Each week, the PFF analysis team will bring you break downs of the most important matchups for each game of the NFL season.
Coverage by: Mike Manning
Matchup: Carolina Panthers offense vs. San Francisco 49ers defense
- G Andrew Norwell vs. DI DeForest Buckner – Norwell was the Panthers’ highest graded offensive lineman with an 84.2 overall in 2016, 12th highest of any guard. With the Panthers returning Jonathan Stewart and adding the electric Christian McCaffrey in the draft, Norwell’s 84.1 run blocking grade will help provide running lanes for the duo. But Buckner is no pushover in run defense, his 27 run stops in 2016 ranked fourth among 44 qualifying 3-4 defensive ends and more than any other rookie defender. The rookie led all defensive lineman in run defense snaps with 460 and will be needed to try and slow down the Panthers rushing attack.
- RB Christian McCaffrey vs. LB Reuben Foster – Two of the most productive college football players in PFF College history, McCaffrey’s 93.2 overall grade in 2015 is the fourth-highest ever by a running back and Foster’s 95.2 in 2016 is the second-highest ever by a linebacker. McCaffrey has forced 150 missed tackles the past two seasons while lining up at 12 different positions. Foster has only missed 19 tackles in 1,465 snaps during that time. Both flashed their talent in the preseason and will meet for the first time early in their NFL careers.
- WR Kelvin Benjamin vs. CB Rashard Robinson – After returning from missing 2015 with a torn ACL, Benjamin improved his drop rate from 13.10 in 2014 to 3.08 in 2016. In 2016’s Week 2 matchup, Robinson only played 11 snaps as Benjamin earned a season high grade of 90.4 overall. The 49ers rookie cornerback’s 86.4 passer rating allowed was the lowest on the team in 2016. Both Robinson and the 49ers will hope that Benjamin doesn’t have a repeat performance of his 158.3 passer rating when targeted in last season’s battle.
Coverage by: Daivd Neumann
Matchup: San Francisco 49ers offense vs. Carolina Panthers defense
- LG Zane Beadles vs. DI Kawann Short — Short has established himself as one of the league’s premier interior defenders, earning 90.0 overall grades in each of the past two seasons. Last year, Short aligned to the right side of the defense on 76.6 percent of his snaps, meaning he should spend a sizable portion of Sunday’s game facing off against Beadles, the 49ers’ starting left guard. It’s difficult to envision this one working out well for San Francisco. Beadles has been one of the league’s worst-graded guards in each of the past two seasons, and his 77 total quarterback pressures allowed since 2015 are the fourth-most among guards. In the same time frame, Short has recorded 117 total pressures, tied for the fourth-most among interior defenders.
- WR Trent Taylor vs. CB Captain Munnerlyn — After final roster cuts saw the release of Jeremy Kerley, the 49ers will turn to fifth-round pick Trent Taylor as the primary slot receiver. While the NFL will obviously present a different challenge, Taylor was one of college football’s most productive slot receivers in 2016, leading the nation in route routes run from the slot (528), slot targets (163), slot receptions (131) and slot yardage (1,734). Taylor’s first test comes against veteran Captain Munnerlyn, who returns to Carolina after spending the past three seasons in Minnesota. Munnerlyn allowed a 76.6 completion percentage (27th of 33 cornerbacks with at least 150 slot cover snaps) and 1.29 yards per cover snap (23rd) in slot coverage last season.
- QB Brian Hoyer vs. Panthers’ zone coverage — Sean McDermott is no longer Carolina’s defensive coordinator, but the Panthers’ scheme is expected to be much of the same under Steve Wilks, who’s been with the team since 2012. So long as that remains the case, Kyle Shanahan & Co. should expect to see a heavy amount of zone coverage on Sunday — no team utilized zone coverage more often than the Panthers last season (80.8 percent of the time). Provided the 49ers can hold up in pass protection, that should be good news for Brian Hoyer. On 112 pass attempts versus zone coverage last season, Hoyer posted a 97.6 passer rating, ninth among 36 qualifying quarterbacks and nearly 13 points better than his passer rating when facing man coverage (84.8, 22nd).