The 49ers' fans were brought crashing back down to earth yesterday, courtesy of a sobering 23-3 home defeat to the Panthers. There were some incredibly ugly moments, most notably the vast majority of occasions Zane Beadles was asked to block someone.
The offense as a whole struggled enormously, with it appearing that Kyle Shanahan lost composure a little in the face of repeated failures in execution on the part of his offensive players. That's not a reference to his lambasting of the officials after they failed to award him a timeout as the 49ers ran the clock down on a fourth and one, but more about his play calling that was at times incredibly random and at others maddeningly similar.
This can of course be forgiven; it was Shanahan's first competitive game as a HC and it must have been incredibly frustrating, given the numerous errors on display. We didn’t see much of the cold, calculating Shanahan that we have come to expect but just like for the players, this will have been a crucial lesson in the development of Shanahan the Head Coach.
Completely the opposite of the offense, Robert Saleh’s defense held up their end of the bargain. Most significantly, the run defense was vastly improved on last season. Led by strong side end Tank Carradine, the defense shut down the Panthers’ much touted running game (allowing an average of barely over 3 yards a carry) and forced a rusty Cam Newton to have to try and win the game with his arm. For most of the game the pass defense held up as well, but it was here that the 49ers lost this match.
On both sides of the ball, there were some big moments that for much of the game went the way of the Panthers. In some instances, and most notably on the defensive side of the ball, coaching will help to clean them up and this is where my analysis will focus. Zane Beadles’ blocking masterclass will for reasons of decency and personal resignation to his utter lack of employability will not be making an appearance.
Marquise Goodwin drop
This one doesn’t need a gif, we all know what happened. Marquise Goodwin started in the slot and ran a vertical route vs James Bradberry. Given the space he had and his speed (nice play design), he was able to get open downfield. Unfortunately at this point, two things went wrong. Brian Hoyer underthrew him, allowing Bradberry the opportunity to disrupt Goodwin’s view of the ball. If that ball was out in front of Goodwin and hits him in stride, it’s probably six points and the game takes on a completely different flavor.
Bradberry’s position explains the second thing that went wrong: Goodwin missed the ball. Judging from where his eyes where, I genuinely think he lost it in flight, but one would still hope an NFL receiver catches that ball. Corners will contest catches. To be fair to Goodwin, he made several good contested catches on the day, so let’s hope that this was an anomaly. If that ball gets reeled in, the 49ers should have ended the drive with points and a lead.
Reuben Foster almost pick (6?)
Not long after the failed Hoyer-Goodwin hook up, Cam Newton tried to give the 49ers the points they should have had on the last drive. The team ran a cover 1 defense, with Lorenzo Jerome deep and Foster as the hook zone defender. He perfectly read Cam Newton’s eyes and could have, and arguably should have picked off Newton as he tried to find Kelvin Benjamin on a slant. It could well have become a pick 6. If Foster is healthy, he will be an absolute stud for the 49ers’ defense and will massively improve their pass coverage over the middle.
Panthers’ first touchdown
This play was bad for a a number of reasons. One major reason was that there was a big bust in coverage, with Dontae Johnson leaving his deep zone and forcing Jaquiski Tartt to have to cover two thirds of the field. That error should be correctable. It also forced Tartt to have to sprint to the sideline to try and clean up Johnson’s mess. Unfortunately for Tartt and the 49ers, he then failed to finish after doing all of the hard work, partly thanks to an insane move from the receiver but partly thanks to bad fundamentals.
Tartt gambled that the receiver would run up the line and gave up too much of a cutback angle to the receiver. He didn't need to gamble so much - he had the sideline as a help and could have slowed down a little to make sure that he forced the receiver out of bounds.
Tartt recovered well from this error to have a solid game, which included an outrageous interception that demonstrated all the athletic traits that makes him so intriguing. He (as well as a lot of other players on the team) need to tidy up their tackling fundamentals.
Big third down conversion
With the 49ers down seven with over five minutes to go in the second quarter, the defense had the Panthers on a third and long. An incompletion or anything less than a six or seven yard gain would have forced a punt. The 49ers rushed four, with three defenders deep and four defenders underneath. The coverage did a reasonable job, with Tartt blanketing the shifty McCaffrey through the early portion of his route and the corners doing a solid job ensuring that no one came open in their zones. The team was lucky that Newton didn’t spot Greg Olsen coming open on the classic Cover 3-beating deep crosser however.
Nevertheless, the 49ers forced Newton to pull the ball down and leave the pocket to extend the play to find an open target, which ultimately forced an error from the team. Tartt attempted to pass off McCaffrey to Bowman, who was looking straight at McCaffrey and appeared to be taking over covering the shifty back. Inexplicably, Bowman than rushed at Newton who was starting to break the pocket, which allowed McCaffrey to come open and get a first down. A minute and a half later, that turned into an easy three points for the Panthers.
From having the chance to give their offense the ball down seven with five minutes to go (and thus enabling them to run the ball which had been working), the offense got the ball with just over three minutes to go down 10, forcing them to be more aggressive in their pursuit of points.
Newton third down “conversion”
Early in the third quarter, the Panthers were leading by 13 and were faced with a third down and four. The 49ers again ran a cover 1 and the coverage was excellent, forcing Cam Newton to leave the pocket. Given Newton’s size and athleticism, stopping him running on a third and four when in man coverage is nigh on impossible (particularly if the hook zone defender is unable to get across) given he can dive or slide for the first down from behind the LOS when in full flow.
As it turned out, Tartt actually gave it a good go of stopping Newton. Having tracked Greg Olsen through his route, he was able to peel off him and try to stop Newton, and it certainly appeared on second viewing that he actually forced Newton down before he was able to get a first down - only Newton’s momentum carried his body over the line.
Unfortunately the 49ers were unlikely to challenge the spotting of the ball (which was generous to say the least) given they had only one timeout remaining. As it was, the 49ers could have held the Panthers to a field goal rather than the touchdown that was to follow two plays later. At that point, the game was essentially out of sight.
Above are several examples of near misses or easily fixable mistakes that essentially ensured the 49ers lost this match. A common adage is that matches are often less bad on the second or third viewing, and this is certainly true in this instance. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, the 49ers look like they could develop into a solid unit and get good contributions from a number of their younger players (as well as Tank Carradine). Next week, we need to see much more of a pass rush but most significantly, the defense will need the offense to get going so that ten points doesn't start being considered an insurmountable lead.