Carolina didn’t start its season debut in San Francisco looking sharp. Cam Newton and the offense were rusty. The play-calling in the first quarter was stale and the offensive line wasn’t opening any good holes for the running game. Jonathan Stewart looked hesitant to turn it up and McCaffrey, who got a ton of looks, tried to dance a bit.
The defense was out of sync on its first two drives as well. They let Carlos Hyde run the ball effectively and San Francisco took some downfield shots that could have been deadly. Aided by a little good fortune, Marquise “Ginn” Goodwin let at bomb slip through his hands after torching James Bradberry.
The defense started swarming toward the end of the 1st quarter. A Wes Horton sack/forced fumble set up a Cam Newton touchdown to Russell Shepherd, his first in a Panther uniform. The defense continued to get after Brian Hoyer. Kawann Short was a disruptive force in the middle and Peppers cleaned up the trash with a big hit on Hoyer that should have been a strip sack had the refs not blown a remarkably quick whistle.
An aggressive Kyle Shanahan coached team attempted two-fourth down conversions. Carolina’s defense stopped both, and the second gave the Panthers the ball at mid-field with 42 seconds left in the half. Cam Newton hit Kelvin Benjamin for a 25-yd strike with 10-seconds left. Newton hurried to the line and spiked the ball to set up a 35-yd field goal, giving the Panthers a 13-0 lead.
Carolina started firing on all cylinders in the second half. Kurt Coleman delivered big hits, Luke Kuechly had an INT, and Cam started to find his rhythm. It started with an easy screen touchdown pass where J-Stew acrobatically flipped over a defender. After forcing the 49ers to punt from their own 29, Cam would hit Funchess, Shepherd, and Russell to move the ball all the way to the 49ers goal line. An unsuccessful bootleg run by Cam and a couple of stops on Stewart goal line attempts left Carolina settling for a short field-goal by Graham Gano to go ahead 20-0.
The 49ers finally put 3 points on the scoreboard at the end of the third quarter and found a little life after stripping the ball from McCaffrey, but the Panthers defense didn’t let that go far. The defense got stingy with 7 minutes left on the clock as San Francisco desperately fought to get in the end zone. Carolina’s pass-rush was relentless, forcing Hoyer to miss an open Marquise Goodwin in the corner of the end zone. Thomas Davis stopped Carlos Hyde on the 1-yd line on 4th down. Working out of their end zone, Carolina began bludgeoning the 49ers with the run. Pushing the ball slowly down the field and wearing down the clock, the Panthers cruised to a 23 to 3 route in their 2017 opener.
Carolina made rookie Christian McCaffrey a key component of the offensive scheme. He had 13 carries for 45 yards, 5 receptions for 38 yards, and returned punts all game. After a rusty start, Newton started to find his rhythm after some momentum building stops by the defense.
The start wasn’t pretty, but the finish showed just what Carolina can be this season- a hard-hitting defense with an offense that will only get better as the season progresses.
By Tony Dunn
Follow @Cat_Chronicles for the latest Panthers news and opinions from the fan perspective.