NFL Preview - San Francisco (1-5) at Carolina (0-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Francisco 49ers were able to come up with an elusive first victory of the season last week partly by showing faith in their quarterback. The Carolina Panthers, on the other hand, are hoping another switch under center can get them out of their winless funk.
With Matt Moore reinserted as the starting signal-caller, the offensively- challenged Panthers return from a bye week to host a 49ers team that's desperately trying to get back into contention in the NFC's West Division this Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina is off to its first 0-5 start since dropping the first seven tests of the 1998 season, and an anemic offense has been the biggest culprit to those struggles. The Panthers are dead last in the NFL in scoring (10.4 ppg), total yards (236.0 ypg) and passing yards (136.4 ypg), and had their worst output in eight years in an ugly 23-6 home loss to Chicago just prior to the bye.
The punchless Panthers mustered a paltry 147 total yards and eight first downs against the Bears, with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen completing only 9- of-22 attempts for 61 yards with an interception.
Moore wasn't any better in a relief effort, throwing a pair of picks and producing a meager 35 yards on 5-of-10 passing, and the undrafted fourth-year pro also struggled badly in opening up Carolina's first two games before giving way to Clausen. But with the team in dire need of a spark, head coach John Fox is hoping the 26-year-old can regain the form he displayed during the latter stages of last season, when Moore compiled an 8-to-1 touchdown-to- interception ratio in guiding the Panthers to four wins in a five-game stretch.
San Francisco has also had its offensive issues during a 1-5 beginning to a 2010 campaign that fostered very high expectations coming in. The 49ers have scored the third-fewest points in the league (15.5 ppg) and have an NFL-worst minus-eight turnover margin, with maligned triggerman Alex Smith's nine interceptions the highest number among individuals at the moment.
A three-giveaway performance in a frustrating three-point home loss to Philadelphia during Week 5 triggered speculation that Smith was in danger of losing his job to backup David Carr, but head coach Mike Singletary stuck with the former No. 1 overall draft choice for last Sunday's matchup with Oakland. And although Smith wasn't stellar, completing less than half of his 33 throws, he didn't commit a turnover and fired a pair of second-half touchdown passes in leading the Niners to a sorely-needed 17-9 triumph.
Whether Smith can deliver another mistake-free outing remains to be seen. Carolina's defense has garnered nine interceptions through the first five games and picked off Chicago's Todd Collins four times in its Oct. 10 loss to the Bears.
The 49ers are coming off an impressive showing on that end as well, limiting the Raiders to 179 total yards and 10 first downs in last week's test.
Carolina holds an 9-7 edge in its all-time series with San Francisco and has won the last two meetings between the teams, the most recent being a 31-14 verdict in Charlotte during Week 13 of the 2007 season. The Niners' last victories over the Panthers occurred in 2001, when they swept a home-and-home with their then-NFC West rival. Carolina swept two-fers in both the 1999 and 2000 campaigns.
Fox is 2-0 against the 49ers all-time, while Singletary will be opposing both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
While Smith (1425 passing yards, 8 TD, 9 INT) certainly did some positive things, last Sunday's breakout win coincided with a huge game from Frank Gore (471 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 3 total TD), with the standout running back rushing for a season-best 149 yards on 25 attempts to help alleviate the pressure on the 49ers' embattled quarterback. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree (24 receptions, 2 TD) is beginning to find his stride as well, as the talented sophomore has been more involved in the game plan following the in-season insertion of Mike Johnson to offensive coordinator. He's caught a touchdown pass from Smith in back-to-back weeks, while dynamic tight end Vernon Davis (28 receptions, 3 TD) has scored in three straight games and figures to present plenty of problems for Carolina's young safeties on Sunday. Turnovers have been San Francisco's most obvious bugaboo on offense, with Smith having thrown multiple interceptions in four of the first six games and Gore experiencing ball security issues at times, but the lack of a consistent running game has hampered the Niners as well. The team is averaging a pedestrian 92.3 rushing yards per game, the fifth-lowest total in the league.
