San Francisco

Panthers' Ball-Hawking Defense May Pose Problems for 49ers

Carolina has 14 takeaways in a four-game winning streak as it comes into Levi's Stadium Sunday to take on undefeated San Francisco

The 49ers are 6-0 and favored by oddsmakers – by a healthy 5½ points – to stretch that undefeated streak Sunday against the visiting 4-2 Carolina Panthers.

The Niners have been a balanced operation, feeding off the league’s No. 2-ranked defense, while operating the No. 7 offense (and the second-best running attack).

Plus, the San Francisco offense got a boost this week with the trade for veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who suddenly gives quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a top-flight target to go with a corps of young wide receivers who’ve been up and down.

Yet Jim Trotter of this week pointed out the 49ers may be vulnerable to upset at Levi’s Stadium because of an opportunistic Carolina defense.

As Trotter wrote, the 49ers haven’t been great with ball security, committing 11 turnovers in six games, and Garoppolo has thrown seven interceptions. They may be primed for picking by the Panthers, who have a whopping 14 takeaways during a four-game winning streak (3.5 per game).

Wrote Trotter: "Speed off the edge has been a key factor to the Panthers’ success on defense. Already blessed with (linebacker) Mario Addison, they added end Bruce Irvin in free agency and linebacker Brian Burns in the first round of the draft. Those three have combined for 12.5 sacks and 20 QB hits."

Will Brinson of CBS Sports also sees potential trouble for San Francisco.

"The 49ers offense is good, but the Panthers defense is elite," he wrote. "They can get pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo and prevent him from getting comfortable in the pocket. This game might definitely be a case of who gets a lead first."

The good news for the 49ers is left tackle Joe Staley returned to practice this week and has a chance to start Sunday for an offensive line that has done an excellent job protecting Garoppolo this year (allowing just eight sacks).

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan says how that O-line handles the Carolina front seven could be the key to the game. He says the Carolina front seven reminds him of his own defense.

"It always starts with the defensive line," said Shanahan. "It’s huge advantage for a defense when you have the type of defensive line that can affect the quarterback with only four guys coming. It’s a lot easier to play coverage with seven."

Kickoff Sunday is set for 1:05 p.m.

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