Friday, November 8, 2013

5 Burning Questions For Week 10

For the 49ers their game Sunday marks the beginning of the stretch run.  As the second half of the season kicks off the 49ers find themselves in second place, a game and a half behind the Seattle Seahawks with every game a must win so they can keep pace leading up to the rematch on December 8 in San Francisco.

On Sunday the 49ers welcome the Carolina Panthers to Candlestick Park.  The Panthers come into the game riding the wave of a 4 game winning streak.  During the win streak the Panthers offense has put up 30 points or more in each game, while the defense has held its opponents to no more than 15 points in any contest.  A game that a few weeks ago was somewhat of an after thought has become perhaps the most anticipated game of the week.

With that as a backdrop here are 5 burning questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome of the game.

1) What impact will the return of Aldon Smith have on the 49ers defense? - Smith is set to return to action for the first time since the end of September when the 49ers lost to Indianapolis at Candlestick Park.  Although Smith has missed the last 5 games while undergoing treatment for substance abuse he still leads the team with 4.5 sacks.

All signs point to Smith being active and playing, but not in a starting role.  The manner in which the 49ers coaching staff brings him back after 6 weeks away will be interesting to watch.

In addition to Smith, the 49ers defense was further bolstered by the activations of Tank Carradine and Eric Wright to the roster.  While defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was quick to say that Smith would play on Sunday, he has not done the same with Carradine and Wright.  My read on the situation is that they both will be among the 7 players who are named inactive come Sunday.

2)  What impact will Mario Manningham have on the 49ers passing game? - Manningham returns to the field on Sunday for the first time since week 16 of 2012 when he tore his knee up after catching a pass on a quick hitch route against the Seahawks.  Despite playing in only 12 games last season, Manningham had the second most receptions among 49ers wide receivers with 42.

The 49ers are in need of a boost from a wide receiver corps that has struggled so far this season.  Kyle Williams currently has the second most receptions among the wide receivers with 11, 2 receptions fewer than fullback Bruce Miller.

Of Manningham's 12 games last season, only 4 were with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.  In those 4 games Manningham picked up 13 catches for 151 yards on 17 targets.  It will be interesting to see how Manningham and Kaepernick click on Sunday.

3)  Can the 49ers stay hot when playing with extra rest? - The 49ers have been dominant under Jim Harbaugh in games when they have extra rest, going 9-1-1.

The numbers are even more impressive when facing a situation similar to what they find themselves in this week, playing with extra rest while their opponents have a regular week of rest.  Under these circumstances the 49ers have gone 6-0, with an average margin of victory of over 17 points, 17.6 to be exact, while outscoring the opponents 30.8 to 13.2.

While this is good news, there is another trend to be careful of.  In every other game that margin of victory drops from 17.6 down to 5.1, and after blowing out Houston 34-3, this is that week.  Can the 49ers change that trend?

4)  Will the 49ers be able to contain Cam Newton? - Cam Newton comes into the game Sunday against the 49ers on perhaps the hottest streak of his career.  Over the last 4 games Newton has completed 72% of his passes for 916 yards, 7 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, both coming last week against Atlanta.

While those numbers are very good, lets take a look at the level of competition they have come against. Over the Panthers four game winning streak they have defeated teams with a combined 8 wins between them and a winning percentage of 18%.

Now lets compare those numbers to his numbers over the first 4 weeks of the season when the Panthers faced better competition, their first 4 opponents had a winning percentage of 52%, boosted greatly by the 8-1 Seahawks.  Over those first 4 games Newton completed only 57% of his passes, and threw 5 interceptions.

When you take out the game against the Seahawks and look only at the other 3 games over that starting stretch the completion percentage is actually lower at 54%.

All this being said, do not expect the 49ers defense to take Newton lightly.  The are well aware of what is being said about the Panthers and Newton, and know they are in for a test.

5)  Can the 49ers offense continue to grind it out on the ground? - Over their current five game win streak the 49ers have run the ball on 65% of their snaps, including 64% in the first half when each of the games, with the exception of the Arizona game, was put away.  During this win streak the 49ers run game has averaged 4.8 yards per rush attempt.

The run game will be tested this week against a Carolina defense that comes into the game tied for 6th in the NFL, giving up an average of only 3.7 yards per attempt.  The Panthers run defense will be the only the 2nd team the 49ers have faced since week 4 to have a run defense ranked in the top half of the NFL in yards per attempt, Arizona being the other.

Another stat that could bode well for the 49ers is that over their 5 game win stretch, the 49ers run game has averaged .5 yards per carry over the oppositions season average.  Based on that, look for the 49ers to average around 4.2 yards per carry on Sunday.

Prediction Time:

49ers 34 Panthers 28

Just playing the numbers here.  Many have called this a GPS game for Carolina, but I would argue that it is a GPS game for both teams.  While it is very easy to point to Carolina's weak schedule to justify their 5-3 record, one could also point out that the last team the 49ers faced with a winning record at the time they played them was the Arizona Cardinals, and we all saw how tight that game was.

I think the 49ers will jump out to an early lead of 2 scores, and hold off a late Panthers rally to get the win and move to 7-2.

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