San Francisco may be able to get its often stagnant ground attack untracked against a Carolina defense that ranks an unwanted 26th against the run (134.4 ypg) and was gashed for 218 rushing yards and two scores in the Week 5 loss to the Bears. The Panthers lack bulk up front and have been hurt by a preseason knee injury to playmaking weakside linebacker Thomas Davis, as two-time All- Pro Jon Beason (45 tackles) hasn't been as much of an impact player after moving from the middle into Davis' spot. The secondary has performed at a high level, however, despite not getting much assistance from a pass rush that's generated only seven sacks thus far. The Panthers still stand atop the NFL in pass efficiency defense and have snared nine interceptions, including a league-best four picks from strong safety Charles Godfrey (30 tackles, 5 TD). He's flanked by a quality cornerback duo in Chris Gamble (22 tackles, 4 PD) and Richard Marshall (22 tackles, 1 sack, 3 PD), while both Beason and leading tackler James Anderson (53 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) are proficient in coverage as well.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina boasted one of the league's most powerful running games over the previous few seasons, but the subpar quarterback play has enabled teams to key on the outstanding backfield tandem of DeAngelo Williams (317 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions) and Jonathan Stewart (119 rushing yards, 4 receptions, 2 total TD), both of whom surpassed 1,000 yards a year ago. Williams has still been effective as the lead ball carrier, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, but the Panthers' 99.6 rushing yards a game (20th overall) is well below their usual standards. They'll likely need to boost that total to have a chance on Sunday, unless Moore (342 passing yards, 2 TD) can improve upon his poor 42.4 percent completion rate and cut down on his mistakes (six interceptions in 59 pass attempts). He should benefit from the expected return of top wide receiver Steve Smith (13 receptions, 2 TD) from a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss the Chicago game. The four-time Pro Bowler is the lone proven member of a painfully-young pass-catching corps, though rookie David Gettis (10 receptions) has shown flashes of being a reliable secondary target, and the Panthers hope recent waiver claim Devin Thomas -- a disappointing former high draft choice of the Redskins -- can aid in that area as well.
While the San Francisco defense hasn't lived up to its advance billing in the early going, the unit's stifling display last week was a very encouraging sign. The Niners kept Oakland out of the end zone and had two interceptions of quarterback Jason Campbell, who finished with a mere 83 yards and completed just 8-of-21 attempts. There's certainly enough talent among the front seven to keep the Carolina backs in check as well, as All-Pro Patrick Willis (47 tackles, 1 sack) and veteran Takeo Spikes (29 tackles, 1 INT) form an excellent pair of inside linebackers and end Justin Smith (24 tackles, 2 sacks) and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (18 tackles) are both accomplished stoppers on the line. The 49ers have been generally solid versus the run, having allowed 110 rushing yards or less in four of their six games, but can be vulnerable to strong aerial attacks, something they probably won't have to worry about on Sunday. Outside linebackers Parys Haralson (16 tackles, 3 sacks) and Travis LaBoy (13 tackles, 3 sacks) have been the team's best pass rushers, while 10th-year corner Nate Clements (29 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) is skilled and experienced cover man.
The pickings are rather slim in this one from a fantasy standpoint, and any owner with a handful of participants in this game on his or her current roster is likely enduring a rough year. San Francisco does possess a couple of blue- chippers in Gore, one of the league's premier all-purpose backs, and Davis, while Crabtree's recent emergence makes him a intriguing but risky option as a flex play. Williams is the only Carolina player that's starter worthy at the moment, as Stewart has been essentially a non-factor and Steve Smith's value has been crippled by the lousy performances of the quarterbacks. Moore should remain on the waiver wire even after getting a chance to reprove himself, while Alex Smith's way too streaky to rely on for the visitors. Neither of these defenses are attractive choices in most weeks, but in a matchup where both teams struggle to score points and turn the ball over like crazy, one could certainly do worse.
If the 49ers have any designs of being a factor in an NFC West race that remains wide open, they've got to able to beat a Carolina team that hasn't been able to get out of its way on offense and doesn't have the overall talent level of its opponent. There are a few trends working against San Francisco in this game, however. First off, teams traveling from the West Coast into the Eastern Time Zone for an early kickoff have not fared well over the years, and the Niners' habit of giving the ball away is a serious concern against a Carolina defense that has shown the ability to force turnovers. It may be hard to believe, but Moore actually does give the Panthers a better chance to win than Clausen at this stage, and the change in quarterbacks and benefit of a bye week just might be enough to turn the tide in Carolina's favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 16, 49ers 13
10/21 15:27:04 ET