Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports



The day after a disheartening opening day loss provides ample opportunity to go on and on about how the sky is falling, the team is even worse than we thought, the season is over, etc. That's a rather easy thing to do. Let's also remember the opening game the past two years when the 49ers played extremely well and blew out the Vikings and Rams by a combined score of 48-3, before turning into one of the worst teams in the league for the remainder of the season. If any fan base should know that things are not always as they seem on opening day, it's this one. I believe that the team has far more reason for optimism than yesterday's result would suggest. Here's why:

1) The Run Defense


Conventional wisdom suggests that if you can run the ball and stop the run in the NFL, you have a chance to compete each week. The Carolina Panthers ranked #8 in the NFL last year in rushing yards per game and added dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey from Stanford in the first round of this year's draft. McCaffrey and his backfield mate Jonathan Stewart were limited to a combined 3.1 yards-per-carry on 38 attempts. When 49ers LB Reuben Foster left the game with 4:35 left in the first quarter, the Panthers had only amassed 14 yards on five carries. The Niners dodged a bullet when Foster's x-rays on his right ankle injury came back negative.

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Speaking of Foster, he went out and proved that his pre-season performance was no fluke and that he will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. He has demonstrated that he is the type of player who will not only always be in position to make plays, but will actually make them.

The 49ers front seven passed their first test against a team that was determined to establish the run and is more than capable of being dominant on the ground. One way to help an anemic pass rush is to take away the run and turn a team one-dimensional. If Carolina had such little success running the ball, it's hard to imagine many other teams in the league being able to run the ball effectively against the Niners.

2) The Return of Ward and Lynch


Jimmy Ward is the starting free safety this year, which is a return to his original college position, after playing both nickel and cornerback during his first three years. All indications are that the role of the single-high safety in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's defense is perfect for Ward. It has repeatedly been called the most important position in his defense, as evidenced by All-Pro safety Earl Thomas' play in a similar offense in Seattle. Ward has great instincts and has shown a knack for being extremely fast to the ball and a sure tackler.

Ward, who has been recovering from a nagging hamstring injury, was inactive on Sunday and although his replacement, Jaquiski Tartt, had a phenomenal highlight-reel interception, the momentum of the game shifted on Tartt's missed tackle of Russell Shepherd on his 40-yard touchdown reception from Cam Newton. Tartt, who is usually a very physical player, closed on Shepherd tentatively when the reception was made at the 21-yard line, as if he expected him to give up on the play and just fall out of bounds. Shepherd avoided Tartt's half-hearted attempt and raced into the end zone. On a second-and-five play on the Panthers' first possession of the second quarter, Tartt rushed in and leveled TE Greg Olsen when the intended pass was nowhere near Olsen. He received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the play. It appeared that rather than reacting to the play, he had decided that no matter what happened, he was going to aggressively attack his man the next time the ball came into his area. In that case, it cost the team yardage. He made up for the mistake later in the drive with the interception.

Tartt is actually Eric Reid's backup at strong safety where he will be playing much closer to the line of scrimmage. Rookie Lorenzo Jerome is Ward's backup, but apparently the coaching staff was hesitant to put him in the starting lineup so soon. The free safety and strong safety have very different responsibilities in Saleh's defense. It's not Tartt's fault he was playing out of his position, but it's safe to assume that Ward will be a significant improvement when he returns, possibly as early as Sunday in Seattle.

Up until this point in his career, Aaron Lynch has not proven to be an elite player, but he has had very good moments and has demonstrated the ability to consistently get pressure on quarterbacks. Based on the resume of the players on the roster, Lynch would have to be considered the best natural pass rusher on the team, besides free agent acquisition Elvis Dummervil, who is 33-years-old and still playing his way back from significant injury. The lack of pass rush was evident in Sunday's game and allowed Cam Newton to shake off his rust and warm up in the second half. This season, Lynch is not a starter, and it should benefit him. Coming off the bench fresh, Lynch should be able to consistently win one-on-one battles against many offensive linemen and provide some much needed relief to the secondary.

3) The Running Game


So much for Carlos Hyde not being a fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense. Hyde looked fresh, quick, physical and like one of the best all-around players on the field on Sunday. In the first quarter, Hyde carried the ball six times for 41 yards: a 6.8 yards-per-carry average. Once the team fell behind, he carried the ball only three more times in the final three quarters. While the offensive line had significant problems in pass protection, they were much more proficient opening holes in the running game. That bodes well for the team going forward. Again, if you can run the ball and stop the run consistently in the NFL, you have a chance to compete.

None of this is to suggest that we didn't see significant issues with the team yesterday. All of them seem correctable for the most part, except for perhaps the offensive line play. LG Zane Beadles was simply losing his one-on-one matchup much of the day, and quarterback Brian Hoyer was clearly affected by the ever-increasing pressure of the Panthers defense. Whether it's replacing Beadles with recent acquisition Laken Tomlinson, or by Shanahan scheming up more help for the line, I am certain we will see some adjustments made, especially considering the fact that the Seahawks defensive line is even better than the Panthers.

Other than that, all of the other units flashed potential and displayed evidence that they should get better and better by simply playing together more and getting more comfortable with the new offense and defense.