The Panthers defensive end who got momentum moving in Carolina’s favor in the season-opening 23-3 victory against San Francisco wasn’t veteran Charles Johnson, superstar sack artist Julius Peppers or last season’s sack leader, Mario Addison.
Instead, it was backup Wes Horton who strip-sacked quarterback Brian Hoyer in the first quarter. The ball was recovered by defensive tackle Star Lotulelei on the San Francisco 42.
And it wasn’t big-name receiver Kelvin Benjamin, No. 2 receiver Devin Funchess or rookie phenom Christian McCaffrey who scored Carolina’s first touchdown of the regualr season on the following drive, but little-known receiver Russell Shepard.
Shepard caught a 40-yard pass from quarterback Cam Newton and put a spin move on safety Jaquiski Tartt at about the 10, creating extra yards and the touchdown.
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In the second quarter, a would-be touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin was acrobatically intercepted with one hand by Tartt as he flew in to help the defensive back covering Benjamin.
Kicker Graham Gano notched two second-quarter field goals, including a 36-yarder as time expired in the second quarter to put the Panthers up 13-0.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly answered Tartt’s pick with an acrobatic one-handed interception of his own, which he returned for 23 yards. That set up a 9-yard touchdown rumble by Jonathan Stewart.
Gano hit another field goal after both Newton and Stewart rushed and tried to find the edge in the red zone, to little gain.
San Francisco avoided the shutout with a 44-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.
McCaffrey had the ball stripped by Rashard Robinson in the fourth quarter, but San Francisco had the door slammed shut as the Panthers mounted a goal-line stop to answer the turnover.
The Panthers held the 49ers to 1-for-4 on fourth down, and 2-for-11 on third-down conversions.
Three who mattered
Cam Newton: Newton and his surgically repaired throwing arm looked rusty in his regular-season debut. Newton overthrew a wide-open Ed Dickson in the end zone in the second quarter, and finished the half with eight completions on 19 attempts for 105 yards and a touchdown. But in the second half, he was a perfect 6-for-6 to finish 14 of 25 for 171 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Christian McCaffrey: McCaffrey was Carolina’s most involved offensive target, with 11 touches by halftime. He also was Carolina’s punt returner, and had a nice 21-yard return that was negated by a holding call on Ben Jacobs. McCaffrey finished with 13 carries for 47 yards and five catches for 38 more. He also lost a fumble.
Reuben Foster: Foster had McCaffrey’s number for the first three series of the game, and made three tackles on the running back/receiver as the fastest linebacker available to the 49ers. But Foster’s lower right leg got twisted underneath him and he had to be carted off the field late in the first quarter. Without Foster in, McCaffrey was turned loose.
▪ Star Lotulelei was also a key defensive presence, recovering the strip-sack by Horton early, combining for a sack and stuffing the 49ers’ rush attempt on fourth down.
▪ Carolina scored both of its touchdowns following San Francisco turnovers. The Panthers also turned the ball over twice, but the defense was able to shut out each of the 49ers corresponding drives.
▪ San Francisco was flagged for six penalties for 45 yards with 10 minutes left in the second quarter, and had 10 penalties for 74 yards in the game.
▪ Carolina’s pass rush achieved its goal of starting the season off fast. The defense racked up four sacks, one each by Horton, Peppers, Lotulelei and linebacker Shaq Thompson.
▪ Kuechly’s third-quarter interception was his 13th, which is the most among active NFL linebackers.
▪ Despite a kicking competition all preseason, Gano earned the start Sunday over rookie kicker Harrison Butker (who is still on the roster). Gano did not miss a field goal or extra point.
▪ Starting corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley had to head to the locker room in the third quarter with cramps. Both returned after missing only one play. “I told (offensive coordinator) Mike (Shula) we’d need a long drive,” Rivera joked.
▪ The game was a homecoming of sorts for McCaffrey, a Stanford alumnus. He also played against his former roommate and good friend Solomon Thomas, a defensive end who was selected as San Francisco’s first pick in the NFL draft this year. Both players’ former coach, David Shaw, was in attendance.
They said it
▪ “I had to talk him off the ledge.” – Rivera, on a rusty start by Newton in the first half.
Panthers 23, 49ers 3
Car—Shepard 40 pass from Newton (Gano kick), 3:00.
Car—FG Gano 39, 3:23.
Car—FG Gano 36, :00.
Car—Stewart 9 pass from Newton (Gano kick), 11:24.
Car—FG Gano 20, 3:11.
SF—FG Gould 44, :08.
Total Net Yards
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Carolina, Stewart 18-65, McCaffrey 13-47, Newton 6-3, Whittaker 1-1. San Francisco, Hyde 9-45, Breida 4-11, Juszczyk 1-0, Hoyer 1-(minus 5).
PASSING—Carolina, Newton 14-25-1-171. San Francisco, Hoyer 24-35-1-193.
RECEIVING—Carolina, McCaffrey 5-38, Shepard 2-53, Funchess 2-20, Olsen 2-18, Stewart 2-17, Benjamin 1-25. San Francisco, Garcon 6-81, Hyde 6-32, Kittle 5-27, Goodwin 3-21, Juszczyk 2-17, Taylor 1-8, A.Robinson 1-7.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.