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The “Mud Bowl” game last Sunday in Washington was anything but pretty. The defense continued to show it’s dominance, this time against a weak Washington team. But, given the conditions, judging the performance of the offense is difficult.

With questions surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo and his lack of on-paper success, this Sunday’s matchup against the Panthers (4-2) and their No. 4-ranked passing defense may be his toughest challenge this season.

Head Coach Kyle Shanahan said of the Panthers:

“I expect to see a very good team. I mean, they’ve got as good of a defense as I’ve seen on tape this year. Reminds me a lot of ours, what they can do to the quarterback with their front four and still keep seven guys in coverage.

Garoppolo versus Carolina pass-rush

Garoppolo’s success as a pocket-passer is due to his ability to get the ball out quickly. Over the past few weeks, the 49ers have been without their two starting tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey. Rookies Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill have filled in nicely though, establishing themselves as serviceable backups when both starters return. The Panthers, just like the 49ers, have a very strong pass rush, which Garoppolo will see plenty of this Sunday.

Carolina Panthers vs
Scot Tucker/SFBay Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly (59) celebrates a stop with Carolina Panthers’ Wes Horton (96) as the Carolina Panthers face the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, September 10, 2017.

The Panthers’ defensive line and linebacker core feature a rotation of recognizable names. Mario Addison (6.5 sacks), rookie Brian Burns (4.5 sacks), Shaq Thompson (4 sacks, 54 tackles), Vernon Butler (3 sacks), Luke Kuechly (62 tackles) Gerald McCoy (2.5 sacks), Dontari Poe (2 sacks), and Bruce Irvin. With an abundance of talent on the defensive line, the 49ers can expect to see multiple looks from different rotations of players.

Garoppolo echoed Shanahan’s sentiment regarding Carolina’s defense:

“Big, strong up front. They get after you with four guys. They don’t have to pressure that much. Kuechly, he’s Kuechly. He is who he is and he’s tremendous in the run, pass, whatever it is. He’s just a smart player out there. … It’ll be a good challenge for us on Sunday.”

Through six games this season, Garoppolo has thrown just seven touchdowns, with six interceptions — not a good ratio. Garoppolo has thrown too many interceptions, some of which have been pretty ugly. Now he will face perhaps his toughest test yet.

With pressure up front, 49ers may look to air it out

With the dominant defensive line the Panthers will deploy, it may cause the 49ers some headache in the run game, which has been the backbone of their offense. The addition of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will certainly boost production in the passing game while opening up opportunities for other playmakers on offense.

George Kittle has been the 49ers number one pass-catcher this season, while young wide receivers Dante Pettis and Deebo Samuel have yet to hit their strides. The acquisition of Sanders provides the 49ers with a legitimate number-one receiver who is capable of playing all over the field. Adding Sanders’ talent to this offense will turn some of the attention away from Kittle while leaving Samuel, Pettis, Kendrick Bourne, and Richie James more opportunities to make big plays.

Garoppolo called Sanders a playmaker:

“If you give him a chance on the ball, he’ll make you look good. Just getting him in space, giving him opportunities to showcase his talents. He’s fast, gets out and cuts quickly, runs good routes and so all those things. It’s exciting. … When you get a guy that talented, it’s just about getting the ball in his hands, letting him make plays — the yards after catch, obviously he’s tremendous at that. It’s just you want to give him opportunities. As the quarterback, it’s your job to do that.”

49ers defense against Panthers offensive weapons and undefeated QB Kyle Allen

The biggest storyline surrounding the Panthers this season has been the health of former MVP Cam Newton. Second-year quarterback Kyle Allen, who has yet to lose a game or throw an interception in his six-game NFL career, has filled in nicely.

Allen will start Sunday for the Panthers and will face one of the best defenses in the league, and stare down Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said:

“He’s very decisive on where to go with the football. He understands coverages, he understands the offense and what they are asking of him and you can see it because he’s not throwing interceptions. And it’s not like people are dropping interceptions. He’s putting the ball where it needs to go, he’s on time with it. … And he’s actually got more scramble ability than you’d think looking at him.”

The heart and soul of the Panthers offense is dual-threat, MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey. One of, if not the best running back in the NFL, McCaffrey will be the focus on the 49ers defense, according to Saleh:

“He’s not your typical scat back that you can blow on and he’ll fall. He runs through arm tackles, he’ll make you miss, he’ll run right through you, he’ll out-run you. He’s tremendous with the ball in his hands, he can catch it, he’s got tremendous vision as a runner. If you’re out of your gap just an inch, he’ll find it. And he’s also great in protection, too, from a pass-protection standpoint. You can’t book him for anything because he can do everything and that’s really what makes it hard, he can lineup in the slot and run routes. He’s good.”

Carolina Panthers vs
Scot Tucker/SFBay Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey (22) looks for extra yardage as the Carolina Panthers face the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, September 10, 2017.

Added Shanahan:

“He can do about everything. He reminds me of Marshall Faulk. He can beat you in the pass game, he can beat you in the run game. They’re doing a great job on how to use him because they are using him as much as possible. … You can tell he’s a very smart player, extremely talented and that’s why he’s being mentioned with some of the best in the league this year.”

In addition to McCaffrey, who poses a threat in the passing game almost as much as he does in the running game, the Panthers have some talent at the wide receiver position. Wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel pair with McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen to form a formidable Carolina passing attack.

Notes

The 49ers have been riddled with injuries this season, but that is about to change. Left tackle Joe Staley practiced this week for the first time since his leg injury, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk is nearing return.

Newest 49er Emmanuel Sanders has had a crazy week. After arriving in Santa Clara, he was impressed with his new coach, and his cool shoes.

Taylor Wirth

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