49ers beat up by Panthers, suffer narrow loss, 10-9

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By Morris Phillips

The 49ers saw their grip on Sunday’s game with the Panthers loosen with one debilitating injury after another.

Midway through the second period the 49ers led 9-0, and the defense had Cam Newton—the top pick in the 2011 draft—bottled up.  But in a tough, physical ball game, the battle of attrition most adversely affected the home team, starting with the first quarter loss of defensive end Ray McDonald.

Then the 49ers lost tight ends Brent Celek and Vernon Davis, and safety Eric Reid was felled in a violent collision with Mike Tolbert that had him down on the field for several minutes.

The injuries that limited the 49ers also seemed to embolden the Panthers, who responded with a huge defensive effort that shut out the 49ers in the second half, and allowed them to hold off San Francisco, 10-9.  The Panthers saw their win streak grow to five games, while the 49ers failed to extend their win streak to six.

“We thought the guys could do some good things and they did,” Carolina Coach Ron Rivera said of his defense, “I was pretty excited about that.  It worked to what we wanted to do.  I understand Vernon Davis went out and that was one of the things that really helped us in those situations.  You lose a weapon, especially an Excalibur and that is tough.”

“We made mistakes and in a game like this with two good teams, especially teams with two good defenses, you’ve got to capitalize on mistakes and they were able to do that,” the 49ers’ Aldon Smith said after his return to the field after a five-game absence.

Smith returned to action after a six week retreat to address his substance abuse issues, and the 49ers also saw the season debut of Mario Manningham, who was felled in last season’s late season blowout in Seattle.  But Smith saw action on just 11 plays and Manningham caught three balls for 30 yards.  The additions figured to make the 49ers complete on both sides of the ball.  Instead, Davis’ departure robbed the 49ers of their only deep threat and a critical blocker against a vicious Carolina pass rush that sacked Colin Kaepernick six times.

“Vernon changes defenses.  He makes them adjust differently.  He makes them do things that they don’t normally do.  He’s a big loss,” Kaepernick said.

Davis was injured when former Raider Mike Mitchell stripped the tight end of a catch in the red zone and simultaneously slammed him to the turf where Davis bumped his head and sustained a concussion.  Two plays later, on 4th and 1 from the Carolina 2, the 49ers lined up as to go for it, but lacking their usual power formation minus Davis and Celek, they conceded a delay of game penalty, and settled for a short field goal and a 9-0 lead.

According to Coach Jim Harbaugh, the two injuries at one position left the team scrambling.  During halftime, they made the adjustment to add backup offensive guard Adam Snyder to the two tight end formations.  But the Carolina defense didn’t yield the 49ers a red zone opportunity in the second half.

Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly played difference maker throughout, making 11 tackles, contributing a sack of Kaepernick as well as a critical pass breakup of a deep pass attempt to Vance McDonald.  Kuechly got plenty of help from Carolina’s front four and the 49ers were limited to 152 yards in offense, including just 46 yards passing once the yardage from the six sacks was subtracted from the total.

The 49ers return to action next Sunday in New Orleans where they will face Drew Brees and the Saints.  At 6-3, the 49ers will need to win there to stay above the stack in the NFC playoff race and within striking range of the Seahawks who improved to 8-1 on Sunday.

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