Carolina Panthers

With ‘a million’ 1st-rounders, why the 49ers’ defense is greatest test for Panthers

It isn’t Donte Jackson’s job to study the San Francisco 49ers defense, but even he can see what’s going on in the Bay Area.

“That pass rush is crazy, man. Pass rush is really good,” Jackson said Monday. “They get after the quarterback and make life easy for the back end.”

Then the light bulb came on, and he added with a fat grin: “I think we know a little bit about that here in Carolina.”

Touche. During the Panthers’ four-game winning streak, Carolina’s defense has catapulted near the top of a number of key defensive metrics. Even having played one fewer game than a number of other top defensive teams thanks to their bye last week, including the undefeated New England Patriots, the Panthers are second in the NFL in quarterback hits (50, one behind New England’s 51) and tied for second in takeaways (15, seven behind the Pats). They also lead the league in sacks with 27, one ahead of Bill Belichick’s group.

Now the question is: What do you do when you’re facing a near carbon-copy of yourself?

Because the 49ers defense — for as good as Carolina’s has been — might be even better.

San Francisco is second in the league in yards allowed per game (223.5) and points (10.7), and both of those marks are also second to the Patriots. The 49ers are also tied for fifth in the league in takeaways with 13 — right behind the Panthers — and possess the NFL’s third-best third-down defense, allowing first-down conversions 30 percent of the time.

And like Jackson said, much of their success also trickles down from a dominant defensive line.

“They’ve just got a lot of dudes that can go,” quarterback Kyle Allen said. “They have really good depth on the D-line, too. So when guys get tired, they can spell guys and not really lose much talent up front. Obviously, (Nick) Bosa has been really good for them. A lot of the guys up front have been really good; I mean, they’re kind of just rolling them in there.”

Again, right on.

San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa (diving) is second on the team in sacks, but the 49ers defense overall is one of the NFL’s best. Tony Avelar AP

The 49ers’ defensive front has been rebuilt in recent seasons, including with the selection of defensive end Nick Bosa at No. 2 overall in April’s draft. Bosa is second on the team in sacks with four, a half-sack behind offseason acquisition Dee Ford. Then there’s also Arik Armstead’s 3.5 sacks, DeForest Buckner’s three and Solomon Thomas and Ronald Blair’s two apiece.

Bosa is a first-round pick. The same goes for Ford. And Armstead. And Buckner. And Thomas.

“They’ve got a million first-rounders up front,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “I see it from afar like everybody else. I see the numbers.”

Being able to cycle so many talented linemen has had a trickle-down effect on San Francisco’s passing defense, too. The 49ers are allowing just 133.5 passing yards per game, easily the best mark in the league. It’s a similar practice to what the Panthers have experienced this last month — with their rush and coverage working in coordination — but on a magnified scale.

And the 49ers’ secondary has a pedigree in its own right, too. Most notably, cornerback Richard Sherman — he of the four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro selections — has two interceptions this year and has taken his shutdown ways down the Pacific coast.

“Looking at some of the coverages they have, it’s a little different from what they did in Seattle,” coach Ron Rivera said of Sherman. “He’s still a dangerous player in this league. He plays with great vision, he’s got tremendous quickness. He’s got great reflexes; he anticipates well. He’s still playing at a high level.”

That it will be tough sledding come Sunday for Carolina. San Francisco is undefeated for a reason, and coming off the bye, this stands to the Panthers’ toughest challenge yet.

But specifically, Allen must remain on his upward trajectory.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen has led the team to four straight wins, but the undefeated San Francisco 49ers will be his toughest test yet. Jeff Siner

He’s the sixth-most aggressive quarterback in the league this season, per NFL NextGen Stats, and while that has led to big plays for Carolina’s offense, it can just as easily flip the other way. The five quarterbacks above Allen — Daniel Jones, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matthew Stafford, Sam Darnold and Jameis Winston — have a combined 30 interceptions.

Meanwhile, Allen remains the only quarterback in the league yet to throw a pick.

It’ll be a matchup of an improving young passer against a much-improved young pass rush. And while Allen’s passer rating of 106.6 — fourth-best in the league — is certainly impressive, it hasn’t yet seen a force like the 49ers.

And he knows it.

“I think it’s a great challenge, and I think we’re all really excited for it,” Allen said. “It’s a great meter to see where we’re at as a team.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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