CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It’s time to find out if the San Francisco defense is for real.
The 49ers dominated the Los Angeles Rams 28-0 on Monday night, but handling Case Keenum is one thing. Cam Newton is a completely different beast.
Carolina’s dual-threat quarterback figures to be a better barometer for the 49ers, who’ll travel cross-country to face a Panthers team that averaged more than 31 points per game last season and finished 10-0 at home, including two playoff wins.
Stopping Superman has been on Chip Kelly’s mind all week.
The first-year 49ers coach expressed surprise Newton ran 11 times against the Broncos, and said he amped-up preparation for the game’s toughest running quarterback because of that.
“Cam is unlike any other quarterback in the league,” Kelly said. “He’s a second running back back there. You know and the size of him, it’s like Eddie George that can throw. You know, it’s a tough task for any defense. “
Defending the Panthers (0-1) is even tougher now that wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is back.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound receiver has already re-established himself as Newton’s favorite target. He was thrown to 12 times against the Broncos and finished with six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Newton said now he needs to find ways to get wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess and Philly Brown more touches.
“We have to do it, but not force it,” Newton said. “When we do that, that’s when we become dangerous. When you look back at our run last year (to the Super Bowl) what made us so dangerous is defenses didn’t know where the ball was going. We have to get back to that.”
NEWTON’S HEAD: It will be interesting to see if the flags start to fly should any defender approach Newton’s head.
Newton took four controversial helmet-to-helmet hits in a 21-20 loss to the Broncos and many felt officials didn’t do enough to protect the league MVP. Only one of the four hits to the head resulted in a penalty, which angered Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.
Two Broncos were fined by the league this week.
“They say, ‘Oh, but he runs the ball so much.’ Well, every single one of those times he was hit he was playing quarterback,” Olsen said. “... (I don’t care) if he ran the ball 10 plays in a row as a running back, when he is a passer, he is a passer. Period. We’re not saying Cam should get different rules than anybody else. Call the rules the same for every single person who is the quarterback.”
FAVORITE TARGET: Just two weeks after being acquired from Detroit in a trade, receiver Jeremy Kerley quickly established himself as Blaine Gabbert’s favorite target in San Francisco. Gabbert threw 11 passes to Kerley in the opener, completing seven for 61 yards. Kerley operated mostly out of the slot.
“He’s savvy, and I don’t use that term very lightly because there’s a lot of things that go into being a savvy football player,” Gabbert said.
KEEP HIM CLEAN: After not being sacked at all in the preseason, Gabbert was not brought down once in the opener despite playing a Rams team that features one of the league’s top defensive lines. Gabbert got rid of the ball extremely fast, holding the ball on average for less time than all but one quarterback in Week 1, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Blaine understands where his issues are protection-wise and getting the ball out and receivers running the right routes so he can get the ball to them,” offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said.
PANTHERS’ RUN GAME: The Panthers are expecting running back Jonathan Stewart to play, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the right ankle he injured in the opener. Stewart has had problems with his ankles before and the Panthers can’t afford to lose him.
Carolina has run for at least 100 yards in 33 straight games if you include the last five NFL playoff games.
SHORT WEEK: While the Panthers got extra time off after opening the season last Thursday, the Niners have a quick turnaround: and a cross-country flight: after playing the late Monday night opener. To compensate for the short preparation time, the coaches spent part of Sunday and Monday breaking down Carolina’s film from its opener even before San Francisco played its first game.
“You’ve got to turn the page pretty quickly and right in our (Tuesday) afternoon meetings we started preparing for Carolina, and started to get a jump start on the film because we’ve got a little catching up to do,” Gabbert said.
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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