The season opener is around the corner and the San Francisco 49ers are welcoming the Carolina Panthers to Levi's Stadium on Sunday.
The Panthers had a down year in 2016, with QB Cam Newton not playing up to the mark and a team that faced a lot of injuries. Super Bowl Hangover or not, the Panthers were expected to do much better than they did. They'll be looking to avenge that and set the tone starting Week 1. They've added new toys for Newton to use from RB Christian McCaffrey to WR/RB Curtis Samuel.
On the other hand, the 49ers are looking to start the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch in the right way with a victory. The season opener has been friendly to the 49ers in the past, winning the last few openers. They'll look to continue that mojo against Carolina on Sunday.
As we look forward to the matchup, let's take a look at five matchups on the field that will determine the outcome of the game.
1. LB Reuben Foster vs. RB Christian McCaffrey
This matchup has box office written all over it. McCaffrey is the local kid who went to Stanford returning home for his Pro debut. On the other hand, Foster fell in the NFL Draft, but has impressed since.
One's a run-stuffing machine, while the other is a dynamic rusher, pass-catcher and all in all -- playmaker.
For the Panthers to be successful, McCaffrey's going to have to rush for 50-60 yards and also catch another 30-40 yards. Maybe add in a touchdown or two and that's the dream debut that HC Ron Rivera is hoping for.
Foster's the man that can stop that along with his partner in crime, LB NaVorro Bowman. They're going to have to stop McCaffrey at the point of attack and not let him get extra yards after the catch. The ex-Cardinal is a freak athlete, so Foster is going to be chasing him all day long. But the ex-Tide linebacker has shown really good vision, instincts and tackling ability. This seems to be a great way to start Foster's career.
2. DE Mario Addison vs. LT Joe Staley
Now let's take a look at a veteran matchup in the trenches. Staley has been one of the most consistent members of the 49ers since he joined the team. He's consistently in the mix for a Pro Bowl spot and among the top tackles in the league.
On the other hand, DE Mario Addison has been stellar for the Panthers. The 29-year old had 9.5 sacks this past season and is looking to build on that in 2017.
The offensive line for the 49ers has been shaky thus far in the preseason and will have an important test against the defensive line of the Panthers. One of the best units in football last year is back and ready to attack the quarterback.
Staley has been stellar in his career, but I'd like to think that the advantage leans with the defender and in this case, it's Addison.
3. HC/OC Kyle Shanahan vs. DC Steve Wilks
Both of these names will be making their debut in their new role. Shanahan as the head coach and play-caller for the 49ers and Wilks as the defensive coordinator for the Panthers.
Shanahan has been calling plays for years, but it's the first time he'll be doing so from a head coaching role. He'll have far more responsibility throughout the game and I wonder how that'll impact his play-calling.
On the other sideline, Wilks will take over for Sean McDermott, who left to Buffalo. It'll be his first game in the lead role and I'll be curious to see how he does. There's a lot of talent on defense, but Wilks will need to scheme against one of the most talented play-callers in the game.
4. WR Kelvin Benjamin vs. CB Rashard Robinson
My favorite matchup to watch will be this one. Benjamin, the 6-foot-5 No. 1 wide receiver for the Panthers, matched up against the tall and long No. 1 corner of the 49ers.
All offseason long, Robinson has been pushing the narrative of becoming the best corner on the 49ers and one of top defensive backs in the league. During the preseason, Robinson seemed a little antsy out there and seemed to play with too much pressure on his shoulders.
He's naturally talented and just needs to go out there and play against Benjamin. The other WR has been Newton's go to target and will be dominant again in 2017. The Panthers need a big day from their huge wideout if they want to win this game.
I think Robinson gets the best of Benjamin and begins his reign as a dominant shut-down corner in the NFL.
5. LB Luke Kuechly vs. RB Carlos Hyde
The best middle linebacker in the league vs. the 49ers' running back could spell trouble for Hyde. Although he's been a great running back thus far in his career, Hyde will have a difficult matchup in Week 1.
With the offensive line not getting on track during the preseason, it seems hard to believe that the 49ers will get Hyde on track during this game. Kuechly covers sideline to sideline and seems to be around the ball all the time.
It's an uphill battle for Hyde this game and unfortunately the advantage leans to Kuechly in this one.
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