Can Kyle Shanahan get his team ready for a Week 1 challenge?
After a poor 2016 campaign, the Carolina Panthers fly west to take on the new-look San Francisco 49ers. There's a much different feeling to this Week 1 matchup than last year. Carolina lost a tough one to Denver to open up the year and proceeded to follow it up with losses in four of the next five games. San Francisco, meanwhile, gave fans hope after a Week 1 shutout victory over the Rams at home. The 49ers then proceeded to lose 13 straight until another win over Los Angeles.
Cam Newton's health will continue to determine how Carolina's season will go. Newton threw just two passes this preseason yet head coach Ron Rivera thinks that he is ready. The 2015 league MVP has a lot of the same weapons back although the most intriguing piece could be rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. The team used him in a lot of different ways in the preseason and the coaching staff is excited to try and get him into open spaces.
The 49ers, meanwhile, spent a lot of time in the free agency market. Despite spending money on a lot of different positions, they did not fix their woes at quarterback. Much of this season will be trying to stifle the obvious rumors of Kirk Cousins saying good-bye to the Redskins to join Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Brian Hoyer is the temporary stopgap and the veteran is a solid game manager. Pierre Garcon and Kyle Juszczyk were the most notable free-agent acquisitions to bolster an offense that finished second to last in the NFL after averaging 308.1 yards per game last year.
Carolina at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 10 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Panthers -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Don't drop the ball
As mentioned above, Cam Newton threw just two passes in the preseason. His WR group features Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and the intriguing Curtis Samuel in the slot. Of course his most reliable weapon is tight end Greg Olsen. None of the Panthers’ top four wide receivers had a catch rate higher than 57 percent in 2016. Benjamin, in particular, had some frustrating drops during the regular season. I will say that there will be a little less frustration in this area considering Ted Ginn moved to New Orleans in free agency. The 49ers’ secondary is very young and should be vulnerable to deep passes through the air.
2. Just don't go up 28-3
The hire of Kyle Shanahan as head coach will prove to be a good one for San Francisco as the 49ers try to breathe life into their offense. Shanahan did fantastic things for Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins in when he was with the Redskins before moving on to Atlanta where he helped Matt Ryan win the MVP last season as the Falcons reached the Super Bowl. San Francisco added Pierre Garcon to serve as the No. 1 wide receiver and a veteran presence in the locker room. Tight end Logan Paulsen and wideout Aldrick Robinson also are familiar with what Shanahan likes to do on offense give the familiarity between player and coach. It will be interesting to see how Carlos Hyde is used considering he's not as effective catching passes out of the backfield as some of Shanahan's previous running backs. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is another intriguing piece that the team will use in various ways.
3. New defensive coordinators
Both Carolina and San Francisco have new defensive coordinators. Sean McDermott left to become Buffalo’s head coach, so Panthers head coach elevated Steve Wilks, former assistant head coach and defensive backs coach, to defensive coordinator. Wilks probably won’t make too many changes to a unit that figures to be one of the best in the NFL. Linebacker remains a strength for this defense as Shaq Thompson continues to develop alongside Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. This unit still hasn’t recovered from the departure of Josh Norman, as evidenced by finishing 29th in pass defense last season. Veteran Mike Adams was signed in free agency to bolster the safety position.
San Francisco’s defense is run by Robert Saleh, former linebackers coach for Jacksonville. He has some talented pieces to work with in linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner as well as linebackers NaVorrow Bowman and rookie Reuben Foster. But similar to the Panthers, the 49ers have concerns in their secondary, particularly at cornerback, although Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid make for a solid safety duo.
Last year these two teams played in Charlotte and Carolina won easily 46-27 behind more than 500 yards of offense. The Panthers have won five of their past six matchups with San Francisco overall. The key for Carolina will be stopping San Francisco on offense early to give Cam Newton the freedom of opening up the playbook a little and maybe take a few shots downfield. The Panthers are no doubt concerned about the amount of punishment their franchise quarterback takes, so the hope is that he won’t have to do the heavy lifting on the ground. The 49ers will be a pain to play later on in the season, but not in Week 1.
Prediction: Panthers 28, 49ers 13
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
(Top photo courtesy of www.49ers.com)