SANTA CLARA — Watching Tevin Coleman slice his way to a second-quarter touchdown, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo held off from celebrating his second passing touchdown of the day with his teammates in the end zone.
First, Garoppolo had to give a fist bump his newest receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whose mere presence drew Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechley to the opposite side of the field, making room for Coleman. “He was kind of the misdirection,” Garoppolo said. “It was a beautiful thing.”
In his first game since being traded to San Francisco earlier in the week, Sanders opened up the 49ers offense in one of its best showings in over 15 years against the Carolina Panthers. The two-time Pro Bowler showed that he can offer much more than numbers that show up in the box score
“He made a big difference just by his motions and whatnot because he’s so fast,” Coleman said. “It gets guys out of position. It’s nice to have him out there.”
Entering their seventh game of the regular season on Sunday, the 49ers were the fourth-least efficient team in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on just 38% of their trips, settling for 11 field goals and averaging 3.8 points per trip.
Without a bona fide No. 1 receiver, San Francisco tight end George Kittle often commanded double — if not triple — coverage when the 49ers got inside the 20.
Having Sanders on the field on Sunday paid immediate dividends. Running a shallow out-route at the goal line six minutes into the first quarter, Sanders got inside leverage against Panthers’ safety Eric Reid, hauled in a four-yard dart from Garoppolo for his first touchdown as a 49er.
“I guess the ball was tipped, but it ended up falling right in my hands,” Sanders said. “It was probably one of the easiest touchdowns I have had. It was awesome to get on the opening drive to be a newcomer on this team and be able to open up like that is awesome.”
Three possessions later, Sanders helped San Francisco score again, this time eliminating Kuechly — who intercepted Garoppolo late in the first quarter — from the play on Coleman’s 10-yard catch-and-run.
“We did have some better looks down there,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Love having Emmanuel out there. It was very fun.”
Sanders’ presence was able to free up Kittle, as well, en route to 86 yards on six catches.
Much of Kittle’s production came over the middle of the field, as he was left wide open in space thanks to the attention Sanders attracted by Carolina’s secondary.
“He’s a distraction on some plays and I think he did everything we wanted him to do today,” Kittle said. “If we keep doing that moving forward, it’s going to be some fun football.”
The 49ers also called on Sanders in tough third-down situations. Two of the 32-year-old’s four catches came as third-down conversions — each saving a drive that ended in a touchdown.
By the time the final horn sounded at Levi’s, the 49ers had put 51 points on the score board — the most the franchise has scored since 2003 when San Francisco dropped 50 on the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park.
And while Sanders’ stat sheet only credited him to 25 yards on four receptions and one touchdown, his contributions meant much more to the overall offense.
“Having a guy like that, a savvy vet like [Sanders] just makes you comfortable as a quarterback,” Garoppolo said. “To have him have a great day today, it’ll only get better from here.”
“I showed up today expecting the same results,” Sanders added. “I was like, ‘Man this is football, this is fun.’ I am blessed to be here.”