The Carolina Panthers‘ defense is receiving a lot of praise after shutting down the San Francisco 49ers on the road. Despite their fearsome numbers, the Panthers’ defense was criticized for not yet having face an elite offense, making their gaudy stats skewed and flawed. The unit has seemingly dispelled all doubts since walking out of Candlestick Park, but when you truly look at that game there are still questions to be answered.
To start, there are absolutely zero questions about the dominance of Carolina’s front seven. They faced probably the best offensive line in the league Sunday, equipped with three powerful first-round picks in Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, and they flat-out manhandled them. While the line was able to have some success with the running game, putting up 102 yards, vaunted running back Frank Gore was held under 100 yards and under 20 carries, and the team was well under their league-leading average of over 150 yards per game. The Panthers also posted six sacks, consistently getting penetration into the backfield and disrupting the rhythm of Colin Kaepernick.
The real question is whether the 49ers offense, in its current form, can be considered elite. The 49ers’ running attack was at the top of the league in rushing coming into the game, but they were also last in the league in passing. Vernon Davis, one of Kaepernick’s favorite targets, was out for majority of the game, trimming an already anemic passing attack down to one legitimate receiver in Anquan Boldin. The Panthers will, however, face an elite offense on Monday in the New England Patriots, complete with a healthy Rob Gronkowski.
While Tom Brady hasn’t been quite himself for most of the season, the offense is beginning to hit its stride. Danny Amendola is finally getting healthy. Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have been sensational. The running attack has a great one-two punch in Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount. Most importantly, Gronk looks like Gronk.
Carolina should be able to handle the rushing attack, but with the combination of Brady’s distributing ability and New England’s depth at receiver, the Panthers will have to defend the entire field. The real problem is Gronk, a player the Panthers have no answer for physically. Luke Kuechly‘s coverage skills make him a prime choice, but he still doesn’t have the height to out-leap the 6-foot-7 Gronkowski for a jump ball. The Panthers’ defense has a mighty challenge ahead of them, and if they can pass this test they might be the best in the league.