130. That’s the number of passing yards the San Francisco 49ers secondary allowed in their season opening 28-0 win against the Los Angeles Rams. A stingy secondary, and one that rose to the occasion, despite facing a suspect passing attack, it will be interesting to see how they fare this time around, as they go up against QB Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
The reigning 2015 NFL MVP will undoubtedly pose matchup problems for the 49ers defense. He can win with his legs or beat you with his arm. Pick your poison.
However, while I fully anticipate the 49ers front seven doing an admirable job in containing Newton off the zone-read option, I can’t necessarily say the same for the secondary. Why? Because the Panthers have a beast and his name is Kelvin.
1. WR Kelvin Benjamin
Analysis: At 6-5, 240, Benjamin already creates a mismatch from a physique standpoint. He’s big, he’s strong, and he body’s up smaller defensive backs. Similar to basketball when ‘boxing out’ for a rebound, Benjamin plays above the rim. Just turn on the game-film in the Panthers Week 1 21-20 loss to the Denver Broncos where Benjamin strikes first blood (touchdown), and you can see what I’m talking about.
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) September 14, 2016
Which leads me to 49ers DB Jimmie Ward.
When 49ers GM Trent Baalke drafted Ward in 2014, he went on record to say that Ward’s lack of height [5-10] is not a concern:
“Dynamite comes in all packages. And this is a young man [Ward] that’s proven that he’s been able to hold up physically, play a physical style of football and also have the rare traits to be able to go down and cover. So, there’s just a lot of versatility to his game, and the fact that he can play it physically and play it mentally is extremely important,” Baalke said.
I caught up with Ward just moments after their Week 1 win to talk about Benjamin, and what he [Benjamin] brings to the table from his perspective:
“Jump balls. He’s going to position himself on the slants because he’s so big. He’s a big body and good on double moves too. He’s a guy that builds up speed, he’s not a burner, so you have to get your hands on him early,” Ward told me.
Nonetheless the question remains, will Ward line up across from Benjamin? After all, Benjamin was mainly lined up as the team’s split-end last week (opposite side of TE Greg Olsen) en route to recording six catches for 91 yards (15.2 average) and one touchdown.
No one really knows for sure, and 49ers DC Jim O’Neil is certainly not one to show his cards anytime soon.
But if I had to take a guess, I would think that rookie fourth-round pick (No. 133) CB Rashard Robinson would create a favorable match-up on the outside. Not saying that Ward can’t get the job done, he certainly can, but the coaching staff may roll the dice on the LSU rookie.
Robinson is still learning the nuances of the position from a cerebral standpoint, but his press-man skills can’t be denied. At 6-1, 188, Robinson’s length alone will help ease the trouble of covering the big-bodied Florida State product. The concern from here is whether or not Robinson has the mental capacity to understand proper down and distance when dropping back in zone-coverage.
During the preseason, Robinson at times gave up too much cushion allowing receivers to move the chains. That can’t happen this time around. This is where it counts, and Robinson will need to do a better job of protecting the first-down markers. If he can show signs of life in this department, then it should make life difficult for Newton in the passing game since the only other target he really looks for is Olsen.
Whether or not Robinson will see action against Benjamin or WR Devin Funchess remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, Robinson is the future, and will certainly be in the mix come Sunday.