The Notebook: Lessons from the Panthers' loss to the 49ers

Kevin C. Cox

Beating the 49ers defense requires a top-notch game plan from an offense. The Panthers didn't have that. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White takes a closer look.

There are many words in the English dictionary that could describe the Panthers' offensive game plan. Most of them would in one way or another be associated with excrement.

I mean ... Mike Shula, what in the hell was that?!

I'm not deflecting blame off of Cam Newton; we will get to him in a minute. However, how would you ever justify Newton leading the team in carries with just 10? Especially in a game where you know at some point his only high level receiver, Steve Smith, will end up breaking down physically (pretty much the whole second half)?!

That's just stupid.

Mind you, I wouldn't have minded seeing Cam run the ball more too. Hell, I'm still not sure if the 49ers ever learned how to defend the triple option. Of course, I only got to see it run live once for like 6 yards all game, sooooooo ...

Mike Tolbert gets just eight carries for 20 yards, DeAngelo Williams gets five for 13. Were they setting the world on fire? Absolutely not, but you have to give them more opportunities than that. Or at the least throw them a few screens. Both guys ended up with zero catches. Let's be clear, the biggest lead the 49ers held was 13 points when they kicked a field goal with 7:46 left in the game.

Let me show you why I wanted to see more of the Panthers and specifically Cam running the ball.

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The Panthers line up with Cam in the pistol. Williams is offset a bit however. There are also blockers on either side of Newton. Cam will ride Williams while the blockers go to lead up for him to his right. On this play, Ahmad Brooks, who had a helluva game, takes dive/Williams. Between the linebacker and the safety to Brooks' side (red circles), somebody is supposed to have Newton.

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If you notice, you can see that Brooks is going down for Williams but the linebacker to his side is also looking for Williams. Ok, so I guess that means the safety will take Cam.

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Except for that lead blocker (blue line) getting in the safety's way. Uh oh is right.

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You can see the spacing from behind.

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As soon as NaVorro Bowman plays the dive, Cam knows there isn't anybody left to tackle him unblocked.

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Which is why he turns up the field for 6 yards.

-----

On this play the Panthers ran a Cam Newton sweep of sorts. Interesting because the 49ers run a play a lot like this one and in fact, ran it later on in the game. This should have been a touchdown.

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There is one reason why Cam Newton didn't score on this play, and his name is NaVorro Bowman (blue circle). Bowman looks done with two blockers (yellow circles) between him and Cam.

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Bowman decides to become the hammer and not the nail.

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He split the blockers and tackled Newton one-on-one before he could make it in the end zone.

That ended up being a huge stop because the Panthers would eventually be held to just a field goal. The 49ers also scored on the ensuing drive right before halftime. Bowman turned a possible 14-13 Panthers lead at halftime to a 10-13 Panthers deficit.

I didn't like that instead of having Cam run out of shotgun near the goal line where he could possibly jump up and over the pile, Shula had him trying to run from under center where he couldn't build up any momentum. I mean, it's not like the 49ers have a bunch of big, ridiculously strong dudes they can sub in for goal line and stop most QB sneaks.

Oh, wait!

As for the first Newton interception, he was getting hit as he threw it, but he still has to put that ball ahead of his receiver Brandon LaFell.

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LaFell (yellow circle) is open on the crossing route, but Aldon Smith (red circle) is coming.

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Cam is hit just as he is following through on his pass to LaFell.

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The pass is well behind LaFell, and he can only get one hand on it before it's intercepted.

Aldon Smith got just enough of him to affect the throw, but when Cam puts it behind LaFell, it falls on him when the defense picks it off.

Newton did do some good things. This deep ball to Smith was just excellent.

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To make sure Smith (red line) would get a true one-on-one opportunity, the Panthers sent the slot receiver (yellow line) on the opposite side on a skinny post to hold the safety (blue circle).

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It worked, and Newton dropped one in a bucket to Smith for six.

The problem for the Panthers is that Smith lost his giddyup in the second half. Cam was basically playing with one less eligible receiver at the end of the game, and that led to some coverage sacks.

