The San Francisco 49ers suffered a loss to the Carolina Panthers in a close, ugly game when these two teams met in the regular season, and yesterday’s divisional round game was no different in the ugly department. The end result, however, was definitely different, and the 49ers clamped down so hard on defense in the second half that they prevented it from becoming close. Despite the fact that the Panthers held slightly more time of possession, converted third downs at a higher clip, and averaged significantly more yards per play, the 49ers defense was able to hold the Panthers to just ten points due to great situational defense, two interceptions off of Cam Newton, and they held the Panthers to just 0-3 in the red zone. That’s insane, and that’s situational D at its finest.
While the 49ers offense did a solid job of moving the ball on a tough Panthers defense, the top performers on the 49ers were largely on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s usually what happens when you hold a team to just ten points in the playoffs. The Niners are carried by one of the league’s best defense, and they are incredibly deep and talented on that side of the ball. Only the rival Seattle Seahawks are better, which helps make that rivalry so interesting (Pete Carroll vs. Jim Harbaugh and Russell Wilson vs. Colin Kaepernick are other head-to-head matchups within the larger matchup that are extremely compelling).
But anyway, back to yesterday’s win over the Panthers. There were three players on the 49ers defense that put forward especially notable displays of dominance, and they were all linebackers in Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, and NaVorro Bowman. Willis and Bowman comprise easily the league’s most dominant inside linebacker duo, and those two are the stuff of legend at the heart of the 49ers defense, which has helped lead the 49ers to their recent dominance (both the New England Patriots and 49ers are now set to appear in conference championships three straight times). As for Brooks, he’s a very good edge rusher who had a multi-sack game last week as a crucial performer against the Green Bay Packers, and he added 2.5 more sacks on Cam yesterday. While Brooks didn’t deserve to make the Pro Bowl or All-Pro teams, there is little doubt that he’s a good player and has been a big force in the playoffs.
Willis and Bowman had 11 tackles each, and Willis had an early interception, too. Bowman also made some big plays of his own with a sack and an additional tackle for loss on his resume. Brooks had the aforementioned 2.5 sacks with six tackles in total, and all three LBs had five solo tackles on the afternoon. Justin Smith was arguably more impressive than Brooks, but I thought Brooks’s sacks combined with his great run defense sealed the day, as Smith had amazing run defense but did not contribute as much to the pass rushing display as Brooks did.
As for Willis and Bowman, either of those two has a legitimate case at being the MVP of yesterday’s game. Both inside linebackers were excellent in coverage against a team that likes to throw the ball to different areas of the field. They were also both extremely active run defenders, with Bowman also chipping in with a sack to aid the pass rush. It was impressive watching both players cover Panthers star tight end Greg Olsen, who is their top pass-catcher statistically and one of the best pass-catching TEs in the NFL, and Bowman also athletically covered big Panthers wideout Brandon LaFell on some plays.