Editor's note: This is the first part in a series that spotlights three 49ers-Panthers matchups to watch Sunday, 1:05 p.m., at Candlestick Park.
49ers LG Mike Iupati vs. Panthers DT Star Lotulelei
Tale of the tape
Iupati (77): 6 foot 5, 331 pounds, fourth season, Idaho
Lotulelei (98): 6 foot 2, 315 pounds, rookie, Utah
It’s strength vs. strength.
The 49ers own the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense, while the Carolina Panthers have the league’s second-best run defense.
And in the battle of two strong fronts, the strongest players on each line will often be lined up across from each other, facemask to facemask.
All-Pro guard Mike Iupati’s matchup against Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will play a big role in determining which team controls the line of scrimmage. The Panthers have allowed just 633 yards rushing (3.7 average) while playing seven-man fronts. Meanwhile, the 49ers rushed for 1,224 yards (4.5 average) in their first eight games, including 618 yards from Frank Gore.
Lotulelei has provided the Panthers with a huge boost in the middle of their defensive line. His play on the interior has been a huge key in allowing linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly to roam free and make tackles.
“He reminds me a little bit of (Baltimore’s) Haloti Ngata in a sense that he’s big, strong, but he’s explosive and he can penetrate and get off blocks,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.
Lotulelei was considered a top-five prospect in last year’s draft, but his stock fell when a test administered at the NFL scouting combine in February revealed Lotulelei’s left ventricle was working at 44-percent efficiency.
Later, Lotulelei received a clean bill of health after a later test reportedly led doctors to conclude the results of the first examination might have been impacted by a virus. Still, Lotulelei tumbled to No. 14 overall, where the Panthers selected him.
“A lot of people thought he was the No. 1 pick,” 49ers fullback Bruce Miller said. “And I can see why.”
Iupati is strong as a straight-ahead blocker, but he is also adept at pulling to lead “Power,” a play at which Gore thrives. Iupati has not been quite as dominant this season. A year ago, he was the fifth-best guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus’ rating system.
But Iupati’s ranking has dropped off considerably this season, perhaps a result of a shoulder injury that limited him in practices in the first half of the season. Iupati ranks 45th among guards in PFF’s rating system.