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Panthers facing the known and unknown with Kyle Shanahan


CHARLOTTE – Recent results would suggest Kyle Shanahan owns the Panthers.

Last year's historic pummeling in Atlanta, when Shanahan's offense piled up 500 passing yards, was followed by a leisurely 33-point performance in a Falcons' Week 16 win. And in 2015, an efficient offensive effort helped Atlanta hand Carolina its first loss in 15 games.

But if we're going to look back, we should include Shanahan's entire history against the Panthers.

"We had a real good team in Atlanta and it still took us a while to get there," the new 49ers head coach recalled on a conference call Wednesday. "We got shut out against Carolina our first year there."

How soon we forget.

When the Panthers improved to 13-0 in 2015, they blanked the Falcons while limiting them to just 230 yards. And before that, Carolina was 3-0 against Shanahan-led offenses, shutting down Cleveland in 2014 and Washington in 2011 and 2012.

What did his units average in those four losses?

11.5 points and 287.0 yards.

But understandably, Shanahan's more recent results are top of mind as Carolina heads to San Francisco for Sunday's season opener.

"He got us the last three times," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "He's been creative the last three times and has had something new for us. That's what makes him good is that you can't dial in on exactly what he's doing."

It's not like the Panthers are preparing blindly, though.

"When you watch tape," head coach Ron Rivera said, "there's a lot of similarities between what Coach Shanahan did in Atlanta and what he's trying to do with San Francisco."

Added cornerback James Bradberry: "They run pretty much the same route concepts and pretty much the same formations and stuff like that."

In simplest terms, the 49ers will try to do what most teams attempt against the Panthers – establish the run early to set up play-action passes. That's what Shanahan did so well last year.

Of course, his personnel is much, much different now.

Moving from Atlanta to San Francisco meant swapping the likes of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman combo for Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garçon and Carlos Hyde.

That's not to say Shanahan's new group can't beat the Panthers.

"If you want to see some good football, watch early in the Minnesota game," Rivera said.

Sure, it was just the preseason, but the 49ers looked pretty good in last month's "dress rehearsal." After finishing their first drive against the Vikings with a 46-yard score from Hoyer to speedy wideout Marquise Goodwin, San Francisco went 10 plays and 88 yards with a 24-yard Hyde receiving touchdown on its second.

"You can't approach this team lightly, which we are not going to," Rivera said. "This is a good football team that maybe has some little things to learn, but I think they can be good."

Considering Shanahan's recent success, Rivera has reason to be leery. And while he and the Panthers have a sense of what the 49ers will try to do, what Shanahan's offenses showed in Atlanta or the preseason isn't necessarily what the Panthers will see on Sunday.

"We both have an idea of what we like to do, but no one really knows until the game starts," Shanahan said. "We could sit here and prepare for everything and make our players chase a thousand ghosts, but we're not going to know until that ball snaps."

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