The 49ers open the 2017 regular season under new head coach Kyle Shanahan on Sunday, marking the long-time coordinator’s first game holding the top job. The challengers? Cam Newton and the visiting Panthers, a team with an MVP quarterback two years removed from a Super Bowl berth. They’ll be visiting Santa Clara for Week 1 as 5.5-point favorites over the home team Niners.
Here are a few storylines heading into this weekend’s matchup.
49ers’ new-look defense gets first real test
Quarterback Cam Newton is one of the league’s top players at the position, and he has a brand-new arsenal this year—easily the best of his career—with versatile rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel joining a corps that already featured a rebounder in Kelvin Benjamin and a top-three NFL tight end in Greg Olsen. Every position group on the 49ers’ D will be tested. But as much as Carolina’s offense has been made over, so has San Francisco’s defense.
Not only have they made the change back to a 4-3 scheme, but in rebuilding the front seven around All-Pro NaVorro Bowman, the unit now features four first-rounders all drafted since 2015 (three defensive linemen and one linebacker). This is where the 49ers have a chance to win the game, up front near the line of scrimmage, cutting plays off at their inception. The defensive front is the engine of the defense, and it was humming in the exhibition.
Additionally, with the support of a raw but talented secondary that includes an up-and-comer in Rashard Robinson, and former first-round pick and Pro Bowler Eric Reid, who looks reborn in this defensive scheme, the 49ers have a great opportunity to show what they’re made of against a Panthers offense that'll come at them in a myriad of ways.
Rookie vs. Rookie
What’s a game preview without spotlighting at least one can't-miss matchup?
Arguably the most exciting one, and perhaps one that could tilt the scales of the game one way or the other, pits a first-round rookie against a first-round rookie. That’s 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster against Panthers running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey.
Both were discussed as top-10 players heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, and they’ll both go head to head in their pro debuts.
Foster is as good as any linebacker prospect in the last 10 years, and McCaffrey is a transcendent offensive skill player. In the preseason, both looked like the talents they were hyped up to be, which should make this a fun back and forth for four quarters. McCaffrey is likely to win some snaps, and so is Foster. Exactly when and how big of plays they are could drastically impact the game.
One of the indicators of a good head coach is how fundamentally sound, and generally mistake free, his team is. Are they avoiding penalties? Are they protecting the ball? How are they in the trenches? Also to take into account is basic decision making from the players, like not fielding a punt return inside your own 5 and being aware of the down-and-distance, on both offense and defense.
With this being Kyle Shanahan’s first game as a head coach, the world should be anxious to see how clean and effective a game his team plays.
It was messy to begin the preseason, but the 49ers' starters responded with a crisp Game 3 performance against the Vikings.
In looking at the team's last successful head coach, one of the primo factors Jim Harbaugh brought with him that everyone noticed right away, and what led to such early success, was fundamentals; namely how well the team blocked, tackled and consistently won the turnover ratio. Keeping that in mind, the formation of Shanahan’s team’s identity is something to watch, starting in Week 1.
49ers interior OL vs. Star Lotulelei & Kawann Short – The 49ers interior O-line held up well in protection this preseason, but they struggled to get anything going in the run game, whiffing on blocks and putting together a long reel of lowlights. The Panthers’ defensive tackle pairing of Lotulelei and Short is arguably the league’s best, which makes for an unfavorable matchup for San Francisco.
George Kittle vs. Luke Kuechly – The rookie Kittle, who is listed as the No. 1 tight end for the 49ers, will have his hands full trying to block and get free from the All-Pro linebacker.
Rashard Robinson vs. Kelvin Benjamin – Robinson, the 49ers' top corner, welcomed the challenge of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver in his second NFL season. For Week 1, that means covering the 6-foot-5 Benjamin, who can make plays all over the field with his ability to dominate at the catch point.
Carlos Hyde vs. Panthers front seven – 2017 is set up to be a breakout season for Hyde, now in his third year as a starter, and first under offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan. But Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Carolina’s defensive line will look to postpone the start of that campaign for at least a week, and they’re fully capable.
Lorenzo Jerome vs. Greg Olsen – The 49ers may not have Jimmie Ward on Sunday for Week 1, which could mean a rookie UDFA is primarily responsible for covering one of the league's best tight ends.
Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images, Santiago Mejia of The Chronicle