Mario Manningham set to make his season debut and Michael Crabtree continuing on the mend. The Panthers looked likely to be a tough matchup, on a 4-game win streak on their own, but as a young team still trying to prove themselves, it seemed as though they were merely the upstart team that the 49ers would handle easily.
This is why it feels so monumentally jarring that the Panthers came into Candlestick Park, stood toe to toe with the 49ers in an absolute slugfest that was ruled by two defenses that just wanted to whack each other, and ultimately Carolina came away with a really ugly 10-9 victory that validates their hot streak. For the 49ers, nothing they tried on offense was able to work, Colin Kaepernick was forced into poor decisions or no decisions, Vernon Davis was lost with a concussion and after the 49ers forged ahead 9-0, the Panthers just stopped them dead in their tracks.
This was one of those rare 49ers games that was televised in New York, so I was able to watch it, and it was pretty easy to tell that the 49ers were in trouble by halftime. Multiple times, they had the ball well in Carolina territory in the 1st half only to have their drive stall and end in a Field Goal. Colin Kaepernick, who was really beginning to look like the force he was down the stretch last season over the last few weeks, regressed badly, allowing the Carolina defense to sack him 6 times and made no attempt to try to make things happen with his legs. Losing Davis hurt, as it usually does, but still, the 49ers, who continued to have a miserable rate of success on 3rd down, at least one of those drives should have finished in the End Zone. If they'd managed to do that any one of those 3 drives in the first half, the game probably would have finished differently. The last one, perhaps, was the most galling, because after Tramaine Brock intercepted Cam Newton and returned the ball deep into Carolina territory, the 49ers appeared to have a TD dropped in their laps. But they couldn't convert inside the 10 yard line and settled for Phil Dawson's 3rd Field Goal.
The game sat 9-0 at that point, and the defense had been playing at their usual high level. But even at their best, the opponent is still going to manage to put something together, and the Panthers were able to string a bit of a drive together that culminated in a 27-yard Touchdown from DeAngelo Williams. This would, ultimately, be the game's only touchdown and it cut the 49ers lead to 9-7 going into halftime.
In the 2nd half, the defenses took over. Neither offense was able to generate any sort of momentum, which made me even more nervous. The Panthers appeared to simply be biding time before they could make a play. The 49ers appeared to actually be uncoordinated. They didn't move the ball much at all, while Carolina was at least able to creep into 49ers territory, though Graham Gano missed a Field Goal in the 3rd Quarter. A Kendall Hunter fumble was discouraging, but led to no points for Carolina. More concerning was just how bad the 49ers offense looked, which was probably worse than they did in the 1st half. Finally, about 5 minutes into the 4th quarter, the Panthers got enough of a drive together to set up for another Gano Field Goal attempt, which he converted from 53 yards to give Carolina the lead and ultimately the win.
Still, I had to think the 49ers had it in them to respond. Surely, they wouldn't just fade out at home like this. But that's what happened. They would have the ball 3 more times over the duration of the game. They went 3-and-out the first time, Kaepernick was sacked creating an impossible situation the second time, and Kaepernick threw an interception to Drayton Florence the final time, which, with under 1 minute to play clinched this miserably frustrating 10-9 loss.
The offense has to shoulder the blame for this one. I know that the popular chatter among the talking heads is how Kaepernick is struggling and Alex Smith is 9-0 and maybe the 49ers kept the wrong guy, but that's ridiculous because to this point Kaepernick has played in a Super Bowl and Alex Smith hasn't, and keeping Kaepernick was a no-brainer just on talent alone. That said, because Kaepernick had so much success so quickly, it's easy to really jump on him for his failures. He hasn't looked especially great this season passing but consider that he's working without his #1 receiver in Crabtree, Davis has missed the sum total of 2 games, and ostensibly the remaining receivers he's had (Jon Baldwin, Kassim Osgood, Kyle Williams) haven't proven themselves capable of contributing. Williams, in fact, was cut altogether this week, taking the memory of fumbles' past with him. Basically, Kaepernick has been able to throw to Anquan Boldin and nobody else has been there for him in every game. And teams know this and have loaded up on Boldin. Getting Manningham back this week helped, but after missing close to a year I don't see how he can be expected to be a major factor.
Nonetheless, these are all good indicators as to why the 49ers currently have one of the NFL's worst passing attacks in spite of having some of the NFL's best talent. With a really tough game in New Orleans on Sunday, a solution to this problem has to be the focus this week. One thing missing from the game plan seems to be a more effective usage of these speedy backs the 49ers have, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. James, who's replaced Williams as the team's Punt Return specialist, showed his stuff last postseason and Hunter is always tough. Both of them should be more factors than they are. Neither are going to take running plays away from Frank Gore, but in situations where a screen or a short pass are necessary, these guys should be looked to as viable options because they've proven they can play, but they need more opportunities to do so.
It couldn't hurt. People are jumping off the bandwagon once again even though the 49ers are still 6-3. But now 2.5 games behind Seattle, a shot at the division appears all but dead and if they don't correct their problems, a playoff spot could be in severe jeopardy as well.