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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.


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Manager: Blaine Clemmens

Coaches: Mike Larson, Dave Abramson, Whit Summers


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And here’s the kicker. McCaffrey can beat any kind of coverage. If it’s zone, he can find a soft spot and turn a 5-yard catch into a 12-yard gain before someone tackles him. And if it’s man-to-man, he can juke any 49ers defender who matches up against him.

To stop McCaffrey, the Niners must deny him the opportunity to get the ball in the first place. When he plays wide receiver, jam him. When he runs a route from the backfield, chip him — that means a defensive end knocks into him while rushing the quarterback.

Disrupting McCaffrey’s route will force Newton to throw to someone else.

3. Defending Newton. Newton is a fast-twitch runner, not a fast-twitch thrower. He has a long delivery, which works fine for deep throws. But short throws require a short stroke. Newton doesn’t have one.

Even if McCaffrey beats the jam and avoids the chip, Newton may not be able to get him the ball on time. Newton’s throw may be late or inaccurate. Newton may negate the Panthers short pass game all by himself.

The Niners should be prepared for Newton to get frustrated with his arm and just start scrambling. The Niners have to use a quarterback spy to follow Newton wherever he goes. The spy should be rookie Reuben Foster. If Newton scrambles, Foster has to hit him and hurt him, discourage him from scrambling any more. Make him stay in the pocket. Newton won’t win from the pocket. He’s not a pocket quarterback.

4. The Robert-Saleh test. This week is Saleh’s debut as a defensive coordinator. For the first time, he is creating his own game plan, calling his own plays and making his own in-game adjustments.

Once he sees what the Panthers offense is doing, especially with McCaffrey, Saleh has to adjust on the spot. He can’t wait until halftime. He has to give his players solutions between series on the sideline during the first quarter. If he has no solutions, veterans like NaVorro Bowman will know Saleh is in over his head.

You can bet Saleh has spent the past week studying tactics his mentor, Pete Carroll, used to defend the Panthers the past few years. Since 2012, Carroll’s Seahawks have faced the Panthers seven times, and held Carolina’s offense to just 15.7 points per game.

5. The Kyle Shanahan advantage. This is the deciding factor in the Niners’ favor. The Niners should win because they have Shanahan. He will be the best coach on the field, and he happens to be an expert on the Panthers defense.

Shanahan faced that defense four times the past two seasons. He knows how to attack it, understands its scheme. He has more familiarity with the Panthers defense than the Panthers have with his knew 49ers offense. He has the edge on Carolina in play design, game-plan design and play-calling. Those are three big advantages.

With fear and trembling, I predict the 49ers will win 24 to 23.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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