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Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: Panthers bringing the heat and the wins

Luke Kuechly (59) and Mario Addison dump Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter Sunday.   (Getty Images)
Luke Kuechly (59) and Mario Addison dump Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter Sunday. (Getty Images)

Let me start this week's version of After Further Review with big applause for Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.

His plan against the San Francisco 49ers was outstanding. He caused a lot of confusion for the 49ers line, and even more so for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. That led to the 49ers getting nine points on the day, seeing the Panthers sack Kaepernick six times and the 49ers being limited to 91 yards passing as Carolina won 10-9.

To go to San Francisco and beat up the 49ers the way they did is something this defense can use as evidence to be considered one of the best.

The front seven certainly is that.

In ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who both can also slip inside at times to play tackle on passing downs, the Panthers have one of the best tandems in the league. Those two have a combined 14 1/2 sacks, with Johnson having 8 1/2 of them.

On the inside, rookies Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei clog up things for the run and the linebackers are active. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is special and had a heck of a game against the 49ers. The guy who showed up big on tape against the 49ers was rookie linebacker A.J. Klein. He had a sack and was all over the field after he took over for the injured Chase Blackburn.

The ability of the front to get pressure, and the lack of speed outside for the 49ers receivers, led to a lot of eight- and sometimes nine-man fronts for the Panthers. The 49ers, at times, tried to run into them without success, although Frank Gore did have two good runs against eight-man fronts in the first half when linebacker Thomas Davis allowed himself to get blocked in the hole.

Other than those two runs, and another 11-yard run on a draw play, the 49ers saw their potent run game choked off for the most part.

That put it into Kaepernick's hands, and he seemed perplexed by the many looks the Panthers threw his way.

Kapernick wasn't helped much by his receivers -- they missed chances to run hot routes, and on his late-game interception by Drayton Florence, two receivers ended up right next to each other -- but the quarterback had his share of issues, too.

The Panthers are ranked second in total defense, second in points allowed, second against the run and fourth in total defense. They also have allowed the fewest first downs.

What's amazing about that is they are doing it with a secondary that starts only one player -- corner Captain Munnerlyn -- who started for them last season. Melvin White, an undrafted rookie, starts opposite Munnerlyn with Mike Mitchell, who was signed as a free agent from Oakland, and Quintin Mikell, picked up off the scrap heap, starting at safety. Florence, whom the team cut this summer then brought back, is the nickel corner.

That secondary is helped in a big way by what happens up front. During the summer, I had a nice chat with Panthers coach Ron Rivera. We talked about how the front can hide some limitations on the back end.

We talked about the 1985 Chicago Bears, team he played for. We talked about how almost everybody knows the names of Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson, but few can name the corners on that team. They were Mike Richardson, Leslie Frazier and Reggie Phillips, in case you were wondering. The pressure up front made them a lot better.

The Panthers have the same type of identity. And, like that Bears team, McDermott isn't afraid to bring pressure. Then again, he is a disciple of the late Jim Johnson, who was the longtime defensive coordinator in Philadelphia. His belief was to attack, attack and attack some more.

The Panthers did their share of blitzing against the 49ers last week, and it worked. It threw off the timing of the 49ers' suspect passing game and made Kaepernick look like anything but the guy who threw for over 400 yards in the opener.

Here's a look at some of the things that caught my eye from that tape.

This is a third-and-7 play from the Carolina 27 in the second quarter. The 49ers have a three-receiver set, with two split wide and one back next to Kaepernick. The Panthers show a double "A gap" blitz by Kuechly and Thomas Davis. But at the snap, Kuechly (yellow circle) drops out into the left short zone while Davis blitzes. Defensive end Mario Addison drops into the right short zone. The Panthers blitz corner Captain Munnerlyn off the edge. When he blitzes, Kuechly drops into the short zone on his side to take away the quick throw inside to Kyle Williams. When Addison drops, he takes away the quick throw to Anquan Boldin. That forces Kaepernick to throw outside to Vernon Davis, who can't catch the pass and would not pick up the first down anyway.

