Panthers Who the 49ers Were, and Who They Want to Be

When the 49ers face the Panthers, they will come up against a team that encapsulates who they were and who they want to be.

The 49ers’ 2014 NFC Divisional Round clash with the Panthers was not just a clash of powerhouses but a clash of styles.

Both teams boasted athletic quarterbacks who could do as much damage with their legs as their extremely strong arms as well as impressive running games.

Each featured dangerous tight ends and had game-changing linebackers on the other side of the ball.

San Francisco emerged victorious in relative comfortable fashion, claiming a 23-10 win at Bank of America Stadium.

But, while Carolina has evolved and established itself as one of the premier franchises in the NFL, the 49ers now find themselves in the midst of a rebuilding project.

And when they line up against the Panthers at the same venue on Sunday, the 49ers will be taking on a team built in the image of what they want to become.

There are still plenty of similarities between the two.

Carolina possesses a formidable defensive line headlined by Kawaan Short and Kony Ealy and the 49ers have built a hugely promising D-Line of their own with back-to-back first-round picks spent on Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.

The Niners’ running game has what it takes to match that of the Panthers with Carlos Hyde running behind an offensive line that could be considered better than Carolina’s, particularly at the tackle spot.

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Yet, though there is an argument for the 49ers’ secondary being superior to the back end of the Panthers’ defense, Carolina has the edge in a number of areas where San Francisco used to be strong.

Carolina is blessed with two mammoth receivers in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, who are significant threats in the red zone.

The 49ers have not had the benefit of such talent at wideout in years but should be doubly envious of Greg Olsen knowing that Vernon Davis’ dramatic dip in form left them bereft of a true difference-maker at tight end.

NaVorro Bowman may be working his way back to his best in his second season since returning from the knee injury suffered a week after the last meeting between the 49ers and Panthers, but Carolina has a clear advantage at linebacker.

In Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers have a pair of linebackers who are among the best in the league in defending the run and in covering the pass.

While he was much improved in that aspect in the season-opening win over the Los Angeles Rams, doubts remain over Bowman’s play in coverage.

Next to Bowman Ray-Ray Armstrong and Gerald Hodges are having to split time after neither was able to make the starting role their own, though Armstrong earned the majority of snaps against the Rams and produced a strong performance.

But the biggest difference between the teams from that 2014 playoff matchup is at quarterback.

Cam Newton has catapulted himself into the conversation over who is the best signal-caller in the league, meanwhile Colin Kaepernick regressed so much that he was beaten out by Blaine Gabbert, with both ranking among the worst in the NFL at the position.

Newton, with his substantial frame and otherworldly athleticism, is a wrecking ball capable of decimating opposing defenses on designed runs.

Gabbert can also make things happen with his legs but much of his yardage on the ground comes on broken plays.

Three designed runs were called for Gabbert in the win over the Rams, and they went for six yards.

In stark contrast, he earned 37 yards on scramble plays and, although Gabbert’s mobility is an asset for the 49ers, the fact remains the option run is not the threat it was when Kaepernick was at his best.

Option runs by the Panthers, however, present defenses with a huge amount of problems as do their receivers and tight end Olsen.

A supremely talented D-Line and a number of athletic defenders behind the guys up front make the Panthers a tough team to score points against on a consistent basis.

In short, the Panthers are a vision of what the 49ers were at the height of their powers under Jim Harbaugh and represent the type of team general manager Trent Baalke is trying to build up again.

But on Sunday the Niners may receive a painful reminder that, despite recent improvements, they remain a true dual-threat quarterback, at least one top receiver, a tight end and a linebacker short of where Baalke wants the team to be.

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