Defense will be key for a 49ers win against Carolina

San Francisco’s defensive game plan on Monday night was simple: stop Todd Gurley.

Things won’t be so one-dimensional for the 49ers on Sunday, as they switch gears from facing the one-trick-pony Los Angeles Rams, to the Super Bowl runner-up Carolina Panthers and their stacked offensive arsenal.

The key to the game again rests on the 49ers defense and their ability to get pressure along the line.

But unlike Monday night, San Francisco’s biggest worry out of the backfield won’t be the running back, Jonathan Stewart, it will be the league’s reigning MVP in quarterback Cam Newton.

The Panthers’ ability to disrupt opposing defenses begins and ends with Newton.

Measuring in at 6-feet-5-inches and 245-pounds, Newton has the uncanny ability to beat you through the air with his arm and punish opposing defenders while running the read option out of the backfield.

Newton’s dual-threat ability will force the San Francisco defense to stay honest, stripping them of the luxury they had last week where they had the ability to stack the box with exotic looks that featured the safeties and linebackers in order to stop Gurley and the Rams run game.

This puts the pressure solely on the 49ers defensive front to bring the same amount of heat they showed in Monday night’s game, as the secondary will likely have to drop back in coverage more often than not.

Arik Armstead and first-round pick DeForest Buckner impressed heavily in their first start of the year, earning the third and fourth ranked spots in Pro Football Focus‘ grading amongst 3-4 defensive ends. Likewise, Ahmad Brooks had a productive game rushing the passer, finishing with one sack and one tackle for loss.

The 49ers will need that kind of production upfront again, as the ability to catch Newton in the backfield before he makes his reads or picks up steam is key to slowing down Carolina on offense.

However, should San Francisco overplay their hand in stopping Newton and Stewart out of the backfield, the Panthers will have no problem shifting towards a pass-heavy offense with the towering receiving core of Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess.

Despite looking strong in coordinator Jim O’Neil’s man-coverage scheme, the 49ers cornerbacks may be in for a rude awakening while trying to cover the towering Funchess and Benjamin.

With Benjamin being listed at 6-foot-5, and Funchess coming in just behind at 6-foot-4, the Panthers’ receiving core are a clear mismatch for the smaller 49ers corners. The tallest of the starting unit is Jimmie Ward at 5-feet-11-inches, with Tremaine Brock and Chris Davis measuring in an inch shorter.

In one-on-one opportunities on the outside, look for Newton to hoist the ball up and give his receivers a chance to make a big play down the field.

But San Francisco’s biggest challenge in containing the Panthers’ receiving game may lie in stopping the Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.

Olsen easily became Newton’s favorite target last season, racking up 77 receptions for 1,104 yards. Like his receivers, Olsen often represents a mismatch for opposing defenses with his size and speed.

The onus of covering Olsen will fall heavily on the shoulders of Eric Reid, who is perhaps the only 49er on the roster with the strength,speed and size to keep up with Olsen in coverage.

The Panthers will be sure to switch up the looks near the line of scrimmage, though, in an attempt to get mismatches against the coverage of the 49ers linebackers in trying to spring Olsen free.

Even if they do get the defensive stops needed, San Francisco’s offense will face a difficult task of fending off a swarming Carolina defense on the road.

The revamped offensive line was the star of Monday’s show, allowing no sacks on the mobile Blaine Gabbert while helping to turn tailback Carlos Hyde free for 88 yards and two touchdowns against a stout Los Angeles front.

But while the 49ers may not have to fend off defensive tackle Aaron Donald this week, they’ll still have their hands full with a formidable Carolina front that’s only strengthened by the two linebackers backing it up.

With a pair of Pro Bowl linebackers to guard the middle of the field in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the 49ers will have a hard time breaking Hyde free to the second level in the run game.

This mean’s that the 49ers must get their passing game on track after an underwhelming display against Los Angeles in Week 1.

While Gabbert deserves credit for not turning the ball over in his first outing-despite narrowly escaping from dangerous throws — the 49ers’ signal caller will need to push the ball further down the field to keep the Carolina defense honest.

Despite completing 22 passes, Gabbert notched just 170 yards, or 4.9 yards per carry, during his outing on Monday that featured a number of classic checkdowns and short crosses.

They key to the 49ers success will be in getting deep-threat, and No. 1 receiver, Torrey Smith involved early and often. Last week, Smith had just two catches for 13 yards while being targeted with six out of the team’s 35 attempts.

Should the 49ers send Smith deep to take the top off the Panthers defense, slot receiver Jeremy Kerley and tight end Vance McDonald can continue to slowly move the chains for San Francisco with Gabbert’s favored underneath routes.


The 49ers showed us last week that they’re clearly a better overall team than they were last year. But I think that the versatility of the Panthers’ offense will overwhelm them defensively, and they won’t be able to make up the difference with an offense that hasn’t hit its stride yet.I have the Panthers winning 24-13

No matter what the outcome, Sunday will be a good measuring stick in seeing just how much further the team has to go in order to contend with the NFL elite.

Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at for full coverage of 49ers football.