3 Keys for a 49ers' Victory Against Panthers

The San Francisco 49ers begin the regular season on Sunday when they host the Carolina Panthers, looking to start the Kyle Shanahan era by continuing an unbeaten record in openers that stretches back to the 2011 Week 1 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Jim Harbaugh's first game in charge.

Facing a Panthers team that has added a lot of talent in the offseason as they seek to rebound from a disappointing 2016 campaign, the 49ers are a home underdog -- the Panthers standing as 5.5-point favorites.

But what do the 49ers need to do to upset those odds? Here we look at three keys to a San Francisco victory this weekend.

Get the ball to Pierre Garcon

The Panthers, despite their failure to make it back to the playoffs, still boasted one of the best defenses in the league in 2016.

They ranked at No. 10 in the league in defensive DVOA, a metric used by Football Outsiders to measure efficiency.

Carolina was 11th in pass defense DVOA but ranked a lowly 24th in the league in DVOA when defending No. 1 receivers.

That should be music to the ears of Pierre Garcon, whose rapport with Brian Hoyer was evident in the 49ers' preseason dress rehearsal against the Minnesota Vikings and has a favorable matchup against James Bradberry.

Bradberry, per The Football Outsiders Almanac, gave up just six adjusted yards per target in 2016, the best number of any rookie cornerback.

Yet he still has plenty of strides to make in his second season and, if the 49ers get the ball to Garcon early and often, he should be able to take advantage of Bradberry and make a potentially decisive contribution.

Make Use of Play-Action

The play-action is a pivotal part of the Shanahan scheme and it is something that the 49ers have quickly had success with.

Per Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney, 49ers quarterbacks completed 21 of their 31 passes when using play-action for 394 yards and three touchdowns.

By contrast, when not using play action they completed only 46 of 77 passes for 530 yards and three touchdowns but with three interceptions.

It is important never to read too much into preseason but, if the 49ers are to keep the Panthers defense on their toes, play-action will play a huge part.

In order to be successful with play-action, the 49ers will need to establish the run. That may be easier said than done with Carlos Hyde having averaged just 2.6 yards per rush on 17 carries in preseason, his struggles largely down to some disappointing interior line play.

But, the numbers from preseason suggest the 49ers have a strong chance to have success through the air should they get the Panthers to respect their run game enough to be able to make use of play-action consistently.

Try to Slow Down Christian McCaffrey

The biggest change to the Panthers offense this season is that they will have an extremely exciting dual-threat running back in Christian McCaffrey on the field.

Carolina drafted McCaffrey with the eighth pick and he is a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year due to his skills as both a runner and receiver.

McCaffrey racked up 5,128 yards from scrimmage, scoring 31 touchdowns and averaging 6.2 yards per carry and 12.2 yards per reception over three seasons just 13 miles away from Levi's Stadium at Stanford.

He has displayed the same kind elusiveness and explosion that defined his stellar collegiate career in preseason and he has the ability to provide a much-needed safety net for Cam Newton.

Though Jonathan Stewart is also likely to receive plenty of carries, the 49ers defense is sure to see a lot of McCaffrey and, if they fail to shut him down, San Francisco's chances of victory figure to be slim.

The Niners were strong against the run in preseason, giving up just 3.8 yards per carry, while Reuben Foster, NaVorro Bowman and the 49ers linebacking core impressed in coverage, providing some hope that they will be able to keep McCaffrey in check both on the ground and in the passing game. Doing so will be vital to San Francisco's prospects of going 1-0.

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