SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Wes Horton set the tone when he burst past Zane Beadles and forced a fumble on a sack of Brian Hoyer that led to Carolina’s first score.
He got plenty of help as the day went on, with more established players like Star Lotulelei, Julius Peppers and Thomas Davis also delivering big hits on Hoyer that helped fuel a season-opening 23-3 victory for the Panthers over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
“Everybody was chipping in,” Lotulelei said. “We had our heads in the game. It didn’t matter what anybody else on the team did. We were going to go out there and play our particular style of football today, and nothing was going to stop us.”
The Panthers dominated the game defensively up front, helping overcome a shaky performance by quarterback Cam Newton and the offense.
Horton’s sack and forced fumble that Lotulelei recovered helped set up Carolina’s first score on a 40-yard TD pass from Newton to Russel Shepard. Pressure up the middle helped lead to Luke Kuechly’s interception in the third quarter that led to another touchdown on Newton’s 9-yard pass to Jonathan Stewart .
Carolina had four sacks in all, held San Francisco to 217 yards of offense, including just 51 on the ground, and showed that the defense might be good enough for the team to bounce back from last year’s disappointing 6-10 performance.
“Got a lot of sacks on them, a lot of hits on the quarterback and a lot of takeaways,” Peppers said. “Those are three things we wanted to do going into the game and we executed. We’re pleased with that.”
Here are some other takeaways from the game:
CAM’S DAY: Newton played only one series in the preseason following offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and looked like a player finding his game. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 171 yards and an interception and cost Carolina a touchdown when he missed a wide-open Ed Dickson in the end zone in the first half.
“The quarterback obviously is still working on his timing,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He missed a couple of throws. He knows it. He’s upset with himself. I had to talk him off a ledge.”
ROOKIE REPORT: Much was made about how the Panthers planned to use first-round pick Christian McCaffrey. He lined up in the backfield, as a receiver and even took a direct snap. He also played alongside Stewart on occasion and got plenty of work. McCaffrey had 13 carries for 47 yards and caught five passes for 38 yards but also lost a fumble.
The 49ers also were hoping for big impacts from their two first-rounders. No. 31 overall pick Reuben Foster shined early with three tackles and a pass breakup in the first quarter before leaving with a right ankle injury. Foster said he hopes to be back next week.
Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, picked third overall, wasn’t as effective. He had two tackles, including one in the backfield.
DEEP SHOTS: Hoyer only threw three of his 35 attempts at least 15 yards downfield as he relied on the short game most of the day. That limited him to 193 yards passing. Two of the deep balls were missed opportunities. Marquise Goodwin couldn’t hold onto a pass near the goal line on the opening drive, costing San Francisco a shot at an early lead. Hoyer then overthrew Goodwin on a deep pass in the second quarter. The only other downfield pass came to Pierre Garcon in the third quarter.
“I think we missed a few opportunities early and you’ve got to take advantage of those when they’re there,” Hoyer said. “We were battling uphill and a lot of it had to do with our own mistakes and not so much exactly what they were doing.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The Panthers play their home opener against Buffalo on Sunday, while the 49ers travel to Seattle to face the division-rival Seahawks.
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