Luke DeCock

Panthers expected 49ers’ misdirection, but still baffled and bamboozled in blowout

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Panthers at 49ers

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s Week 8 loss at San Francisco

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Words may have failed Gerald McCoy, but his body language said it all. The Carolina Panthers defensive lineman, after watching Tevin Coleman take a screen pass untouched for the San Francisco 49ers’ third touchdown of their four in the first half, held his palms up in baffled supplication.

The Panthers had three points at that point and zero clue how to read the San Francisco offense, a cornucopia of draws and screens and play actions and clever misdirections. When the Panthers played zig, the 49ers had long ago zagged.

“It was a mix of both,” McCoy said. “Us being out of place and them scheming it well.”

After spending the entire week preparing for the confusing deception of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, the Panthers only nailed down the confused part, getting rolled over on their way to a 24-point halftime deficit and 51-13 loss on Sunday.

Amid the oppressive parity and copycat schematics of the NFL, this was a rare and shocking degree of strategic advantage. The Panthers were always going to struggle against the fearsome San Francisco defense, but they would have hoped and expected to at least hold their own on the other side of the ball.

“They pretty much did what they wanted to do,” Panthers linebacker Bruce Irvin said.

The 49ers’ 11-play opening drive was all too easy, full of cleverly designed plays including a shovel draw that got them to the shadow of the goal line. The Panthers deflected one pass — which ended up in the hands of San Francisco tight end George Kittle — and Marquis Haynes forced an incompletion with a timely hit on Jimmy Garoppolo, but the Panthers’ powerlessness to stop the 49ers was merely a preview of the afternoon to come.

Other than a first-quarter Luke Kuechly interception of a poorly thrown pass, the 49ers were a step ahead of the Panthers all game long. Their offense is designed to obfuscate, and the Panthers were either too aggressive, jumping at ghosts early, or too passive, playing on their heels late.

“They got us on screens. We were very aggressive in terms of our pass rush,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s in our nature. We coach our guys to go. We made an adjustment a little later to slow it down.”

The 49ers had so much of the physical edge in this one, their punter/kickoff specialist got an unnecessary roughness penalty making the tackle on a kickoff return. Mitch Wishnowsky also botched the hold on an extra point, saving the Panthers an additional point of embarrassment.

With rookie Greg Little (concussion) inactive again, the Panthers played three-card monte with offensive tackles Daryl Williams, Taylor Moton and Dennis Daley, to no avail. They gave up seven sacks — three to Nick Bosa in the first half — while the offensive line was called for three penalties. Williams also played some right guard.

“We have some young guys we feel can play the position as well and we’ve got to make sure we work everybody in and give everybody the opportunity to grow and develop,” Rivera said. “That’s kind of where we are with the young guys. It’s a tall task for anybody. They’ve got a good pass rush. They’re a good football team, let’s be honest about that as well. You watch the things that they do, you watch it on tape, it’s a tall task for anyone, left or right, young or old, rookie or veteran.”

Bosa, the second overall pick in the 2019 draft, was a dominant force on defense, with an interception and long return to go with his sacks, but the entire San Francisco defensive line did very little wrong on the afternoon.

“Bosa’s as advertised,” left guard Greg Van Roten said.

Christian McCaffrey, who played at nearby Stanford, had his fourth 100-yard game of the season but had trouble finding any running room in the first half when the Panthers couldn’t get anything going on offense. (He did have a 43-yard run called back for a holding penalty.) Of his 117 yards, 96 came in the second half after the 49ers had a comfortable lead.

“We were hurting ourselves a lot,” Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen said. “If you look at the past four games we won, the things we did best, we stayed on schedule, we were in manageable third downs, we didn’t have many penalties, we were really efficient. Today, we got away from that and it starts with me.”

Panthers rookie linebacker Brian Burns, with 4.5 sacks through the first six games, was limited and ineffective playing with his surgically repaired right wrist in a cast that looked like a boxing glove. Mario Addison, with 6.5 sacks, struggled to pressure Garoppolo as well.

“Just trying to get him used to playing with the cast and just having the procedure done a week ago,” Rivera said. “He’ll learn, he’ll learn how to play with it and we’ll go from there.”

Irvin picked up some of the slack with a pair of sacks, one in each half.

Steve Spurrier was in attendance for reasons unexplained, perhaps because it was allegedly “National Tight End Day” and Spurrier admitted he would have recruited Cam Newton as a tight end when he was coaching at South Carolina.

Greg Dortch, the Wake Forest wide receiver signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad to replace kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud, was curiously inactive. Colin Jones handled punt-return duties and Reggie Bonnafon kickoffs instead.

“He’s a guy we’re still working into things,” Rivera said. “He’s a young player. He’s going to get an opportunity. It’s just a matter of time.”

Dortch could have been a useful part after receiver Jarius Wright left the game with a leg injury in the third quarter. That left the Panthers with Brandon Zylstra and DeAndrew White as backups until Wright returned in the fourth quarter.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.