Rumbeck: X-Factors in the 49ers-Panthers' matchup?

If you noticed a different scent on the September air this morning, it could have been the strong smell of soot and ash from a distant forest fire. Underneath the carbon particulate matter, the distinct hints of the first week of professional football are floating in the air

Your San Francisco 49ers finally take the field with hopes of rebooting the era of righteous feelings. And while the Carolina Panthers are 5.5-point favorites, there’s still plenty about this game that makes it an even match.

Week one is always wide open, but both teams have X-factors that could tip the game in either direction.

Kyle Shanahan’s play calling

While the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl loss is not entirely upon the shoulders of 49ers’ head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, he does enter week one with something to prove.

The 49ers can win on Sunday if Shanahan crafts an explosive game plan that keeps the defense not only on their heels but confused as to what play comes next. For too long, we’ve seen the 49ers run a conservative offense, with sporadic flourishes of creativity. The last thing Shanahan needs is a sluggish offense, running off tackle, satisfied with short throws and ultimately failing to score touchdowns.

Shanahan does not need to call a triple-reverse during every series, but he does need to call an aggressive game from the opening series to the final ticks of the fourth quarter clock. Passing routes need to go beyond the sticks on a 3rd and 12 situations; fullback draw plays on 2nd and 15 are boring and predictable. Find something beyond page 28 of the playbook that can gain 16 yards.

Moreover, his red zone game plan needs to be creative and get the 49ers six points. Years ago, the 49ers would run Steve Young on naked bootleg plays that would tighten the rear ends of every fan seated in Candlestick Park, but result in a lot of soggy green open space for Young to run. The defense was caught completely unaware, and Young could turn these into short touchdown runs. These are the types of plays Shanahan needs to call; don’t just run it up the middle for 3 yards. Work to find highly successful plays that only bring kicker Robbie Gould off the bench to kick an extra point.

No Holds Barred for Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster

Nearly all off season, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh talked about a defense that operates with extreme violence. Indeed, Salah stated on August 29, “I think every player can be gifted with that mindset to just go straight all gas and have that intent to physically impose your will on another human being. That’s mindset, that’s not skill.”

Considering last year’s defense showed all the violence of a Jain monastery – and called by a man who’d insist on rushing two linemen at times – an attitude of extreme violence and all acceleration are welcome changes.

We’ve seen the 49ers’ first round selections – defensive tackle Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster – are comfortable in Saleh’s scheme and with the complexities of the National Football League.

Now, it’s time for Saleh to allow 49ers’ fans and the whole NFL to witness the firepower of a fully armed and operational Thomas and Foster. Over three preseason games we saw glimmers of what Thomas and Foster could do; now, it’s time to see them play four quarters of football with the power of harnessed lightning.

Additionally, Saleh also talked about finding the right rotation of players to be successful. I am sure there are a multitude of combinations he could use, but if he wants to bring the crowd into the game and shift momentum back to the 49ers, send Thomas and Foster on some wild stunt. I want to see a baffled the tackle, the running back run for cover, and quarterback Cam Newton crushed into a huge divot of Levi’s Stadium turf. The defensive line is going to be the steady ship that drives the defense, and it’s time for Thomas and Foster to start commanding the vessel.

Eric Reid’s Leadership

The grim reality of the 49ers’ secondary is finally settling in with most fans as it already did with experts and television talking heads: They simply are not that good.

However, veteran safety Eric Reid put together a solid preseason. Under other circumstances, nobody would pay mind to a veteran playing well in the preseason. But, this is the lowly 49ers, and right now, they need all the positive vibrations they can wring from players, coaches, fans and The Football Fates. Reid showed the secondary how to play; he showed toughness, smarts, and true grit.

That attitude is infectious and can feed younger players. If Reid makes a big hit, others make big hits. If Reid picks off a tipped football, other people start diving for wild throws. It’s a chain reaction that can keep the 49ers fully in control of Sunday’s game.

Christian McCaffrey – Is he for real?

Every professional sport, even NASCAR, has had a rookie ride in on his or her hype train and deliver on promises made months before.

Panthers’ rookie running back Christian McCaffrey is currently riding a hype train as long as the transcontinental railroad traveling at supersonic speed.

While the Panthers can fly into Santa Clara on Sunday and rely on Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly to squeeze out a win, a player like McCaffrey is someone who can blow the game out of the water. His ability can account for any lingering injuries Newton still may feel.

We’ve seen McCaffrey embarrass savvy veteran defenders at practice and in preseason games. If McCaffrey can weasel his way through the 49ers’ defensive line and get into the secondary, he’s going to have well over 100 yards rushing, and possibly just as many yards receiving. The 49ers’ secondary struggled with open field tackling this preseason, and a player like McCaffrey can make an already shoddy secondary look even worse.

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