Nine months after the curtain came down on the 49ers’ brief flirtation with Chip Kelly and ties were cut with much maligned long standing GM Trent Baalke, a much changed roster will walk into Levi’s Stadium and look to get the ShanaLynch era off to a flying start. With thirty new faces in the fifty-three and a radically different coaching staff, last season is just a parable for most involved with the team and Sunday represents a tremendous opportunity to open the season with an eye opening victory.
The Carolina Panthers will be hoping to spoil Kyle Shanahan’s first competitive match as 49ers’ Head Coach, as they seek to gain a measure of a revenge on a man who helped to mastermind an offensive victory that showed the entire NFL that the 2016 Panthers were a poor reflection on the previous season’s Super Bowl losers. The 2017 edition of the Panthers should be an improvement on 2016, thanks to a range of additions and probable natural development on either side of the ball. Here however, I will not be tackling the side of the ball Shanahan is primarily responsible for, but will instead be focussing on the battle between Robert Saleh’s defense and a retooled Panthers’ offense.
The problem with talking about the Panthers’ offense is that the discussion for the most part is going to revolve around the unknown nature of Christian McCaffrey’s role and range of involvement. What can be assumed is the centrality of McCaffrey to this offense. His presence will likely blur the distinctions between passing and running plays as the team can use pre-snap motion, RPOs and a range of formations and personnel groupings with McCaffrey and fellow rookie Curtis Samuel on the field to make their offense incredibly unpredictable.
These two additions likely mean that the Panthers alter their offensive identity – rather than having a two-headed monster in the backfield in Newton and Stewart, the Panthers now have a thunder and lightning duo in Stewart and McCaffrey in addition to the continued (though likely less utilised) threat of Newton’s legs. Furthermore, in McCaffrey, they now have someone who could develop into a legitimate wide receiver-running back hybrid which of course adds several layers to their offense that did not exist before. Nevertheless, given Newton’s limited involvement this offseason and the success of the Panthers’ pre-existing scheme when key pieces were healthy, I do not expect the Panthers to go completely away from what has made them successful on offense. They will still look to run the ball down the throat of a defense and will continue to have the lingering threat of Newton’s legs, but now will be capable of significantly diversifying what they can do. Think a Belichickian take on a Kyle Shanahan offensive playbook, with the ability to be a power running outfit one series, a spread offense on another and a West Coast offense on the next. It will be fascinating to watch this offense and see how successful it could be. It’s arguable that the 49ers meet it at the perfect time – early enough in its full implementation that they can largely focus on known areas and prepare for some potential new additions to the playbook.
What the 49ers would do well to be aware of is the Panthers’ vertical passing game, which can be especially dangerous with the addition of McCaffrey, and their use of crossing routes. The vertical passing attack, which has been a staple of the Panthers’ attack ever since drafting Newton, will remain a potent weapon in their offensive arsenal. Two or even three post routes used together (perhaps with a deep crosser) can attack the seams in a cover 3 and the physical size of much of the Panthers’ pass catchers mean that they are often at a distinct advantage when balls are contested at the catch point, particularly in zone coverage when the contesting player normally arrives a fraction later. Furthermore, the speed and agility of McCaffrey means he can line up in the backfield and also threaten deep, attacking weak spots in the 49ers’ zone coverage shells after plays have started to develop.
Crossing routes could also be used by the Panthers to attack the 49ers in the passing game and again the additions of McCaffrey and Samuel are significant. Not only are crossers a good way to attack cover 3, but in this instance they can turn the supposed strength of the 49ers’ passing defense against it (i.e. giving up short throws with limited RAC). McCaffrey and Samuel could add significant YAC with their quick twitch ball carrying threat and they can be schemed into or simply work themselves into weaknesses in the 49ers’ zones.
It will be interesting to see if the 49ers follow the example of the Atlanta Falcons and use a lot of man coverage. The Panthers receivers generally lack the quick twitch abilities to elude man coverage and the 49ers could force Cam Newton to have to be extremely accurate. Though lacking weight compared to Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin, Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson should be quite capable of running with them and have the length to disrupt balls at the catch point even if the two big receivers can get good position. Samuel and McCaffrey are clearly far more dangerous but the 49ers should feel confident about K’waun Williams’ ability to cover Samuel. McCaffrey will likely find himself covered man to man by safeties and corners – not easy match-ups for a rookie one-on-one.
Greg Olsen has shown a fallibility against big, fast safeties – Keanu Neal shut him down last season and in Eric Reid and Jaquiski Tartt, the 49ers have two safeties who matchup well with the Panthers’ tight end. Expect to see Tartt used as a dime linebacker where he can be asked to cover either Olsen or McCaffrey one on one. The 49ers’ safeties will be incredibly important, as hybrid players themselves, in shutting down the Panthers’ hybrid offensive weapons, whilst rookie linebacker Reuben Foster will join Reid and Tartt as the heat seeking missiles to anything thrown underneath. If those players are technically sound in the tackle area and schematically, there should be little reason that even McCaffrey can rip of large YAC totals.
It would appear that DC Robert Saleh is aware of the potential this Panthers offense has to be unpredictable and incredibly varied and it is quite likely that the simplicity of his scheme will actually help the 49ers to maintain the integrity of their defense. In terms of play calls, we understand the defense doesn’t have a huge amount, but the diversity and adaptivity of the 49ers’ scheme will come down to different personnel groupings. The aforementioned sub-package with Tartt as a dime linebacker is almost certain to be included but the 49ers could also utilise a big-nickel with Tartt, Reid and Lorenzo Jerome on the field if the Panthers are in 12, 21 or 22 personnel and McCaffrey is on the field. Additionally, the team will have to be wary of Williams matching up inside against either Benjamin or Funchess and in such a scenario we may see either Johnson or Robinson travel inside. Keith Reaser or Ahkello Witherspoon could also see they field if the Panthers line up three big wide receivers. Saleh should not be afraid to dial up blitzes in front of man defense (or zone of course) to really attack the Panthers’ biggest offensive vulnerability – their offensive line – thus forcing the Panthers’ receivers to have to gain quick separation and also potentially forcing the team to keep their tight ends and/or running back in as a pass blocker – removing major receiving threats.
Of course, on the subject of blitzes, the front seven will have a major role to play and can considerably reduce the number of plays available to the Panthers by getting to Cam Newton. The Panthers remain weak at tackle in particular and the offensive line as a whole is still limited in pass protection. A pass rush will limit the Panthers to faster developing plays whilst the 49ers will have noted the dominance of the Seahawks’ run defense when they met the Panthers last season. The one gapping, penetrating scheme should ensure they can remain in attack mode and could also limit the threat of the read option, as the defensive end can continue to crash inside whilst a safety or linebacker scrubs outside to cut off the QB keeper. The 49ers can force the Panthers offense into being one dimensional, thus taking away its biggest threat (versatility). They should be able to get a great deal of success rushing four, and the experience of a lot of the 49ers’ nickel edge rushers as 3-4 outside linebackers mean they have the coverage abilities to drop if Saleh dials up the zone blitzes he used in preseason.
The defense has a real opportunity to make a statement, against a team with an incredibly high offensive ceiling but a low floor courtesy of their offensive line and lack of quick twitch ability at a lot of their offensive skill positions. The 49ers have some good matchups but the key will be ensuring that they force the Panthers to play on their terms by dominating in the trenches. If the Panthers can run on the 49ers and Cam Newton has all day to throw their playbook will open up and the 49ers’ defense will be in for a long day. If the defensive line can hold up its end of the bargain the defense has matchups on the back end which are eminently winnable.
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