It’s finally here! Week 1 is upon us. Fantasy Football drafts are over, Rosters are set, and it’s going to count this Sunday when the 49ers step onto the field at Levis Stadium. Cam Newton and the 2015 NFC Champions are coming into town. Last time the Panthers were in this building they watched another team celebrate a Super Bowl victory. 49ers are a 5.5 point underdog in this game, and will be looking to pull off the upset. The 49ers have won their last 7 season openers, and they will look to make it 8. I’m going to break down some key match ups that could be the difference in this game.
Keep QB Cam Newton in the pocket
Newton is known in the NFL for his great deep ball and his ability to run. The strength of the 49ers defense is in the interior of the defensive line. DL Deforest Buckner, DL Arik Armstead, and 2017 first-round pick DL Solomon Thomas, will be difficult to handle for the Panthers Offensive line. Real question is can the defensive ends hold the edge and keep Newton from making plays out of the pocket. DE Elvis Dumervil and OLB Eli Harold are going to have their hands full. The Defensive line will need to be in Cam Newton’s face early and often, hitting him every chance they get. Let him know it’s not going to be an easy day.
Stop the Panthers' big plays
The Panthers offense has big play ability written all over it. Cam Newton has an absolute cannon for an arm and isn’t afraid to use it. Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin is one of his favorite targets. CB Rashard Robinson and CB Donte Johnson will have the task of keeping Benjamin in check. DC Robert Saleh’s defense puts a lot of strain on the corner backs to perform. SS Eric Reid will spend most of his time in the box playing the run and will have some curl/flat responsibly, but won’t be covering deep much. So this means the free safety is the only guy deep behind the corners. Starting FS Jimmy Ward hurt his hamstring early on in training camp and did not take a single snap in preseason. Jimmy Ward practiced in a limited fashion this week and the team is not sure if he is going to play on Sunday. Undrafted rookie FS Lorenzo Jerome took the majority of the snaps at free safety in the preseason with the starters. Would be a tough ask for an undrafted guy like Jerome to man the all-important free safety roll against an offense as talented as the Panthers.
Panthers Rookie RB Christian Mccaffrey was an amazing player in college at Stanford, and has shown that he can play in the NFL. He is known for his speed and ability to get out on the edges. He is a big play waiting to happen. Christian, I’d like to introduce you to LB Ruben Foster. Foster will have a lot to say about slowing Mccaffrey down on Sunday.
Run the football
HC Kyle Shanahan’s offense is built around play action. He is one of the best in the business when it comes to getting a team to bite on the run, and throw over the top of the defenders. One thing that makes play action tough to use is when a team can’t run the ball. A defense won’t bite on play action if the offense isn’t having success on the ground. RB Carlos Hyde looks to be the go to back for Kyle Shanahan this season. 2nd RB Matt Breida is an undrafted rookie with no experience in the NFL. Breida could be a big part of the offense later in the season, but I expect the team to ease him into action early in his NFL career. The Panthers defense will look to load the box to stop the run early. Hyde is going to have to have a big game to get this offense in a rhythm to keep up with the Panthers big play offense.
49ers' offensive line
The offensive line is arguably the weakest position group on the team. Outside of Joe Staley the group is full of question marks. C Daniel Kilgore has shown success in the past but has been inconsistent at times. G Zane Beadles has been struggling in the preseason and probably would not be on the roster if G Josh Garnett had not ended up on injured reserve. G Brandon Fusco played good at times in the preseason but was up and down in most games. RT Trent Brown is one large human being and is a fantastic pass blocker, but struggles in the run game. This unit is going to have to come together to keep Brian Hoyer on his feet, and to give Carlos Hyde some room to run.
Big plays on offense
One of the best things about Kyle Shanahan is the big plays that his offense can create. In week 3 of the preseason he used the Yankee Concept beautifully to scheme WR Marquise Goodwin open for a long TD pass from QB Brian Hoyer against a very talented Minnesota Vikings defense. The 49ers are going to need to keep the defense honest and force them to respect the deep pass. If the defense is worried about the deep ball, that will open up running room for Carlos Hyde and could open up the middle of the field for guys like WR Pierre Garcon and WR Trent Taylor. As much as Shanahan’s offense is built around the run game, it’s also built around the big play.
This is the first game for Kyle Shanahan as a head coach, and he will be looking to make a statement to start his head coaching career. He’s had a long time to think about ways to beat this Panthers defense and will have some very creative ways of doing so. 49ers fans have been very positive this off season after some tough seasons the last few years. The optimism will show on Sunday at Levis Stadium, it will be a very good crowd and the team will feed off of it. Will this game will be the beginning of something special in 49er land? I think so.