Panthers vs 49ers: While it’s only the third time the Panthers have opened the season on the west coast, Carolina’s Sept. 10 meeting with San Francisco marks the sixth time in Ron Rivera’s seven years that the Panthers have started on the road. This season, they’re back at the home of Super Bowl 50 where they’ll encounter a remodeled 49ers team, that like Carolina, is looking to improve on a disappointing 2016 campaign. San Francisco welcomed a plethora of new pieces this offeseason, creating a new identity that’s unlike the team the Panthers walloped 46-27 at Bank of America Stadium last season.
The Panthers vs 49ers Offense
The 49ers made one of the biggest splashes this summer hiring Kyle Shanahan as their new head coach. The former Falcons offensive coordinator is an offensive wunderkind; Panthers’ fans know it all too well. Last season under Shanahan, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones totaled the most yards ever allowed by the Panthers and became the first teammates to have 500 yards passing and 300 yards receiving in a single game.
But upon moving to San Francisco, Shanahan swapped the Pro Bowlers for quarterback Brian Hoyer and wide receiver Pierre Garcon. Garcon totaled a career-high 1,346 receiving yards under Shanahan in Washington in 2013 while Hoyer is a serviceable starter that excelled in the offensive coordinator’s scheme in Cleveland.
“I think (he’s) probably exceeded my expectations of how I thought he could play,” general manager John Lynch during preseason. “(He’s) been very, very good.”
For what it’s worth, Hoyer seems to have picked up where he left off, this preseason. Against the Vikings in the third game of the preseason, he was perfect on a 72-yard opening drive that was capped off with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Goodwin. He connected with Garcon six times that night and finished with an impressive 143.3 passer rating. Thus far, the quarterback appears comfortable in the system, as he did when paired with Shanahan in 2014.
Yet, his first true test comes against the Panthers in Week 1.
The Panthers vs 49ers Defense
The 49ers can only improve defensively after finishing dead last in total yards allowed last season. That makes newly hired defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s job a little easier.
Saleh arrives in San Francisco by way of Jacksonville, where he spent the last two seasons as the linebackers coach. Saleh is a compelling hire, with an even more compelling system. In the preseason, the defensive coordinator said he didn’t want to overcomplicate things, and players have since confirmed there’s fewer than 12 calls in the playbook.
Panthers vs 49ers
“Sometimes, I feel like as coaches we get caught up in trying to trick the opponent when in reality we’re tricking ourselves,” Saleh told NBC Sports Bay Area. “It also gives a player the ability to hold themselves accountable, because they fully understand what they’re responsible for. When a player completely understands what he’s responsible for, they can play a lot more free. They can play a lot faster, because once they clear their greatest issue, now they can just go play football.”
49ers vs Panthers
The revamped defense is littered with potential, including six defensive first-round picks – Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster in the front seven and Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward in the secondary – from 2013 or later that will play an important role this season. The unit is strong and promising, centered around defensive backbone, linebacker Navarro Bowman.
It’s a blessing disguised in the team’s recent downward spiral. Entering the regular season, it appears the 49ers are primed to break from their slump into a defense that’s set up to be a top 10 unit in years to come — an enticing opponent for quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers offense to kick off the 2017 campaign.