SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Coach Kyle Shanahan's tenure in San Francisco began with a lopsided loss to the Carolina Panthers.
The rematch on Sunday between the 49ers (6-0) and Panthers (4-2) will show how far San Francisco has come in two-plus years under Shanahan.
The Niners are off to their best start since 1990 and are one of two remaining undefeated teams in the league thanks to a dominant defense that has shut down nearly every opponent and a diverse offense that takes advantage of Shanahan's play-calling to create mismatches all over the field.
"I see every week as a measuring stick," Shanahan said. "Carolina is always a tough team."
Now the 49ers are equipped to match up with them after being in a different class back in the 2017 opener. Only five players who started that 23-3 loss for San Francisco are projected to play on Sunday as Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have remade nearly the entire roster that started 0-9 that season.
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Jimmy Garoppolo was brought in midway through 2017 and has been a steady presence at quarterback. The defense has undergone a major overhaul the past couple of years with cornerback Richard Sherman joining the team last year and edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa coming in this season.
San Francisco added another big piece this week with the addition of receiver Emmanuel Sanders, a message from management to the players that this team is in position to contend for a title.
"It was a guy they valued, a guy Kyle respects a ton, who fits our system very well," Sherman said. "They were doing whatever they could to make our team better. That's the only message that it sends. Regardless of the circumstances, they're working to get us better."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it's easy to see the improvement in the 49ers in the past couple of years.
"They've done well in the draft the last three years," he said. "They've put themselves in position to be successful because of the players and because of the way they approach the game."
ALLEN BACK UNDER CENTER
Rivera said Kyle Allen will continue to start while Cam Newton rehabs from a mid-foot sprain. Allen is 4-0 this season as the team's starter and his 106.6 QB rating is fourth-best in the NFL. But Rivera said the 49ers will be Allen's stiffest challenge yet. San Francisco ranks first in the NFL in pass defense and is allowing just 10.7 points per game.
"The more he plays, the more comfortable he gets and the more his confidence builds," Rivera said of Allen. "You see quick decisions, you see quick feet. And that's been huge. And probably the one thing I appreciate is that he's learning to protect the ball better."
The Niners ranked last in the NFL with just 49 catches from wide receivers this season and second worst with 679 yards receiving. That led to the move to acquire Sanders from Denver this week. He had 30 catches for 367 yards and two TDs in seven games with the Broncos and has the versatility to play both outside and inside in San Francisco's offense.
"When you get a guy that talented, it's just about getting the ball in his hands, letting him make plays, the yards after catch, obviously he's tremendous at that," Garoppolo said. "It's just you want to give him opportunities. As the quarterback, it's your job to do that."
The Panthers have 23 sacks and forced 14 turnovers in the past four games and will look to carry that momentum over following a bye week. Safety Tre Boston said the Panthers can be better, pointing the Patriots defense as the measuring stick in the NFL.
"When we know our assignments it's hard to beat us," Boston said. "Early on it was getting the feel of who you want to be, your identity. We're getting in a rhythm and we're still hungry."
The Niners have relied on their defense for this fast start. San Francisco has allowed 64 points this season, the second fewest through six games in franchise history to the 63 in 1976. The 49ers have been even more stingy of late, allowing just 10 points the past three weeks against Cleveland, the Rams and Washington, and not allowing any of those teams to reach 200 yards. San Francisco is the first team since Minnesota in 1988 to allow 50 or fewer net yards passing in consecutive games.
DEFENDING THE RUN
Panthers defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said it doesn't matter who is at running back for the 49ers - Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida or Raheem Mostert - they will defend the 49ers the same way.
"They don't base what they do off who is in the game," McCoy said. "They run their offense. They have different guys who can do different stuff. We know we have to deal with four guys, but we are playing against a scheme, not a player."
Robbie Gould missed his seventh field goal of the season last week, joining Sebastian Janikowski (2000) as the only players in the past 25 years to miss seven field goals in the first six games. Making matters worse is the fact that Gould was given a four-year, $19 million contract with $10.5 million guaranteed this summer after skipping the offseason program in a contract dispute. Gould could get some help this week with another change at long snapper after the Niners have gone through three already this season. Kyle Nelson returns from a 10-game suspension this week.
The 49ers haven't faced this version of Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey, who played college ball for Stanford, averages 4.9 yards per carry and leads the league in yards from scrimmage per game with 153.8. He is the engine powering the Carolina Panthers offense.
The last time the 49ers faced McCaffrey, Week 1 of 2017, he was a rookie. And not nearly as good. On Sunday, the 49ers will face him as one of the best players in the NFL.
"I remember him vividly," 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Thursday. "It felt like he was a scatback, change of pace. We had a plan for him. We felt he'd get his touches but didn't think he'd hurt us."
The 49ers were right, and their plan worked. McCaffrey ran 13 times for just 47 yards (3.6 yards per carry), caught five passes for only 38 yards and scored no touchdowns during his NFL debut. The 49ers defense held him in check.
Now, McCaffrey is much more difficult to hold in check, because he's bigger, stronger and decidedly better. "He has obviously had a heck of a meal plan and a heck of a weightlifting program," Saleh said. "There's no weakness in his game."
McCaffrey became the focal point of the Panthers offense when quarterback Cam Newton injured his foot in Week 2 and Kyle Allen replaced him in the lineup. Since then, McCaffrey has touched the ball 29 times per game, and the Panthers have won four straight.
"He's not your typical scatback that you can blow on and he'll fall," Saleh said. "He runs through arm tackles. He'll make you miss. He'll run right through you. He'll outrun you. He's tremendous with the ball in his hands."
McCaffrey's versatility makes him one of the most unique running backs in the league. Last season, he ran the ball 219 times and caught 107 passes. He's such a good receiver, opposing teams occasionally cover him with a cornerback instead of a safety or a linebacker.
"He reminds me of Marshall Faulk," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He can beat you in the pass game, he can beat you in the run game. They're doing a great job on how to use him because they are using him as much as possible. You can tell he's a very smart player, extremely talented and that's why he's being mentioned with some of the best in the league this year."
Most of the time, the 49ers don't have to contend with McCaffrey, because the Panthers and 49ers play in different divisions. But the 49ers knew they'd have to face McCaffery and other dynamic running backs eventually and have built their defense to stop players like them.
"We feel we've gotten ahead of the chains in terms of finding linebackers that can keep up with the running backs that are being used as receivers," Saleh said.
To stay ahead of the chains, San Francisco signed hyper-athletic linebacker Kwon Alexander this offseason. Alexander played the first four seasons of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are in the NFC South along with the Panthers.
"I've been playing Christian since he got in the league," Alexander said. "I've been playing him twice a year. He's a great player. We just have to get a body on him and get the ball from him and make him feel uncomfortable."
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