Wide receivers - from Mario Manningham to Michael Crabtree to Kyle Williams to Carolina's Ted Ginn - have dominated the news in the run-up to Sunday's game between the 49ers and Panthers.
But the 49ers are riding a five-game winning streak largely because they've been able to consistently run the ball, and the key to Sunday's game is whether they can continue to do so against a Carolina run defense that ranks No. 2 in the league. That defense, especially players in the middle of the unit like defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a rookie, and inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, has been a frequent topic by 49ers coaches and players this 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," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said of Lotulelei, who was drafted 14th overall in April.
"And that's what these guys have done," Roman continued. "They get off blocks as good or better than anybody in the league. 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."
San Francisco's lack of firepower at receiver has been well-noted by fans and the media. And it certainly hasn't escaped the notice of opposing defenses who, with little to worry about in the outside passing game, have shifted their focus to stopping the strength of the 49ers offense.
The 49ers rank first in the league in averaging 153 yards per game, and Frank Gore is second only to Washington's Alfred Morris (who has played one more game than Gore) when it comes to running backs with runs of 20 yards or more. Gore has seven; Morris has eight.
Those marks are all the more impressive considering the 49ers are going against stacked fronts - eight and sometimes nine defenders crowded 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 big difference with the Panthers is that they've been able to stop the opponent's running game -- they are giving up only 79.1 yards a 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.
"As a group they're very talented," fullback Bruce Miller said. "They fit well together, all those pieces that they have. They're definitely a good run defense."
- Matt Barrows