SAN FRANCISCO — Putting 49ers in 3rd and long key for Carolina
Thirteen times on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers were faced with a third down.
And against one of the league’s best defenses, only twice did the home team convert.
The Panthers held the 49ers, who entered the game with a conversion percentage of 40.2, to 15.4 percent on third downs in the 10-9 victory.
“We had a great game plan, and really we just played Panther defense,” Carolina free safety Mike Mitchell said. “We had a good idea what they were going to be about and we just took those things away. Our coaches did a great job preparing us.
“We were locked in on everything they were doing.”
The Panthers set the tone early on third down when Charles Johnson stuffed Frank Gore for a loss of one on third and 2 from the Carolina 33 on the 49ers‘ first drive.
That stop led San Francisco to its first of three field goals on the day and an early 3-0 lead.
The next two 49ers’ possessions would be three-and-outs. Gore was again stopped on third-and-1 for a loss of 1 yard when A.J. Klein met him behind the line. On the next drive, the Panthers stopped a Colin Kaepernick scramble short of the sticks, but the 49ers retained the ball after Drayton Florence inadvertently touched the ball on a partially blocked punt.
The first conversion came on a 3-yard Kendall Hunter run from San Francisco territory that would prove harmless at the end of the first half. The second came on a 14-yard pass to Mario Manningham from the 49ers’ 6.
Hurting San Francisco was the loss of tight end Vernon Davis, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound target who went out midway through the game with a concussion. That put San Francisco down two tight ends following the loss of Garrett Celek earlier in the game.
“One of the biggest things I know (defensive coordinator) Sean (McDermott) and them emphasized was getting them in third-and-long or as long as possible and putting a lot of pressure on them,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We felt pretty good about the pass rush. It worked to what we wanted to do. I understand Vernon Davis went out and that was one of those things that helped us in that situation. You lose a weapon, especially of his caliber, it’s tough.”
Klein shines : Rookie linebacker A.J. Klein got the first start of his career Sunday because of a foot injury to weakside linebacker Chase Blackburn and finished with five tackles and one sack.
He didn’t get off to the best start, trailing in coverage on a 10-yard pass play on the second play from scrimmage. But he was able to rebound, and the 49ers second series he made a big stop on Frank Gore for a loss of one yard on third down to force a punt.
In the second quarter, Klein sacked Kaepernick for a loss of 14 despite the quarterback grabbing his facemask. The Panthers declined the penalty.
“He’s a very similar football player to Chase,” Rivera said. “I told A.J., that’s your future. Just look at (No.) 93 and that’s what you’re going to be in about eight years – a crusty old veteran.
Florence’s miscue : Drayton Florence wasn’t interested in getting out of the way when Jordan Senn partially blocked a 49ers’ punt in the first quarter.
The short punt hit Florence’s leg and bounced around before San Francisco recovered, but there was nothing inadvertent about the play for Florence.
“My idea was to catch it and get in the end zone,” he said. “We're not playing for field position. We're playing to win games. That's the old Carolina Panthers. We're coming out to win, whatever we've got to do to win. I'm trying to make a play every time I'm on the field.”
The Panthers had forced a three-and-out, but the turnover kept the drive alive, and San Francisco eventually got a field goal to lead 6-0.
“They brought me back to make plays. I saw it was blocked. I saw everybody down the field,” Florence said. “I was trying to catch it and make a play. I couldn't get there, so it ended up hitting me. Then I tried to knock it out of bounds. I was just trying to make a play. It was like a playoff game for us. I'm leaving nothing on the field. I actually tried to catch it.”
• The Panthers won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. It was Carolina’s eighth-consecutive coin toss victory and seventh-straight win-and-defer this season.
• The 49ers honored former wide receiver Terrell Owens before the game, and he was an honorary captain for San Francisco.
• Carolina trailed for 25 minutes and 51 seconds in the first half Sunday, going into halftime trailing in a game for the first time all season.
• San Francisco defensive end Aldon Smith sat out the entire first quarter in his return to the team after spending five weeks in voluntary rehab. He played in 11 snaps and did not record any tackles.
• Mitchell believed he caused a fumble on a controversial second-down play in the second quarter. Vernon Davis appeared to catch a pass and take two steps before Mitchell punched the ball out, but officials reviewed the play and called it incomplete. After the game, Mitchell was adamant he forced a fumble.
By the numbers
100 Consecutive games in which Steve Smith has a catch.
0 Touchdowns scored by the 49ers for the first time since Week 2’s loss to Seattle.
6 Sacks by the Panthers’ defense, the second-most the unit has tallied this season.
65 Yards on a first-quarter Brad Nortman punt, the longest of his career
• “To be honest, I feel like it wasn’t indicative of how we were playing. I feel like we were playing all right, we just missed a ton of plays that we’ve been making all season.” – Carolina tight end Greg Olsen.
• “I can say with confidence, if you’re a fan of football, you look at Candlestick, you look at the history, very few games that are relevant and mean something, you never come out with a blow out.” – Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith.
• “It’s not a good feeling when you don’t prevail, especially when you had multiple chances to get it done.” – San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh.
• “They didn’t surprise us at all. We didn’t execute.” – San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9