Sakamoto: 49ers linebackers must contain Cam Newton’s security blanket Greg Olsen

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Cam Newton’s Security Blanket

Every NFL quarterback has their go-to receiver when their backs are against the wall. For Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton that player is 11-year veteran TE Greg Olsen

A serviceable, reliable, and productive tight end, Olsen has been a mainstay in the Panthers passing game since signing with the team in 2011. Fast forward to today and Olsen is on par for his fourth consecutive 1,000 yard season. 

Last year against the 49ers, Olsen was a fantasy football stud accounting for five catches for 122 yards (24.4) and one touchdown. 78 of those 122 yards came off of one bad beat. In a play where SS Antoine Bethea took a poor angle while being beat off a double move, Olsen slipped by the box safety for the easy score

However, with a new scheme in place, it will be up to DC Robert Saleh to contain the two-time second-team All-Pro. But who can Saleh place his trust? Rookie LB Reuben Foster is still learning the ropes while no linebacker or free safety can stay stride-for-stride with the big bodied target. 

To think that SS Eric Reid will be patrolling the back end, think again. Saleh converted him to strong safety for a reason. Before the move was made, I asked coach Saleh if he would consider the move back in early April. 

He’s a box safety for sure,” Saleh said. 

Safeties can be interchangeable but it’s all dependent on scheme and play-call. In Saleh’s scheme it usually calls for the free-safety playing single-high while the cornerbacks play deep-thirds. Reid might be the one responsible for roaming the line of scrimmage spying on shifty RB Christian McCaffrey. Which brings me to the Cover-3 defense. 


Under Saleh’s “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid) scheme it’s all about route recognition for his linebacker core. They must read the eyes and shoulders of the quarterback, so they can make the proper drops, while driving on the football. A task easier said than done, there is always ways to attack any scheme and the Cover-3 is no different.

The first way to beat a Cover-3 is having two receivers run down the seams. If both beat their respective coverage, it leaves the single-high safety with a split-decision. A two-on-one situation. The Panthers have two ballers who can surely get this done in WR Kelvin Benjamin and Olsen. 

Essentially, it will be up to second-year CB Rashard Robinson and fourth-year CB Dontae Johnson to stay on top of the receiver at all times. To be honest, I’m not so sure they can do it, but time will tell. 

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Linebackers/Strong Safety must attack the curl/hook/flats

Under the scheme, the middle linebacker’s primary responsibility in pass coverage requires covering the curl and hook routes. The outside linebacker and strong safety are responsible for the curl and flat routes.

This goes back to Saleh’s “KISS” method. In turn, it allows the players to read-and-react rather than be robotic in their play. 

The scheme, in turn, allows for the underneath four players to pattern match routes. Olsen and McCaffrey will be running those routes on Sunday. Whether the 49ers linebackers can make the pre-snap recognition, will ultimately determine if they can win the down. 

Olsen Stat line

If the 49ers defense can cover the deep-thirds while keeping the underneath routes to a minimum, that should bode well for them. A defense that prides themselves on keeping everything in front, it will be interesting to see how they matchup, as they face one of the best in Olsen. 

Predicted Stat line: 7 catches for 84 yards and 1 touchdown

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.