I could be way off about this. If I am, please forgive me. But I’m picking the 49ers to beat the Panthers this Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
Let me break down the five keys to this matchup so you have a better understanding of what the Niners will be up against and why I picked them.
1. The Panthers’ new offense. Two seasons ago, the Panthers had the highest-scoring offense in the NFL and Cam Newton won the MVP award. He was the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in the league. Carolina’s offense was totally unique.
It featured a deep pass game, a power run game and a quarterback run game. And not just a read-option run game. I’m talking Quarterback Power and Quarterback Counter, where Newton ran like a running back behind pulling guards. No other team used its quarterback this way.
The Panthers couldn’t sustain this style of offense. Newton got knocked around last season, got injured. So, the Panthers shied away from the quarterback runs that made Newton so successful in 2015. They tried to protect him by limiting their offense primarily to the deep pass game and the power run game featuring running backs instead of Newton. This offense was slow, deliberate and easy to defend. It ranked 19th out of 32 teams. And Newton’s quarterback rating fell to 75.8 — 28th out of 32 starting quarterbacks.
The Panthers needed to add another element to their offense to make it effective again. But they weren’t going to reemphasize the quarterback run game — they want to keep Newton healthy. So, they added speed to their offense. They spent their first-round draft pick on Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and their second-round draft pick on Curtis Samuel — two fast guys who can play running back or wide receiver.
Now, the Panthers also have a short passing game. They want to dump the ball quickly to McCaffrey or Samuel and let one of those two run and absorb punishment instead of Newton.
If there’s one thing the Niners have to take away from the Panthers offense this Sunday, it’s the short passing game.
2. Defending McCaffrey and Samuel. Last season, defending the Panthers offense was simple: Stop the power run game and double-cover tight end Greg Olsen or wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
That game plan won’t work on Sunday. Throw it away. The Niners defensive game plan must focus on stopping McCaffrey and Samuel. Take them out of the game. Force the Panthers to abandon their new weapons and return to their humdrum offense from last season. That would give the 49ers an advantage.
Stopping McCaffrey and Samuel won’t be easy. The Panthers will use those two so many different ways — not just on draws and screen passes. Let’s focus on how they may use McCaffrey. He’s their biggest threat.
The Panthers could line up McCaffrey at wide receiver, all the way on the edge of the formation, outside of the tight end and the slot receiver. This will give the Panthers a big advantage.
If a cornerback covers McCaffrey when he’s out wide, the Panthers will know they’re facing zone coverage before the play even begins. And if a linebacker or a safety covers McCaffrey when he’s out wide, then the Panthers will know they’re facing man-to-man coverage. McCaffrey’s alignment as a wide receiver will force the Niners to show their hand.