SANTA CLARA — Ever since Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco three years ago to build the 49ers into a consistent winner, a bruising offensive line has been the backbone of the team's offensive success.
Whether it's clearing holes for Frank Gore or giving Colin Kaepernick enough time to make big throws or scramble, the five blockers up front have dictated how the offense has played.
That's why it stood out so much when that unit was overmatched in November in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers that remains prominent in the memories of the 49ers players heading into the playoff rematch on Sunday.
“It's one of those games where you wish you could have it back,” guard Alex Boone said. “They're a great team. I feel we're two of the same teams, just East Coast and West Coast separates us. There are things you always want to have back, and that game especially. If we go in and play our game and don't get mentally hijacked and emotionally hijacked, it could be a good day for us.”
It sure wasn't the first meeting when San Francisco was overpowered for a change after building a reputation for beating up on other teams. The Niners were held to 151 yards of offense for their lowest total in seven years as Kaepernick was sacked a career-high six times and looked flustered at times.
With athletic defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy keeping him hemmed into the pocket and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis chasing after him if he tried to escape, Kaepernick had one of his worst days as a pro, completing 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards and one interception.
“They have a great front seven,” Kaepernick said. “They're very athletic, very fast, very strong. It was something that the first game we didn't play very well. We didn't execute the way we should have.”
The Panthers were able to generate pressure without blitzing, with half of their sacks coming on four-man rushes, according to STATS LLC. San Francisco ran only nine plays against the blitz as Carolina was able to control the line of scrimmage with their front seven.
“I really believe that they are the most talented front seven that we have played,” Harbaugh said. “That's in large part a great share of what makes them so effective. Putting pressure on the quarterback, stopping the run. Again, you look across the categories that they measure defensive success, and they're in the top, top five, top six, top.”
Kaepernick didn't complete a single pass that game when he was pressured, going 0-for-4 with an interception and the six sacks as he played without star receiver Michael Crabtree all game and lost tight end Vernon Davis to a concussion in the first half.
He also wasn't able to scramble as effectively as he did in last week's playoff win over Green Bay when he escaped four times for 85 yards. He had three scrambles against the Panthers for 22 yards with only one of those runs generating a first down.
Kaepernick struggled throwing as well and completed just one pass that went more than 10 yards downfield.
“It definitely wasn't our best day at the office,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “You've got to give the opponent credit first. I think when you go back, all the answers were on the film, really. There were some very unique things that took place in that game and was a little bit of a 'perfect storm' shall you say. But, that's a long time ago and we're going to be playing a game Sunday. We're a different outfit than we were that day and we'll be playing in a land far, far away.”
NOTES: CB Carlos Rogers (hamstring) did not practice for the second straight week and is listed as questionable for the game although it is unlikely he will play. … LB Dan Skuta (foot) is also questionable.