Last week’s 9-0 win over Washington was not the most exciting offensive display, but it once again proved this 49ers team is different. They possess the ability to not only win the games they should, but also grind them out when needed.
The 4-2 Carolina Panthers present a more lethal threat to the undefeated 49ers than Washington did, but if the Niners stick to what brought them to this point, they should be able to extend their win streak.
With that said here are five players to watch for the 49ers on Sunday against the Panthers.
Although the defensive line’s pressure on the quarterback has a great deal to do with the team’s success, one could argue the addition of Kwon Alexander has just as much importance. The free agent addition from Tampa Bay has paired with Fred Warner to form one of the best linebacker duos in the league.
The two have the coverage and speed to guard and keep up with just about anyone. Alexander in particular has really elevated himself into the upper echelon of linebackers. His 81.7 pass coverage grade, per Pro Football Focus , is fourth in the NFL. In fact, the defense as a whole leads the league in eliminating the running back from the pass game.
When targeting the running back, opposing teams have the fewest targets (25) and completions (19), the lowest passer rating (55.3) and have yet to score a receiving touchdown via Pro Football Focus. Of course, the 49ers have yet to face a running back as effective in the pass game as Christian McCaffrey.
His 153.8 yards per game leads all non-quarterbacks, 618 rushing yards are third in the NFL and his 305 receiving yards are third among running backs. The best shot the Panthers have at winning is to get McCaffrey the ball. If Alexander can limit those touches to ineffective or modest gains, the 49ers have a great shot at staying undefeated.
To show how versatile McCaffrey is, he draws two players in this Players to Watch. The 49ers and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh like to bounce some of their linemen around depending on down and distance. Arik Armstead is a key example of this. He has the size, speed and strength to play on the edge on rushing downs and inside on passing downs.
He is most effective on the edge, however, holding the second highest grade (90.3) for edge rushers, trailing only Khalil Mack via Pro Football Focu. Although sacks will never be rejected, the 49ers would probably much rather have containment on McCaffrey.
If Armstead can beat his man and force McCaffrey to bounce inside, the 49ers will have the likes of Alexander, Warner, Jaquiski Tartt and DeForest Buckner there to get the tackle. Armstead might not have the flashiest stats in this game, but if he can hold the edge, he will still have a major influence on the result.
Emmanuel Sanders, who the 49ers acquired alongside a 5th round pick from the Broncos in exchange for a third and fourth rounder, will suit up on Sunday.Despite being with the team for less than a week, the veteran receiver should have no problem finding a way to make an impact in this game.
He isn’t Deandre Hopkins or Michael Thomas, but Sanders has the capability to give the 49ers something they don’t have with their receiver group, which is experience. Sanders’ 79.7 receiving grade is far and away the best among 49ers receivers this season (via Pro Football Focus) and that is coming with Joe Flacco and the Broncos’ 25th ranked yards per game offense.
Sanders can run any route and give Jimmy Garoppolo a go-to target that will also take the pressure off George Kittle. Although there is some worry with the offense’s lack of production last week in Washington, the California sunshine and the addition of Sanders should put some of those apprehensions to rest.
Daniel Brunskill/Justin Skule
If Joe Staley is active and mans his left tackle spot, focus on whomever starts at right tackle (most likely Daniel Brunskill). If Staley is inactive, it will be another audition for the two young offensive linemen who are trying to establish themselves as starters in the NFL.
Both injury replacements, Brunskill at right tackle and Justin Skule at left tackle, have exceeded expectations thus far. Skule was the highest graded offensive 49er last week per Pro Football Focus with a 72.6 rating and his pass-blocking grade was 84.7. The week prior against the Rams, Brunskill held a 75.2 overall rating and an 82.3 pass-blocking grade.
Those are both start worthy grades, and if they can keep up the exceptional play, they could present the 49ers with a highly coveted problem.
In years past, or even after week two when Staley was injured, there was concern about the 49ers’ line. Skule and Brunskill have silenced that fear with stellar play. Some teams would kill for four capable offensive linemen, the 49ers have upward of seven.That depth could pay off as the season winds down.
Yes long snappers are people too. This isn’t the most interesting person to watch, but given the 49ers’ inefficiencies in the kicking game this year, finally receiving some stability should pay dividends. The average fan probably doesn’t know their team’s long snapper’s name. In fact, when you’re watching a game, the only time you really hear his name is when he messes up.
The thankless job of a long snapper is an important one. Consistency is key and the 49ers have yet to find that this season as they are on their fourth long snapper.Nelson was suspended before the season, which caused need for Colin Holba, Jon Condo and Garrison Sanborn.
Nelson, the team’s LS1 will return this week, and although he is rather unfamiliar with holder/punter Mitch Wishnowsky, Robbie Gould and he have paired for some great seasons.
Gould and Wishnowsky surely built some confidence last week after nailing three kicks to earn the win. Barring injury, the 49ers will trot Wishnowsky, Nelson and Gould out together for the remainder of the season. With Nelson back, expect that confidence to continue to rise with stability finally returning to the 49ers’ field goal unit.