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49ers defense shows improvement in Week 1

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The 49ers will miss Reuben Foster this week, but their numbers against Carolina offer some optimism.

Carolina Panthers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers lost badly to the Carolina Panthers, but the defense deserves some kudos for much of their performance. The unit struggled in a big way in 2016, giving up record rushing totals, and generally struggling to do much of anything.

The 49ers hosted a Panthers team looking to bounce back after an ugly 2016 regression. The Panthers most notable player is Cam Newton, but their offense has been built on the ground game as much as anything. The Panthers built up their lead in the second and third quarters, which provided plenty of opportunities run the ball. Carolina ended up with 38 rushing attempts, but the 49ers held them to 3.05 yards per carry. Per David Lombardi, the 49ers only had one game better than that last year, the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams.

Jonathan Stewart averaged 3.6 yards and Christian McCaffrey averaged 3.61 yards per carry, while Cam Newton was held to three yards on six rushes and scrambles. The 49ers played out of their base defense 57 percent of the time, and when they face stronger rushing teams, we’ll see plenty of that. The line as a whole was solid, with Tank Carradine and Earl Mitchell standing out.

Overall, the 49ers allowed 4.6 yards per play. Per David Lombardi, the 2016 49ers only out-performed that against the Rams and the Cardinals when quarterback Drew Stanton was starting. The most notable big play on the day was Russell Shepard’s 40-yard touchdown reception. He found himself wide open on the reception, and then a blown tackle by Jaquiski Tartt and a Shepard spin move resulted in a touchdown.

The big news coming out of the game is the loss of rookie linebacker Reuben Foster to a high ankle sprain. He could miss a month of playing time as he recovers in a walking boot. However, even with plenty of questions, we saw some positives from the defense after Foster left the game.

The 49ers head into Seattle next week facing a Seahawks offense that struggled against the Packers. The 49ers offense will have its share of struggles against the Seahawks defense, but this could be a chance for the 49ers defense to break out. They’re facing a Seahawks offensive line that has been abysmal for years, and showed no real improvement in Week 1.

The 49ers pass rush didn’t get nearly enough pressure on Cam Newton, but I suspect that changes a bit in Week 2. Russell Wilson is smaller than Cam Newton, but more elusive. I’m less concerned about quarterback pressures as I am about closing the deal, or at the very least forcing passes out of bounds. I expect to see at least one or two plays where I’m left shaking my head at how Wilson sprung loose, but I think the 49ers defense has a chance to make some noise this weekend against Seattle.