We’ll dive into this game on the 49ers’ side of the ball first, where this offense ranks dead last in the NFL in pass play rate — throwing the ball on only 42.9% of their plays (an absolutely unheard of number). Before we go further, then, it’s also worth exploring how the 49ers have come by this mark, as it is not necessarily fully by design.
This week, Kyle Shanahan talked about how he has never before had an elite defense on the other side of one of his offenses — and how ‘every play call is designed to help the 49ers win their game,’ and with an elite defense on the other side of the ball, this brings some unique elements into what is likeliest to help the team win that particular game. To put that another way: if a team were able to put up points on the 49ers, this offense would not have any problem turning more heavily to the passing attack; but as long as they control their games, they will continue to be one of the run-heaviest teams in the NFL.
This game sets up well for the 49ers to continue along this path, then, as the Panthers have been very strong against the pass this season — ranking third in DVOA and seventh in fewest yards allowed per pass attempt — while struggling to stop the run, ranking 30th in DVOA and 23rd in yards allowed per rush attempt.
Before we move on, however, there is a deeper layer here that should be explored, as the Panthers (as we have looked at multiple times throughout the season — including a few deeper dives into exactly why this has been the case) are getting wrecked on runs up the middle while still playing strong defense on runs to the edges. The 49ers, of course, are one of the edge-heaviest run offenses in the NFL — and that is not only where they center most of their action, but is also where their line and their running backs are built to be able to attack. To put that another way: given how the 49ers are built to attack on the ground, this is actually an average to slightly below-average matchup for them.
Given that the 49ers are running a split backfield that spreads “upside” responsibilities to different backs (with Matt Breida handling the larger pass game role and carrying more big-play upside, but with Tevin Coleman seeing all the work near the goal line as a largely “yardage and touchdown” back in a split backfield), it’s typically difficult to lean on this backfield outside of hoping to guess right on a big play or a multi-score game. But the bigger impact in the matchup is that it could make it difficult for the 49ers to be quite as effective on offense on the ground, which could lead to a bit more pass game work for this team than normal (while also creating opportunities for this game to stay close). Ultimately, it’s likely that this proves to be “largely throwaway” information (the 49ers will have a slightly tougher time on the ground than the matchup, on the surface, would indicate; but they should be able to do enough to still lean run-heavy as a whole, and to remove fantasy upside from most players on this offense), but it’s all worth noting as we hunt for any overlooked plays on what is unlikely to be a particularly popular game in DFS.
When the 49ers do pass, we are likeliest to see them leaning on George Kittle (target counts on the year of 10 // 3 // 8 // 8 // 8 // 5) and newly-acquired Emmanuel Sanders (who may not be ready to play a full compliment of snaps, but who has been in pretty much this same offense in Denver and should be able to integrate fairly quickly).
The new-look Panthers defense has faced the Rams, the Bucs (twice), the Cardinals, the Texans, and the Jaguars, and the only notable stat lines they have allowed to pass catchers are as follows ::
Godwin // Chark // Evans all have significant downfield usage, and had volume working in their favor as well, so chasing upside from Manny is a bit thin — though he should run enough routes out of the slot and over the middle of the field (where Carolina is weakest) that there are paths to him hitting. Kittle — as always — doesn’t quite see the work that the field seems to believe he sees, and the 49ers have still not figured out how to get scoring juice out of him (eight career touchdowns in 37 games; zero multi-touchdown games), but he’s an integral piece in this offense and has cracked 100 yards in 16% of his games (roughly once every six games), keeping him very much in the “upside” mix.
From a “notable stat lines” standpoint, this is all the 49ers have allowed this season, six games in ::
10-122-0 Boyd (blowout)
4-112-1 Ross (blowout)
The 49ers rank second in DVOA against the pass and first in yards allowed per pass attempt. No team has allowed fewer receptions or yards to wide receivers. No team has allowed fewer yards to tight ends. The Panthers’ passing attack is completely off-limits outside of simply hoping to guess right on a piece that breaks off a big gain on a busted play — and even that becomes a bit thin when you consider that volume of receptions is unlikely to be high, so the “big play” needs to hit all the way in order to produce a slate-winning score. If chasing here, of course, the YAC upside on D.J. Moore and the downfield role for Curtis Samuel are the likeliest paths to production. With the 49ers allowing no completions downfield (something we’ve explored in this space seemingly every week), Moore is the “better” bet to hit, though these plays are thin enough that you could chase either if chasing.
Of course, the Panthers — at a very legitimate 4-2, and coming off the bye — will be looking to win this game by A) slowing down the 49ers’ rushing attack and forcing them to try to win through the air, and B) attempting to poke holes in the run defense of the 49ers.
Since before Week 1, we have talked up the 49ers defense as a unit with a lot more potential than most entered the season expecting, as this team has the pieces in the secondary to be strong and the pass-rushing pieces to be truly special. Furthermore, the 49ers run a wide-9 scheme that is focused on getting after the quarterback, even if this leaves some run lanes open. Because of this latter point (and because these elite pass-rushing pieces on the 49ers are not nearly as elite against the run), it was expected that the weakness of this defense would be on the ground — though the 49ers have dominated games so thoroughly that this hasn’t proven to be an issue. San Francisco ranks only 12th in DVOA against the run (eighth in yards allowed per carry), and they are allowing 4.01 yards per carry to running backs (which certainly isn’t a boost, but it’s not terrifying either). But with this team allowing the second lowest drive success rate in football and the second lowest opponent red zone touchdown rate, it’s been difficult for enemy backs to compile stats in this spot regardless of matchup. In other words: in an isolated sense, the matchup is not a boost, but it’s also not terribly threatening; but in a macro sense, it’s still been difficult for running backs to get much going in this spot, as it’s so difficult for an offense as a full unit to get anything going against the 49ers.
The good news for Christian McCaffrey is that the usage will be there — with touch counts on the year of 29 // 18 // 27 // 37 // 25 // 26. CMC has five or more targets in all but one game (and double-digit looks in two of six), and he has nine touchdowns on the year as the central piece when the Panthers reach the red zone. The matchup is entirely non-ideal (the 49ers have also allowed the fewest receiving yards to running backs), but the usage is there if you want to bet on CMC being the first back to finally crack this matchup open.
JM’s Interpretation ::
With the 49ers preferring to “lean on the run and trust their defense,” and with the Panthers presenting a matchup that forces opponents to the ground, I’m unlikely to have interest in the 49ers’ passing attack outside of potentially a small number of darts thrown at Manny and/or Kittle if I put in some MME play this week — and with the matchup setting up in a less-than-ideal way for the 49ers’ split backfield, I’m unlikely to have interest there, either.
On the other side of the ball, we have a passing attack that is entering a nearly worst-case spot, which will wipe those players off the board for me (as always: it’s possible for any player with a legitimate role to hit in even the toughest of matchups — but it’s not my style of play to chase something as thin as the Panthers pass catchers on the road vs the 49ers), and I’ll almost certainly leave CMC off tighter builds myself given the difficulty of this game environment as a whole for the Panthers (especially on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, where he needs sooooo many points to justify his salary). With that said: CMC is obviously one of the highest-upside pieces in football, and he has proven capable — given his talent, volume, and role — of smashing even in difficult spots. He’s not a lock-and-load play as the highest-priced running back of the week, but he should see 25+ touches again as the engine of this offense, and there are certainly cases to be made for taking shots in tourneys (especially if the matchup projects to lower ownership this week).
:: Bonus feature: find current NFL Defensive Identities here!