The Kyle Shanahan Era for the San Francisco 49ers got off to a rough start. The 49ers lost their first week one game since 2010, falling to the Carolina Panthers 23-3. A year removed from finishing in last place in the NFC West, the 49ers find themselves in familiar territory. With the 49ers featuring a rookie head coach and defensive coordinator, there was much to learn from this game. Overall, there was three big takeaways.
Week One San Francisco 49ers Takeaways
Kyle Shanahan is Going to Break the Mold
The weather for the game was sunny and hot, with temperatures hovering around the mid-90’s. Shanahan wore a black polo, with a gray three-quarters sleeve shirt underneath. What appeared to be a poor wardrobe choice was actually a metaphor for how Shanahan would coach the game. He was going to do things his way, despite any preconceived notions.
Conventional wisdom in the NFL when a drive stalls out is to either kick a field goal, or punt. Studies have been done that show that teams could optimize points if they tried to convert on 4th down, rather than punting or kicking a field goal. Kyle Shanahan made it clear he is a subscriber to these analytics.
Four times, Shanahan sent his offense out to the field to attempt a fourth down play. The 49ers only converted three of said attempts, which will be frowned upon by the old school NFL pundits. Shanahan doesn’t care though. He believes in his system and the analytics. His willingness to go against the grain may lead to other coaches doing so in the future, and a new mold of coaching style.
The 49ers Defended the Run, but not the Pass
Last year, opposing teams ran wild against the 49ers. The 2016 49ers were ranked 31st in rush defense DVOA. They were not much better against the pass, but their struggles against the run could not be more extreme. 2016 defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was confused when it came to the defensive term “gap integrity,” which did not inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to scheme against the run.
Enter defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. The 49ers shift from a 3-4 defense to the 4-3 under defense alone is enough to show a concerted effort to stop the run. The 4-3 under is designed to be a run thwarting defense. That is exactly what it did against the Panthers. For most of the game, there was little room to run for both Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey. It wasn’t until the final drive of the game until the Panthers were able to break the 49ers run game. Stewart and McCaffrey combined for 112 yards of rushing, with 50 of that coming on the final drive. As the 49ers young defense grows, expect the opposing rushers to continue to find little success.
While the rush defense was promising, the same cannot be said for the passing defense. Cam Newton only had 171 passing yards with two touchdowns and one interception. However, the box score does not tell the whole story. Whether it be early season rust, or issues with his surgically repaired shoulder, Newton routinely missed open receivers. Most notably, Newton well over threw tight end Ed Dickson in the end zone for what would have been a completely wide open touch down. Although Jaquiski Tartt made an incredible interception, he did not play well as the single high safety. With K’Waun Williams being the oldest member of the secondary at age 26, the 49ers are due for more games where they are exposed in the passing game.
Brian Hoyer Was Good, Not Great
Brian Hoyer will never be confused for a franchise quarterback. There was a reason he was available as a free agent, and the 49ers were able to sign him for relatively cheap. Hoyer is best served as a bridge quarterback. The offensive prowess of Kyle Shanahan has elevated Hoyer in the past, and elevated him against the Panthers.
Hoyer did not put up a good stat line. He failed to surpass 200 passing yards, and threw an interception. However, he completed an outstanding 68% of his throws, going 24 for 35. In the first quarter, Hoyer had Marquise Goodwin drop what would have been a long touchdown. While the pass was not perfect, it was good enough that Goodwin should have caught it.
Hoyer was better than the numbers suggest, but he was not great. Hoyer played quarterback against the Panthers like most teams play Madden: it seemed like he had decided which receiver he was throwing to before the ball was snapped. Evidence of this was on the interception he threw. On a play action pass, Hoyer turned and fired for tight end George Kittle. However, linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted the pass, covering up Kittle, who was never open. Had Hoyer looked before he threw, he would’ve seen Kuechly lurking. Hoyer may have success in Shanahan’s system, but if week one is any indication, it will be because of the system, not Hoyer.