Fearless predictions for Sunday’s Carolina Panthers game on the road against the San Francisco 49ers:
1. The Panthers will flirt with 200 yards rushing ...
And most of them will come from Jonathan Stewart.
For all the hype about the tweaks and wrinkles in the Panthers’ offense, one point that’s been lost a bit is Ron Rivera’s intention to re-establish a physical rushing attack.
This seems to be a great week to start.
The 49ers had the league’s worst rush defense last season, allowing more rushing yards (165.9 per game) and rushing TDs (25) than in any of their previous 70 seasons, according to the San Jose Mercury-News.
The Panthers ran for a season-high 176 yards in a Week 2 win against San Francisco last year, despite losing Stewart to a hamstring injury in the first half. Fozzy Whittaker replaced Stewart and needed just 16 carries to notch the only 100-yard rushing game of his career.
San Francisco first-year GM John Lynch and first-year coach Kyle Shanahan have taken steps to improve the D. They used first-round picks on DE Solomon Thomas and LB Rueben Foster, and brought in free agent nose tackle Earl Mitchell.
But it’s hard to imagine the Niners doing an about-face overnight. Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey will break off a couple of long gains on the edge, and Stewart will pound the middle of the 4-3 defense.
2. Brian Hoyer will find a back for a big play vs. a Panthers linebacker.
Hoyer is not the Niners’ quarterback of the future. But he’s their guy for now, and Shanahan has been pleasantly surprised with the journeyman’s arm strength.
Hoyer doesn’t necessarily have to throw it over the Panthers’ secondary to be successful. Shanahan has a knack for creating mismatches on one side of the field, which he did last year against the Panthers when he was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator.
Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman was a matchup problem for the Panthers in the second meeting last year, although 49ers RB Carlos Hyde is not as talented a receiver – nor is San Francisco’s offensive personnel nearly as explosive as Atlanta’s.
“I mean, Julio Jones is Julio Jones. Matt Ryan was the MVP of the league last year, deservedly so,” Panthers LB Thomas Davis said. “But if you look at these guys on film, they’re running their offense at a high level. It’s not gonna be a walk in the park for us defensively.”
Look for Shanahan to try to get change-of-pace back Raheem Mostert matched up against Davis, who is not as effective when he has to turn and run in coverage. The Panthers can counter by getting third-year LB Shaq Thompson on the field more.
3. Cam Newton will have a couple of turnovers ...
But he’ll also have also a couple of big plays.
There’s a reason Rivera says he wanted his quarterback to get more reps in the preseason: To establish timing and rhythm, especially with new additions McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and Russell Shepard.
Newton played one series and attempted only two passes during the preseason after his surgically repaired shoulder flared up at training camp. And while Newton looks to have regained his arm strength, it’s tough to develop real chemistry with receivers except at game speed.
The same is true of his exchanges with running backs. So there’s the potential for a botched handoff, and probably at least one interception.
But Newton seems determined to prove last year was a fluke – both his steep drop-off from his MVP season, and the team’s. The Panthers’ success in the run game will open up the field, and Newton will cash in with TD throws to Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen. Panthers 34, 49ers 27.
Panthers at 49ers
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.