San Francisco 49ers

Defense goes from goats to heroes as 49ers pick off a win from Tampa Bay

Postgame Buzz: San Francisco 49ers win season opener 31-17 over Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Sacramento Bee's Chris Biderman gives his Postgame Buzz from the San Francisco 49ers' 31-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019.
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The Sacramento Bee's Chris Biderman gives his Postgame Buzz from the San Francisco 49ers' 31-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019.

The 49ers set a record in futility on defense last season, you might have heard.

They had just seven takeaways and two interceptions, both all-time lows that provided plenty of talking points throughout the offseason. The key question entering Sunday’s season opener at Tampa Bay: Would the defense pick up the slack or be a weak point while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo works his way back from an ACL tear?

Things are trending in the right direction.

The 49ers had four takeaways, including three interceptions, beating last year’s miserable mark 57 minutes into the new season. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon returned their picks for touchdowns, which were the difference in a 31-17 win on a sweltering day inside Raymond James Stadium.

It marked the first time the 49ers won a game in the Eastern time zone since Jim Harbaugh’s final season in 2014. And it’s the first time they’ve won a season opener under coach Kyle Shanahan.

A motivated Richard Sherman talks about his interception and the 49ers being the underdogs after the team's Week 1 win over the Buccaneers.

However, the 49ers had a few “here-we-go-again” moments, including in the second quarter when Jimmy Garoppolo threw the game’s first pick-six to Buccaneers corner Vernon Hargreaves III, giving the home team a 7-3 advantage.

The offense could have lost its confidence in the early going, wilting under the pressure facing Garoppolo in an important first game returning from the injury. But the defense played well, holding Jameis Winston to just 72 yards passing before halftime.

There was no pressing from San Francisco’s offensive huddle because of the way things were going on the other side of the ball.

“We were ready to go,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “We looked at the way the defense was playing and we knew we had to respond because they carried us all day. That happened early, we knew we were in control of the game and we just bounced back from it.”

The new-look defense yielded dividends early on. No. 2-overall draft pick Nick Bosa logged his first career sack and provided pressure in his scant playing time while coming back from last month’s high ankle sprain. Dee Ford, acquired in a trade in the spring, had his first strip sack after leading the NFL with seven forced fumbles in 2018.

Arik Armstead had a crucial third-down sack of Winston (who finished his day 20 of 36, 194 yards, one touchdown, 45.4 passer rating) which forced a field goal to preserve a three-point lead for San Francisco.

“Watching Nick Bosa get sacks and watching Dee Ford get stripped fumbles,” tight end George Kittle said, “it gets the offense going when your defense is playing like that. Sherm with the pick-six, Ahkello with the pick-six, just gets you fired up.

“It’s hard to watch an offense go down on your defense for a 12-play drive for a touchdown. That kind of drains the offense too, sitting there (on the sidelines). When your defense makes big plays, it just gets everybody excited and gets the offense moving.”

The offense struggled throughout, particularly in the first half. It had three touchdowns negated by penalty, including two in three plays in the second quarter. It would be up to the defense to carry Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which hasn’t often been the case during the past two seasons when San Francisco went 10-22 combined.

But San Francisco limited Tampa to just 295 yards of offense. The 49ers offense was worse, with just 256 yards. Garoppolo wasn’t particularly sharp, making one notable throw to receiver Richie James Jr. for a 39-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 13-7 lead in the third quarter. He was off target on possible big plays to Marquise Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne.

Sherman’s pick-six came less than a minute later, seemingly putting the game out of reach.

“Today was one of the hottest games I’ve ever been a part of,” Sharman said. “That’s why you don’t have much for celebration because you’re just fighting through survival mode and trying to stay on top and trying to get your job done the best you can. And it felt good.”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo talks about how it feels to be back under center for his team.

The defense lost linebacker Kwon Alexander in the first quarter when he was ejected for a helmet to helmet hit on Winston and he slid sideways on a scramble. It was Alexander’s first game back since suffering an ACL tear with the Buccaneers last October. His replacement, Mark Nzeocha, logged an interception in the second quarter that should have led to a field goal, but rookie receiver Deebo Samuel fumbled taking a field goal chance just before halftime. Those three points lost were crucial until the 49ers pulled away late.

Alexander’s absence was felt, particularly in the second half when the Buccaneers started gashing the 49ers with running plays up the middle. They rushed for just 34 yards in the first two quarters and 87 after the break. The heat might have played a role in the defense losing steam. But not having Alexander certainly hurt.

But the defense took advantage of Winston late in the game during a late comeback attempt with Tampa Bay down six with enough time left for a game-winning touchdown drive. On the first play, Ford, Bosa and Armstead pressured Winston on a screen pass, and he overthrew his target with the ball falling right to Witherspoon, who cruised 25 yards for the game-sealing score.

Much of the talk about fixing the takeaway problem this offseason was about tying the pass rush to improved coverage. Sunday’s performance exemplified that.

“We just felt Jameis was uncomfortable,” Sherman said. “He wasn’t in rhythm, he couldn’t hit the top of his drops comfortably. He looked down at the rush a lot of times. But he’s still crafty. He avoided a few sacks, he’s very, very (inventive) in the pocket, very similar to Ben Roethlisberger.”

The 49ers limited star receiver Mike Evans to just two catches for 28 yards (one long passing play down the sideline was broken up nicely by Witherspoon), while Evans entered the game listed as questionable while dealing with an illness.

Next the defense will have to travel to Cincinnati following a week of practice in Youngstown, Ohio. Next week’s opponent, the Bengals, lost to the Seahawks, 21-20, in Seattle on Sunday.

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