush. Whether it was Kaepernick's inability to make secondary reads while under pressure or receivers not getting open, the passing game has a long way to go if the team wants to return to the Super Bowl.
Aside from Week 1's win against the Packers, Kaepernick has been ordinary when it comes to throwing the ball ever since. His threat as a runner has made up the difference against weaker opponents. But without Davis, he's struggled to get the ball down field.
The 49ers have to hope that Kaepernick improves at reading defenses and finding the open receiver when the first look isn't there. And he must be able to do when the pocket collapses.
Coming into Sunday, Kaepernick had eclipsed 200 passing yards just once since the season opener.
"I thought there were plays to be made, and he made some really good ones," Jim Harbaugh said, exuding his usual confidence in his signal caller. "And we all put our fingerprints on that. Don't feel good as a coach. It's not a good feeling when you don't prevail, especially when you have multiple chances to get it done."
Tough Road Ahead
The 49ers will have to travel back to the site of last February's Super Bowl loss and take on the Saints next week. They are in danger of suffering their second losing streak of the season and the second since Harbaugh took over.
With the Seahawks 33-10 win over Atlanta Sunday, they move to 9-1 and have won five straight. Aside from games against San Francisco and New Orleans (in Seattle), they play the Vikings (2-7), Giants (3-6), Cardinals (5-4) and Rams (4-6) to finish the regular season.
At 6-3, the 49ers now have the same record as the Panthers, and would lose the tiebreaker for playoff seeding.
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