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The next play I want to show is another creative blitz by the Panthers, this time by Mitchell. It came on a first-and-10 play at the San Francisco 32 in the second quarter. The 49ers are in a rare spread look on first down -- two receivers and the tight end to the left and one receiver to the right. The Panthers have Florence playing man on the bottom of the screen with no help. That's because Mitchell (red circle) vacates his area. Initially the Panthers make it look to be a two-deep look. Mikell rotates to the deep middle and Mitchell comes on his blitz, which leaves Florence in man coverage. On the other side, Hardy (yellow circle) drops into zone coverage. That takes away the quick throw to tight end Vance McDonald. By the time Kaepernick comes off that throw, Mitchell is in his face with a clear lane and Johnson is beating Anthony Davis. They split the sack as they dump Kaepernick for an 8-yard loss.

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The next play I want to show is one where the Panthers did a nice job against the read option, which leads to Hardy dropping Kaepernick for a 6-yard loss. It came on a second-and-1 play in the third quarter from the San Francisco 38. As they did a lot in this game, the Panthers have Hardy in an up position until the tight end motions away. When that happens, Hardy goes to a down stance. At the snap, he crashes hard inside to the mesh point of the weak-side zone run. When he does, Kaepernick pulls the ball out and keeps it. Hardy makes a great play to jump back outside, showing off his athletic ability, to dump him for the big loss. San Francisco has to punt after a penalty on the next play and a pass is held short of a first down on the play after that. Mikell is lined up outside of Hardy on the second-down play, which enables Hardy to be more aggressive with his inside approach. It was a good scheme and a good play.

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The next play again shows how the Panthers would change Hardy's stance based on the motion of the tight end and where he settled. You can see Hardy (red circle) is down, but when the tight end motions his way, he gets out of his down stance. Davis (yellow circle) is lined up on the line standing up. The Panthers again bring Mikell up into the box. The 49ers once again try to run to the weak side. Bruce Miller, the fullback, takes on Davis. With Mikell in the hole, Gore hesitates as Short gets penetration inside. Kuechly then beats guard Alex Boone to jump around him and keep Gore to a 3-yard gain.

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The biggest defensive play of the game came with just over four minutes left. The 49ers had just picked up a big first down deep in their own end and appeared to have a real chance to get a game-winning drive going. But on first-and-10 from the 15, the Panthers schemed up a big blitz for Kuechly. As you can see by the pictures below, they have Hardy and Johnson lined up together on the left side, Hardy in a down tackle spot. At the snap, though, Johnson drops out. The line slants to the defense's left, while Davis comes off the right edge. When Addison slants hard inside, he draws the attention of guard Mike Iupati. That leaves a lane for Kuechly to slip around and drop Kaepernick for a big 9-yard loss. The slanting to the left creates the lane for Kuechly. The drop by Johnson takes away Kaepernick's first read. It was a great design by the Panthers.

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McDermott and the Panthers defense will face another stiff test this week against Tom Brady and the Patriots. You can bet you will see a lot of different looks against what is more of a quarterback-led team. I can't wait to see what the Panthers have in store for Brady.

Things I saw on tape

1. While watching the Panthers defense against the 49ers, I wanted to also closely monitor Kaepernick. His 91 yards passing aren't good enough, and he has had a ton of struggles since opening week. So what's the problem?

The 49ers-Panthers tape showed several (with a picture for each):

His receivers don't scare defenses. The Panthers were able to use a lot of blitz looks up front because they didn't worry about the receivers winning down the field. Anquan Boldin is little more than a possession receiver. And they don't help the quarterback when he is blitzed. Here's a look at a play with a blitz in his face and Kaepernick's receivers don't run hot or turn around. They were open to make plays if they did. Instead, he was sacked.

