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Humbling loss evokes memories of how Panthers' 2018 season unraveled

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Bruce Irvin was a member of the Atlanta Falcons last November, watching on television, when the Carolina Panthers were embarrassed 52-21 by the Pittsburgh Steelers in a prime-time Thursday night game.

“They got their ass beat,” the Panthers outside linebacker said after Sunday’s 51-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. “It was kind of similar to today.”

What happened after the Pittsburgh loss last season was catastrophic. The Panthers lost seven straight and went from a 6-2 playoff contender to a 7-9 also-ran.

They were in such disarray that head coach Ron Rivera took over the defensive playcalling and quarterback Cam Newton was shut down the final two games because of his ailing right shoulder.

Irvin, signed during the offseason as a free agent, promised that a collapse won’t happen again.

“We’ve got different type of guys this year,” Irvin insisted defiantly. “I will not allow that. I will not allow a seven-game skid off one game. ... We’re going to be all right. You’ve got my word.”

That was the theme throughout the locker room at Levi’s Stadium. Players who were a part of last year’s collapse were using the Pittsburgh debacle as an example of what to avoid following Sunday's embarrassment.

They promised to make sure younger players understand it’s not as simple as saying this was just a bad game. A team can't just move on and expect everything to be better next Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.

“You don’t just speak it into existence,” middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “If you could speak it into existence, everybody in the league would be undefeated.

“We’ve got to be honest with ourselves about what happened in this game.”

What happened was that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan neutralized Carolina’s aggressive defense, which came into the day with a league-best 27 sacks. They utilized a series of screens, misdirection plays and play-action passes that made Jimmy Garoppolo look like Tom Brady and running back Tevin Coleman look like Marshall Faulk.

Garoppolo completed 18 of 22 pass attempts for 175 yards and two touchdowns. Coleman had 11 rushes for 105 yards and three touchdowns and caught two passes for 13 yards and a touchdown.

The 49ers also took apart a Carolina offensive line that was starting its fourth left tackle, Taylor Moton. They sacked Kyle Allen seven times and intercepted him three times after the second-year quarterback came into the day with 153 straight pass attempts without a pick to start his career.

Like the Steelers a year ago, San Francisco beat the Panthers badly in every phase.

“They came out and smacked us in our face and humbled us real quick,” Irvin said. “We needed that. We’re going to move forward.”

How the Panthers, still in the playoff hunt at 4-3, will look moving forward is the question. Will they settle the dilemma at left tackle by going with rookie Dennis Daley or continue to tinker with the lineup? Will they have to make major adjustments for how the 49ers attacked them defensively, perhaps a blueprint for other teams?

And looming largest: Will they stick with Allen for another week as Newton continues to “rehab,” as Rivera put it? Or will Newton, on the sideline for the first time since re-aggravating his left foot sprain in Week 2, be ready to return?

All Newton offered afterward when asked how he feels was, "Good.”

There was nothing good about what happened on Sunday, just as there wasn’t a year ago after the Pittsburgh loss.

“Obviously we didn’t do a good job in this locker room bouncing back,” tight end Greg Olsen said of last year. “There’s a lot of reasons for that. We can’t let it happen. A lot of guys understand and have a bitter taste in their mouth from how that second half of the year went.

“If you handle it right, it’s not an issue. If you don’t and think it won’t happen again because we say, ‘Aww. It’s not going to happen,’ ... you’re going to be in trouble.”