The Green Bay Packers learned what happened when a defense is ill-equipped to contain Colin Kaepernick's running ability. Actually, to better typify their wild card loss -- they didn't. Two straight playoff exits have been decided on the legs of San Francisco's quarterback, and the pressure is on Carolina to avoid the same fate.
It's here where the Sunday playoff game between the 49ers and Panthers gets interesting. Fans in Charlotte will have you believe the Panthers are in the driver's seat. After all, they were the winning team when the sides met in Week 10, knifing through a normally-reliable offensive line to sack Kaepernick six times and hold San Francisco to under 200 yards of total offense.
All great tall tales need some slight exaggeration, or barring that a generous omission. In this case it's the absence of wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis (injured in the first quarter) that made the game near-impossible for the 49ers to win. A fan in San Francisco would tell you these factors result in a clear victory for the away team on Sunday, a unit that took the Panthers best shot and still only fell by one point without its play-makers.
That's the rhetoric out of the way, so what makes the contest of Kaepernick vs. Panthers tick?
If we're going to be reductive about this matchup it comes down to Luke Kuechly. It's tempting to play into the narrative of "defensive end vs. quarterback" duel, but it's not apropos when it comes down to determining if the Panthers can stop Kaepernick.
The reason Kuechly is so highly regarded isn't his impressive tackle total, it's his situational awareness on running plays. Few linebackers in the league possess his first-step ability, which is almost-always flowing in the direction of the play. When this is coupled with a stout defensive tackles you have a scenario where runs up the middle are either swallowed by defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and if someone squeezes through Kuechly is there, or attempting to rush around the Panthers strong defensive ends -- in which case Kuechly is likely there also.
For all the reasons Kuechly is great, the second-year linebacker is not infallible. He struggles in coverage, particularly against field-stretching tight ends. There is a routine disconnect between Kuechly and his safeties in which he too often breaks off the tight end assuming there's help over the top, only for a talented quarterback to find the gap in the zone. He doesn't push to the edges of his zone, unlike fellow linebacker Thomas Davis -- which could be out of a desire to stay closer to the play.
Now we're getting closer to understand the anatomy of the 49ers loss in Week 10. When Vernon Davis left the field the Panthers no longer had a reason to commit Kuechly in coverage, turning him into a permanent quarterback spy. The defense took this one step further with safety blitzes, overwhelming the line.
These two factors resulted in a game where Kaepernick tried to run, but went nowhere fast -- finishing with four carries for 16 yards, one of his worst rushing games of the year.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera knows full well that his team caught Kaepernick at the right time, openly talking up the ability of the third-year quarterback.
"We were fortunate," Rivera said on Monday of Carolina's 10-9 victory at San Francisco on Nov. 10. "We were able to do some things and make it tough on him. I don't expect that this time. All you have to do is watch him down the stretch. We caught them at the right time, and it turned out to our benefit."
David Nelson of ESPN believes Rivera is playing possum, but that's a hard argument to make given the coach's propensity for being a straight-shooter (sometimes to his own detriment). It's likely he's being completely honest, and the team is well aware of Kaepernick's ability.
The question then turns to how the Panthers stop him in the divisional playoffs?
Drew Brees bares very little resemblance to Kaepernick, but handling the quarterbacks should be executed in a similar fashion. The Panthers' Week 16 win over the Saints it was a case of Carolina ignoring a huge threat in order to disrupt the quarterback.
Rather than have Kuechly stay in coverage to help with Jimmy Graham the Panthers happily allowed him to eat through their zone. The tight end finished with five receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown, and the exchange was the dismantling of the Saints screen passing game by keeping their middle linebacker in place.
The same should be done with Vernon Davis on Sunday. Carolina should not over-commit to stopping him, instead focusing on pressuring Kaepernick into making early throws and supplementing it with Kuechly as a quarterback spy. The Panthers defensive end tandem is talented enough off the edge, and when paired with outside linebacker Thomas Davis form a formidable trio of pass rushers.
If the result is Vernon Davis staying home to block, the Panthers win the play -- if it's getting quick pressure on Kaepernick they win the play. What the defense can't allow is the long, gashing run play that Green Bay let through in the wild card round. Carolina's Achilles heel is handling an offensive shootout, and allowing these runs sets up too many easy points.
There's little question Sunday's game will focus on defense, but despite that similarity it won't resemble the Week 10 matchup between these sides. The Panthers are more experienced and a touch wiser, while a healthy 49ers team has found itself offensively. Kaepenick becomes the wild card, and his ability to make big plays will determine if San Francisco can move on and seek its second Super Bowl berth in a row, but Kuechly and the Panthers will be right there too, not overlooking the mobile quarterback.