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Kaepernick isn't going through his progressions. He's pre-determining where he's going with the football, and trying to make that throw no matter what. Here's a throw he made to Vernon Davis (yellow circle) when all four Carolina players were going toward Davis. Look at the middle of the field and you will see Boldin (red circle) wide open. Kaepernick has to make that play.

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Kaepernick isn't taking the shots he did a year ago when a receiver is open. Here's a play where he clearly has Davis open and he won't make the throw. He ended up throwing a short pass to his left. You can see by his feet that he wasn't ready to make the throw, and that's also a problem. He needs to work on his mechanics.

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The team is still way too run-oriented. Yes, they are good at it. But when you see so many loaded-up fronts, shouldn't that be when the quarterback takes a shot? Here's a pre-snap look at a play from last week's game. Think the 49ers checked to a pass against that look? Nope. Ran right into it. That's a problem.

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It's up to the 49ers to make it easier on Kaepernick as a passer. If they keep doing things the same way, he will never develop into the passer they expect him to become. The kid has talent. Let him use it -- and not merely with his legs. Pound, pound, pound might be good for the old-school guys, but it doesn't win anymore.

2. The Packers have problems at safety. Both M.D. Jennings and Morgan Burnett had struggles against the Eagles, misplaying balls and taking bad angles to the ball. The Packers also used Chris Banjo some, but he isn't the answer, either. The loss of Nick Collins really has hurt the back end of their defense. Something I would consider is taking a look at corner Micah Hyde at free safety. He is a tough kid who might be better suited inside than playing corner. I know they use him as a nickel corner up near the line, but I think he has the tools to move to the back end. The Eagles took advantage of those safeties last week. Eli Manning has to be licking his chops this week.

3. In studying the Eagles-Packers game, I went in with the idea I would be raving about Nick Foles. I came out thinking he was just OK. He made some good throws, but two of his touchdown passes had a little luck. He threw into double coverage on the one touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson, and it deflected off the defenders into the hands of Jackson for the score. Another long touchdown pass to Riley Cooper was an underthrow that Cooper made a good play on for the score. Foles did seem to have a command of the offense, and he did some good things when he pulled the football down to run, including on the opening drive for a first down. But he wasn't as good as his numbers would indicate. That said, he is playing solid football.

4. After three impressive games, it has been two below-average games for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. I think he's determining his throws again before the snap and not anticipating guys coming open. A perfect example last week against the Ravens came on his interception in the second quarter. He tried to go down the seam to Tyler Eifert and badly overthrew the pass, which James Ihedigbo picked off. If Dalton looked to his right, he had A.J. Green wide open on a corner route. Those are the types of throws he has to make if the Bengals are going to make a postseason run. The Bengals also have to quit being so cute with their offense. They run way too many bubble screens to the receivers. And one other thing: The way the Bengals pass block -- which is to step back, rather than punch forward first -- leads to a lot of hands in Dalton's face. He isn't a big guy, so that gives him trouble throwing, too. The Bengals might want to revisit that thinking.

5. In watching Dalton, I came away impressed with Ravens corner Lardarius Webb. He suffered a torn ACL last season and it has taken him a bit to get back to his old ways. But he looked it against the Bengals and in his man-to-man battles with A.J. Green. That's good news going forward for the Ravens.

Three and outs

Three vets whose play has slipped lately

1. Colts CB Vontae Davis: He was playing at a Pro Bowl level, but the past couple of games have been rough for him.

2. Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth: I know he's battling knee issues, but he had a rough go of it last week against the Ravens.

3. Dolphins S Reshad Jones: This kid looked like a future star heading into the season, but has really struggled in 2013. Why?

Three eye-opening stats

1. Three of the top nine in the league in interceptions are linebackers. They are DeAndre Levy, Sean Lee and Kiko Alonso.

2. Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Doug Martin (now injured), Darren McFadden and Ray Rice are all gaining under 4.0 yards per carry.

3. Cam Newton is averaging a league-high 9.94 yards on third-down pass attempts. Aaron Rodgers is second at 8.96 per attempt.

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