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Those are pretty self-explanatory.

Tell me who you see open on those plays.

In fairness, who in hell would want to be the guy that drew the short straw and had to tell Steve Smith he was getting benched?

Ice up son, indeed.

I look at Cam's last interception the same as I look at Andrew Luck's last interception. Both guys were trying to make a play when the game was already pretty much out of hand. It happens.

All in all, the quarterback always does and should take more than his fair share of blame in a loss. That is only right and good because quarterbacks tend to get more than their fair share of praise after a win. Cam Newton didn't play great, but I have to put a lot more of the blame on the game plan than on his play.

As for the 49ers, defensively they had some huge stops near the goal line as I have already mentioned. Offensively they employed the game plan I felt the Panthers needed. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran the ball eight times for only 15 yards but he kept the Panthers defenders honest. When they were off, as they were on his touchdown run, he made them pay.

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Quinton Patton starts to motion across the formation and the defensive back follows him. The ball is snapped just as Patton is approaching the center. He continues on across the formation, and so does the defensive back.

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The defensive end and linebacker (white circles) have to decide who will take the dive (white circle) and who will take Colin.

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Unfortunately for the Panthers, it appears they both took the dive. Not to worry, though. The defensive back who was mirroring Patton flew all the way across the formation to make sure he was in position to defend Kaepernick running wide to the end zone.

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What he didn't expect was for Kaepernick to stick his foot in the ground and turn up inside of him. That just left Luke Kuechly between Kaep and the end zone after Kuechly recovered from taking the dive fake.

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Here is how it looked from behind.

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Drayton Florence never stood a chance, but not for the reasons the announcers threw out. He was trying too hard and over ran the play; he was not loafing. Kuechly didn't do much to alter Kaepernick's course either.

The Panthers appeared to be more willing to blitz the 49ers this game than they had most of the season. Early on they had a good return on their investment.

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Both Panthers, left defensive end Charles Johnson and Kuechly, come free on this early blitz. Why you ask?

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Well, because even though the guard is doing this to the defensive tackle, the center decided he shouldn't look for someone else to help.

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And because the right tackle decided that even though the right guard was doing fine blocking his guy, he needed to help him out rather than block Johnson.

Jonathan Goodwin and Anthony Davis are both good players, yet I have no idea what they were thinking on this play.

Kaepernick was thinking "ouch."

Later, when rookie free agent Robert Lester had to enter the game because of an injury to Quintin Mikell, it came back to bite them.

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Kuechly (blue line) is blitzing in the middle here. Linebacker Chase Blackburn (yellow circle) is supposed to have Vernon Davis (yellow circle). Robert Lester is supposed to help up the seam.

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Lester had other ideas about his responsibilities. I can understand where he is coming from too. You see Davis running to the sideline without anyone close to him, enough to make anybody nervous.

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Unfortunately, while Lester was running up to do Blackburn's job, nobody was behind him covering for him, and Anquan Boldin took advantage.

The Panthers were also ready for some of the 49ers' favorite red zone plays, like this crossing route to Anquan Boldin with picks built in on the other side.

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This is usually an easy six points.

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Kuechly (blue circle) found a way to slide between both tight ends and make a play on Boldin.

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By make a play, I of course mean commit pass interference without it being called.

He seems to get away with that a lot, doesn't he?

Remember last week when the 49ers went five verticals and Vernon Davis caught the touchdown up the seam against the Packers? The Panthers were ready for that too.

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As a reminder, the 49ers ran five verticals last week to get the safety (blue circle) to sit on Boldin's route while Davis (red line) beats the linebacker/nickelback deep up the seam.

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While the Packers fell for it, the Panthers weren't going to.

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That is mostly because Boldin (yellow circle) didn't beat his guy deep quickly so the safety (deeper blue circle) never had to worry about him being a threat.

Greg Hardy didn't record a sack, but he was on fire to start the game. The 49ers couldn't block him the first five or six plays. That guy made himself a lot of money this year as he heads into free agency.

The Panthers defense on the whole didn't play that bad. They just didn't get the help needed from their offense.

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