DeMeco Ryans could not have dreamed of a better start to the season for the 49ers' defense. The defense ranks first in: points allowed (46), yards per play (3.8), first downs allowed (64), and expected points contributed by the defense (33.66).
They face a Panthers offense that ranks 30th in total passing yards and 24th in total rushing yards. The addition of Baker Mayfield hasn’t gone as Matt Rhule has hoped, and it won’t get any easier against the 49ers' defense in Carolina.
These are the five to watch as the defense looks to continue its hot start:
DE Nick Bosa
After his 14 pressures on Monday night, Bosa leads the league in both pressures (30) and sacks (6) through the first month of the season. But Bosa’s talent isn’t the only reason to watch the edge rusher Sunday in Carolina. He will get the chance to chase down Baker Mayfield, a rivalry that dates back to their days in college after Mayfield planted an Oklahoma flag midfield at Bosa’s alma mater.
Bosa got his revenge in 2019 when the two met for the first time in the NFL when Bosa sacked Mayfield twice and planted a 49ers flag midfield after a 31-3 win over the Browns, who Mayfield previously played for. The chance to get after Mayfield makes Bosa more of a must-watch than normal.
S Talanoa Hufanga
Just like Bosa, Hufanga has been a star through the first month of the season. Hufanga has shown steady improvement through the first four games, capped off with his 52-yard, game-sealing interception against the Rams Monday night.
Hufanga has forced three turnovers this season with two interceptions, and a tipped pass that led to a Tashaun Gipson pick and has turned somewhat into a ball hawk safety, a type of safety the 49ers as a franchise haven’t seen for a while. Hufanga also excels against the run game and will prove valuable against Christian McCaffrey, who already has two 100-plus yard games on the ground.
LB Dre Greenlaw
Greenlaw, like Hufanga, has taken great strides through the first month of the season. The linebacker leads the team in tackles by a healthy margin with 38 (Hufanga and Fred Warner are tied for second with 25). Fifteen of his 38 tackles came on Monday night against the Rams, setting a career-high for Greenlaw and giving him back-to-back weeks with ten or more tackles for the second time in his career. With the aforementioned McCaffrey, Greenlaw will need to continue his sure-handed tackling to prevent big plays from the running back.
LB Fred Warner
Warner was used as a pass rusher five times on Monday night which was more times than the first three weeks of the season combined. The blitzes worked as Warner totaled two pressures, the most he’s had in a game since Week 8 last season in Chicago.
Monday was also the third time under DeMeco Ryans that Warner has blitzed at least five or more times, so it shouldn’t be expected that Warner sees as many pass rush snaps in Carolina. However, Warner was just as impressive both in coverage and the run game, totaling a season-high nine tackles and allowing a 70.5 passer rating against seven targets.
CB Mooney Ward
Both DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson have had 1,000-yard seasons with the Panthers in the past, but both have had some early season issues adjusting to Mayfield at quarterback. Moore is averaging 34.5 yards per game, which, being a small sample, would set a new career low by a healthy margin.
Ward has been the most-targeted member of the 49ers' secondary, allowing a passer rating of 77.9 on 20 targets with an interception and four pass deflections. Carolina has relied heavily on McCaffrey so far, but if the 49ers get out to an early lead, Mayfield could target Moore and Andreson more, giving Ward some chances to make a play.