SANTA CLARA – A defensive front that pressures the quarterback without blitzing. Linebackers that mesh seamlessly with the linemen in front of them. A unit that excels at stopping the run.
The 49ers' coaches practically went hoarse singing the praises of the Panthers' defense in the run-up to today's game. And they said it was almost like looking in the mirror.
"They get off blocks as good or better than anybody in the league," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "Their linebackers play off their front very well. Kind of reminds me of us a little bit with how our linebackers play off our front. Different scheme, but they have really good cohesion there."
And that's not the only similarity in today's game. Both teams are on winning streaks – five games for the 49ers, four for the Panthers.
Both offenses are led by tall, athletic quarterbacks taken in the 2011 draft. Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton – the No. 1 overall pick that season – were roommates during the scouting combine that year.
But despite their talented passers, San Francisco and Carolina are two of only three teams in the league that have attempted more runs than passes this season, making them throwbacks of sorts in a league dominated by air attacks. The third team is Seattle, the best team in the NFC.
The 49ers are first in the league, averaging 153 yards per game, and Frank Gore is second to Washington's Alfred Morris (who has played one more game than Gore) among running backs with runs of 20 yards or more. Gore has seven; Morris has eight.
Whether Gore and the 49ers can continue their ground game today is perhaps the biggest key of the game.
Carolina's run defense is second in the NFL and is particularly stout in the middle, where Gore and the 49ers like to run. Two Panthers in particular, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a rookie, and inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads Carolina in tackles, caught the attention of the 49ers last week.
"He reminds me a little bit of (Ravens nose tackle) Haloti Ngata in a sense that he's big, strong, but he's explosive and he can penetrate and get off blocks," Roman said of Lotulelei, who was drafted 14th in April.
Said 49ers fullback Bruce Miller of Lotulelei: "A lot of people thought he was the No. 1 pick. And I can see why."
Because the 49ers have been running the ball so well and because they've had so few threats at wide receiver, opponents have been stacking the line of scrimmage to stop Gore and Kaepernick, who has been used more as a runner in the last two games.
That's what has made the 49ers' ground success all the more impressive – it's been done against defenses that have crowded eight and sometimes nine players into the "box" along the line of scrimmage.
"We've seen some extreme looks," Roman said. "And it's a credit to the coaches and whatnot you go against. They draw up things that you haven't seen before, and then you have to adjust during the game."
Roman stressed that the Panthers are unique in that they've been able to stop their opponent's running game with just seven men along the line of scrimmage.
In Week 1, they held Seattle's Marshawn Lynch to 43 rushing yards in a narrow loss to the Seahawks. In Week 6, the Vikings' Adrian Peterson finished with 62 yards and no touchdowns in a blowout win over Minnesota.
Left tackle Joe Staley said the Panthers' defense, especially the front seven, is the toughest the 49ers have faced to date.
"Overall, they've been able to stop the run with a seven-man, sometimes six-man box," he said. "They're similar to our defense in that respect."
Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.