Top five things to watch for in 49ers' 2017 season-opener vs Panthers
The dawn of a new era
The Kyle Shanahan era kicks off Sunday for the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium against the Carolina Panthers. Shanahan gets his chance after one-and-done seasons from previous head coaches Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly.
There is almost nowhere to go but up for the 49ers after general manager Trent Baalke and Kelly teamed up for a 2-14 record, including a franchise-worst 13 game losing streak.
Here are five things to watch in the 49ers’ regular-season opener. . .
5. Saleh’s scheme
Robert Saleh was going to be on Shanahan’s staff. But he was at least the third choice as defensive coordinator behind Gus Bradley and Vic Fangio.
Saleh, who thought he was the best choice all along, brings a defense philosophy that closely resembles the concepts the Seattle Seahawks have used with success under Pete Carroll. The 49ers will keep it simple. Saleh envisions his guys playing fast and with “extreme violence.”
4. Third-down surprise
What Shanahan does best is scheme his chess pieces against the opposition. That becomes particularly noticeable on third downs when Shanahan uses shifts, motions and formations to isolate the defensive player he believes is the weakest link.
The 49ers made Kyle Juszczyk the highest-paid fullback in the NFL for this very reason. Shanahan did not tip his hand in the preseason about how he plans to use Juszczyk. The Panthers will find out – just like everyone else.
3. Can Armstead roar in new role?
Arik Armstead is not the prototypical “Leo”—a position that is generally a smaller, quicker player who is viewed as a pass-rush specialist. Armstead is healthy and expects to have a breakout season in his new role.
Arrmstead will line up at defensive end on base downs. In passing situations, he will move inside to rush the passer. The 49ers must generate constant pressure on Cam Newton to take the heat off their cornerbacks. Armstead will be counted upon to limit Newton's time in the pocket.
2. Get the run game going
The 49ers made a trade last week to acquire guard Laken Tomlinson from the Detroit Lions. But for at least the season opener, the 49ers’ starting guards are expected to be Zane Beadles and Brandon Fusco.
Those two, along with center, Daniel Kilgore, must keep Panthers defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short from completely dominating the line of scrimmage. The yards will not be easy for running back Carlos Hyde between the tackles.
1. Debut of dynamic rookies
Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey vs. 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster. Those two rookies should see plenty of each other on Sunday as the first-round draft picks figure to come facemask to facemask throughout the game.
McCaffrey is a multi-dimensional threat out of the backfield, and Foster is a well-rounded player who is likely to remain on the field for all downs. Foster is a sideline-to-sideline presence. He also stood out during camp in pass coverage, where he could regularly be singled-up against McCaffrey.