We had a chance to trade questions with Cat Scratch Reader’s Walker Clement this week. Walker asked me a few questions about the San Francisco 49ers and their game today against the San Francisco 49ers. You can read my answers here.
I also had some questions for Walker and being generous with his time, gave us a total rundown. Thanks to Walker and the Cat Scratch Reader team for a good week leading up to the game.
Niners Nation: No sense ignoring this one. What the hell is going on with that quarterback situation over there? Could we be seeing Cam Newton getting benched for Kyle Allen in 2019?
Walker Clement: Absolutely not. Kyle Allen is a very limited passer. Cam Newton is a former MVP who, when healthy, is one of the most dynamic and exciting offensive players in the NFL. Cam’s shoulder is no longer a question, and his foot is well on the way to being better. Once he can literally get his feet back under him, he’ll be the guy, no questions asked.
Put another way, and the Panthers aren’t going to take a talented if controversial, quarterback who once led them to the Super Bowl and use an injury as an excuse to shuffle him off when the consequence is going to be quarterback purgatory for the foreseeable future. It’s not like they have Alex Smith or Brian Hoyer waiting in the wings.
Niners Nation: The Panthers passing attack has had D.J. Moore with 425 yards, and then Christian McCaffrey with 305. The former is a wide receiver while the other is a running back. Total, the Panthers have 1341 passing yards and are ranked 26th in that category. Is Moore the future at wide receiver (as a No. 1 pass catcher), and what do the Panthers need to improve passing numbers?
Walker: Moore is absolutely the future. He and Curtis Samuel have combined for over 700 yards and three touchdowns in 6 games with either an injured or a backup quarterback on an offense that is dominated by McCaffrey. All they need is a healthy quarterback capable of throwing the ball accurately more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. They are all incredible in the screen game, but Samuel is struggling with the lack of a deep passing game the most. 49ers fans won’t have to worry about that unless they see the Panthers again in the playoffs.
What they might have to worry about is that all three of the players mentioned are basically interchangeable on a given play. Each of them is capable of running routes or taking handoffs and pitches out of the backfield and then performing magic when they have the ball in any degree of space. You won’t see as much of the option plays that the Panthers were becoming known for without Newton under center, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner is still pretty adept at using their similar skillsets to sow confusion in a defense.
Niners Nation: If you were offensive coordinator Norv Turner, how do you attack the 49ers’ defense?
That’s a hard question. Usually, you match strength to weakness, but the 49ers don’t really have many on defense. At least, they lack consistently exploitable weaknesses. The best thing to do is to come out throwing the ball. They have to respect at least the threat of a passing game if McCaffrey is going to have any room to work. Allen isn’t capable of opening up the game with an 80-yard bomb, but even a couple of intermediate attempts mixed with some creative screens to McCaffrey, Moore, and Samuel could keep the 49ers honest enough at each level to allow for the team’s traditional game plan to take hold.
Turner is legendary, even after just two seasons in the Carolinas, for scripting a beautiful opening drive and then turning into the most vanilla pumpkin you’ve ever seen. You’ll see a fair amount of creativity in his play-calling for that first series, and then you won’t see any of it again until the fourth quarter and, even then, only if the Panthers are chasing points. That first series has to convince the 49ers that the Panthers are a downfield threat so that McCaffrey can find success with simple handoffs on the next six first and ten situations the Panthers face.
Niners Nation: Carolina’s key strength has been its ability to create takeaways, ranked third in turnover differential (+6), just one behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were middle of the road in 2018 (+1) They are ranked second in interceptions, and third in total takeaways. What has the defense done, or what player on the defense has been helping with this uptick?
Walker: The defense has learned how to create pressure. The 2018 Carolina Panthers were ancient. A 300-year old Julius Peppers was their top option as a pass rusher. This season saw the team emphasized switching to a 3-4 base defensive alignment to bring speed off the edge. This switch also allowed Dontari Poe, a 2018 signing, and Gerald McCoy, a 2019 signing, to play in more effective positions than they have in recent years. Add in rookie Brian Burns (who has partially blocked two or three kicks already) and a renaissance year from edge rusher Mario Addison, and the Panthers are fast enough upfront to force the kind of quick and/or bad decisions that lead to turnovers.
They also are fielding the best secondary they have had since 2015. James Bradberry and Donte Jackson are one of the best young corner tandems in the league, and Eric Reid and Tre Boston make for the best pair of safeties the Panthers have had arguably ever.
Niners Nation: How do the 49ers stop Christian McCaffrey?
Walker: Ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They held him to about 100 total yards in two games. He often approaches 100 yards both rushing and receiving in one. Their formula was essential to blitz more than was probably wise. Extra rushers would clog gaps on running plays and force McCaffrey to stay in as protection on passing plays. It is a bold dare, asking the opposing quarterback to beat you. It worked out for the Bucs against an injured Cam Newton. It almost worked for them against Kyle Allen, who was only able to produce an 11 point margin of victory with the help of a +6 turnover margin. Kyle Shanahan will have to ask if he trusts his offenses ball security enough to risk letting Robert Saleh loose on McCaffrey and Allen.