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49ers-Panthers preview: Matchups to watch for Week 2

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The 49ers are big underdogs, but if they can win some key matchups, maybe they can surprise some folks.

The San Francisco 49ers head into Charlotte Sunday to face the Carolina Panthers in a Week 2 matchup. The game kicks off at 10 a.m. PT, and the 49ers are a sizable underdog, with the line currently at Panthers -13.5. San Francisco is coming off a big Monday Night Football win over the Los Angeles Rams to open the season, but the Panthers present a whole different animal.

There will be plenty to watch on both sides of the ball. I thought we’d pull up a few potentially key matchups for the game. Some of these are player vs. player, but given the team nature of football, these are often going to be position unit vs. position unit, or position unit vs. player. What other matchups will you be watching?

DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead vs. Cam Newton

Normally we look at position units, but this is a fascinating one for the 49ers. The entire defensive front seven will have its hands full with Cam Newton. However, the 49ers have invested a pair of first round picks in their twin tower defensive tackles. Armstead and Buckner will see plenty of time on Sunday, particularly on passing downs. Newton is a dual threat through the air and on the ground, and Buckner and Armstead might have their hands full with the latter. Newton is a big guy, and tackling him is no easy task. Seeing these two behemoths go after Newton could be one of the more entertaining things to watch on Sunday. And it could prove critical if the 49ers are going to stop the Panthers.

NaVorro Bowman, safeties, others vs. Greg Olsen

The 49ers face a tough challenge in Kelvin Benjamin, but Greg Olsen is a tall order in his own right. My guess is we end up seeing multiple players getting a crack at Olsen. Olsen is a great security blanket, and I don't expect that to change this season, even with the return of Benjamin. I am particularly curious to see if Bowman gets some work with the tight end. Bowman returned last season, and while he led the team in tackles, it was clear he was not quite 100 percent. Part of that came with struggles in pass coverage. We might get a better handle on Bowman's work in coverage this week.

49ers offensive line vs. Panthers defensive line

The Panthers defense was No. 4 in adjusted line yards allowed last season, and No. 11 in adjusted sack rate. They were sixth in stopping running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage. The 49ers got things going against the Rams defensive front, but it was still a tough task. This focuses primarily on the ground game, because the 49ers are going to have to dominate in this area to keep the game close. Yes, the 49ers need to protect Blaine Gabbert in the passing game, but it's hard to think the 49ers are going to win this game through the air. I hope to be proven wrong, but realistically, the 49ers need to get their ground game going in a big way.

Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, Jeremy Kerley vs. Bene Benwikere, James Bradberry, Robert McClain

I suppose we could just say 49ers receivers vs. Panthers cornerbacks, but why not get specific? The three cornerbacks listed topped the Panthers in cornerback snaps last week, with McClain serving as the nickel back. McClain will be an interesting one when Kerley comes into the game. Smith and Patton were the starters, but Kerley ended up being the most targeted receiver, by a long shot. He and McClain could see plenty of each other.

Smith was actually second on the team with six targets. He finished with two receptions for 18 yards, and had a couple notable drops. However, there were also instances he was getting open and Blaine Gabbert would not pull the trigger on a deep pass. Patton was third on the team in targets with five. He finished with five receptions for 60 yards. We don't know how the Panthers will rotate the cornerbacks, but the 49ers should have a bit of an advantage at least WR vs. CB. It still takes the quarterback taking some shots, but this is a matchup the 49ers could try and exploit.

49ers punt, kickoff units vs. Panthers coverage units

Chris Biderman brought up a good point his five bold predictions for the game. If the 49ers are going to win this game, Chip Kelly is going to have pull out every trick in his book. This includes trick plays on special teams. We might see an onside kick. We might see a fake punt or field goal. My guess is we see it pretty early on while this game remains close.