SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Behind a suffocating defensive effort that included four sacks, three fourth-down stops and two takeaways, the Carolina Panthers opened their season with a 23-3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Panthers allowed the fewest points they've ever yielded in an opener, bettering their 29-6 victory over the Falcons to open the 1996 season.
"It was a very good team effort," head coach Ron Rivera said. "When you look at things that happened today and how guys flew around and played, guys did stand out like Thomas (Davis) and Luke (Kuechly). The defensive line was very active, and I thought the safeties played physical. I thought our coverage was what we needed. We played against a good young football team that's learning to play, and they gave us everything we wanted. We were fortunate to come out on the winning end."
Late in the first quarter, defensive end Wes Horton made the first of many impact plays by the defense, slicing through the 49ers' offensive line and stripping quarterback Brian Hoyer. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei recovered the fumble to set Carolina up at San Francisco's 42-yard line. Three plays later, quarterback Cam Newton connected with wide receiver Russell Shepard on a 40-yard touchdown pass. Shepard caught the pass along the left sideline near the 20, spun around safety Jaquiski Tartt and strolled into the end zone, giving Carolina an early 7-0 lead.
"(Cam) audibled very nicely," Rivera said. "The play to (Shepard) for the first touchdown was on him. He checked to a specific protection and worked on the back end.
"He's making good reads. Again, it's about getting comfortable and getting his rhythm."
Two Graham Gano field goals after the Panthers stopped the 49ers on fourth downs near midfield extended the lead to 13-0 at the half, and the defense picked up where it left off in the second half.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Kuechly intercepted Hoyer. The interception set up the Panthers just outside the red zone. Running backs Johnathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey shared three handoffs before Newton tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Stewart to make it 20-0.
Carolina's offense didn't stay on the sidelines for very long. On the ensuing drive, the Panthers defense forced the 49ers into a three-and-out. Newton lead the offense into the red zone, alternating between run and pass, keeping the defense on its toes. The drive ended with another Gano field goal that split the uprights from 20 yards out.
The 49ers put together their first and only scoring drive late in the third quarter. Hoyer linked up with wide receiver Pierre Garçon for a personal-best 22 yards on the left sideline on the way to driving the 49ers into the red zone. However, the drive ultimately ended with a Robbie Gould field goal, thanks to Carolina's stifling defense.
"There were some really good things up front," Rivera said on the defense's performance. "Probably the biggest thing and what we talked about was how the tackles had to play. (Lotulelei) does the thing that I think people don't quite understand. When you're a space-eater, your linebackers get to run, and that's probably the most important. (Davis) was able to run. (Kuechly) was able to run. Shaq (Thompson) was able to run."
While Carolina's defense stole the show, the offense did its job. McCaffrey and Stewart combined for 112 yards on 31 carries, while Shepard led the team with 51 receiving yards. Newton showed signs of rustiness throughout - understandably so after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason and throwing just two passes during the preseason - yet finished the game with 171 yards through the air and two passing touchdowns.
"The quarterback is still working on his timing," Rivera said. "He missed a couple of throws and he knows it. He's upset with himself. We had to talk him off a ledge. But he's focusing on what he needs to get done, and all the guys are rallying around him."
View photos from Carolina's victory over San Francisco to open the regular season.