The San Francisco 49ers enter the divisional round of the playoffs coming off a 23-20 win over the Green Bay Packers that has some pundits calling them the hottest team in the NFL. That's news to the Carolina Panthers, who have won 11 of their past 12 games, with their only loss on the road to playoff-bound New Orleans Saints. The Panthers have also beaten the Saints in that stretch, along with victories over other playoff teams like the Patriots and, yes, the 49ers.
Carolina dominated Colin Kaepernick in Week 10, limiting him to 11-of-22 passing for only 91 yards, with a half-dozen sacks. That performance was no fluke. Carolina's defense has been one of the best in football all year, and its specific strengths and tendencies seem designed to exploit the cracks in San Francisco's offense.
The 49ers run a lot (third in the league with 505 carries), but that doesn't mean they run particularly well. The advanced metrics at Football Outsiders aren't terribly impressed by either Frank Gore or the 49ers' offensive line. That has left the onus on Kaepernick to make plays with his legs -- which has rarely been a problem. Not counting end-of-half kneel-downs, Kaepernick had 80 runs for 533 yards and four touchdowns this season, ranking among the top five quarterbacks in each category. That includes 145 yards on 34 designed runs, but it's what Kaepernick can do when plays break down that really sets him apart.
Kaepernick ran for 388 yards this season on 46 scrambles, while also gaining 563 yards on 79 passes outside the pocket, finishing second to Seattle's Russell Wilson in all four categories. And he's no slouch in the pocket either, averaging 7.8 yards per pass between the tackles, one of the 10 best rates in the league. The best way to contain mobile quarterbacks is to use a heavy dose of zone defense. If you blitz them, you can create running lanes, and defenders in man coverage must turn their backs to the quarterback, meaning they won't recognize running plays until the quarterback is far downfield.
Instead, what you want is seven defenders in zones keeping their eyes on the passer with a four-man rush that can generate pressure on its own, and a speedy linebacker or two to track the QB down if he does escape pressure. The numbers back this up: The San Francisco offense averaged 6.6 yards per play this year when opponents used four or fewer pass-rushers, which ranked a mediocre 13th. That average climbed to 7.5 yards when opponents used at least five pass-rushers, though, and then again up to 8.8 against big blitzes of six or more players, third best in either statistic. Blitzing the 49ers is clearly a bad idea; your front four had better be able to generate pressure on their own.
And that's just how Carolina likes it.