By Sam McPherson
In some ways, the 2017 version of the San Francisco 49ers looks a lot like the 2016 edition. But as the team lost its opening game to the Carolina Panthers at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday afternoon, there were several positives to take away from the contest. The 49ers much-maligned defense is a lot better than it was last season after being rebuilt and refurbished. That will help the 49ers win some games down the road.
The offense, however, is going to have to find a lot of ways to improve. The Panthers won the game, 23-3, as both teams combined for a mere 504 yards on offense. In a game that felt like a defensive grind, the San Francisco offense didn’t do enough to win the game. With an offensive guru on the sideline leading the coaching staff, that will have to change in the upcoming weeks.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer committed two turnovers (one interception and one fumble), and couldn’t get the team into the end zone despite some aggressive play calling. The 49ers went 1-for-4 on fourth-down conversions, and the offense was doomed by a 2-for-11 conversion rate on third downs. An optimist would say the S.F. offense was just a few big plays away from a much better game.
Overall, however, the team gained only 217 total yards, and it’s hard to win in the NFL with an offensive effort like that. Running back Carlos Hyde had just nine carries for 45 yards, and overall, the 49ers seemed to abandon the running game with just 15 rushing attempts total. Meanwhile, Hoyer threw 35 passes and was sacked four times. That imbalance needs to be addressed before the next game.
Due to turnovers and fourth-down failures by the 49ers offense, the Panthers were able to score 23 points despite only gaining 287 yards of total offense. The San Francisco defense looked very strong at times, holding Carolina’s running game to just 3.1 yards per attempt. QB Cam Newton had a solid, if not pedestrian, day with 171 yards passing. He also threw two touchdowns and an interception.
The 49ers offense put the team’s defense in tough positions all day long. Keeping that in mind, San Francisco still forced two turnovers and held the Panthers offense in check. Heralded rookies Reuben Foster and Solomon Thomas combined for five tackles in their NFL debuts, while linebacker NaVorro Bowman made five tackles in his return from a serious injury suffered in 2016.
Special Teams: C
Punter Bradley Pinion averaged just 39 yards on his four kicks, although he was asked once to punt from the Carolina 32-yard line. Kicker Robbie Gould made his only field-goal attempt from 44 yards out, but it seemed like the coaching staff didn’t have a lot of confidence in him. The 49ers might regret not keeping former placekicker Phil Dawson around in 2017. The kick/punt return game was non-existent.
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t do a very good job with the offensive play calling in this game. Perhaps he can be forgiven if he is still a little hungover from his gaffes in the Super Bowl that cost the Atlanta Falcons the NFL title last winter. The offensive imbalance didn’t make sense, and it wasn’t successful, either. On the other side of the ball, the defense looks stout and ready to return to the top echelon of the league’s rankings. That’s promising for the organization as a whole, so Shanahan now has to prove he can make the 49ers offense one of the league’s best again. That may not happen this season.
Up Next: At Seattle
San Francisco will travel north to Seattle to face the division-rival Seahawks next Sunday at CenturyLink Field. Even though Seattle lost on Sunday in Green Bay, 17-9, the Seahawks remain both the favorite to win the NFC West and a threat to win the conference again as they did in 2013 and 2014. The 49ers have lost seven straight to Seattle, and nine of the last ten, dating back to the 2012 season. The Seahawks definitely have San Francisco’s number, and while the 49ers defense may be able to contain the Seattle offense, it could be hard for S.F. to score on the Seahawks next weekend.