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Panthers vs. 49ers: Anatomy of a Fourth Down Decision

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Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

What to do on 4th and goal from the opponent’s 1 yard line is what keeps coaches up at night. Do they go for it and trust that their offense can punch it in or do they play it conservative and kick the chip shot field goal. Is there more to the decision? While watching the  San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers playoff game I saw the thought process that eventually led to a Panthers touchdown.

As the first quarter wound down the Panthers ran three times at the 49ers and got the ball down to the one yard line. The score was 6-0 San Francisco at the time and the “book” says that you take the points and kick the field goal but things are never that simple. Ron Rivera, or “Riverboat Ron” as he is called because of his penchant for going on 4th down, knows that his quarterback Cam Newton is a freak athlete that has both speed and power, excelling at quarterback sneaks. He also has Pro Bowl RB/FB Mike Tolbert who is one of the best short-yardage backs in the league. They also have a 1st team All-Pro center in Ryan Kalil so the pieces are there for the Panthers to get the yard.

What would give Rivera pause about going for it? Generally if you go and fail on a 4th down not only do you not score any points but the momentum goes to your opponent and momentum is a big part of a close football game. Specifically the opponent, the 49ers, have an excellent defense that is ranked 4th in the league in rushing yards allowed. They are led by their linebackers Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, All-Pro Navarro Bowman, Pro Bowler Ahmad Brooks and Pro Bowler defensive end/tackle Justin Smith in their rushing defense not to mention pass rush specialist Aldon Smith. They are fast, powerful and excel in short-yardage situations.

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