TAMPA, Fla. -- The 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two evenly matched teams, locked up in a defense-dominated, turnover-filled, penalty-infested season opener Sunday.
And the 49ers, who went winless on the road in 2018, got off to a good start with a 31-17 win over the Bucs, who were making their regular-season debut under new coach Bruce Arians.
It certainly wasn't a masterpiece, as the 49ers had three touchdowns called back because of penalties. Tampa Bay was turned away twice on touchdowns because of penalties on the offense.
Here are three takeaways from the 49ers' win at Raymond James Stadium:
Day for the defense
The 49ers invested heavily in their pass rush, anticipating that improved pressure on the quarterback would lead to more takeaways. That’s exactly what happened Sunday, as the defense generated four turnovers against Jameis Winston and the Bucs.
This is a defense that was the worst in NFL history last season at taking away the ball. The 49ers collected seven takeaways and just two interceptions in 16 games. After the first game of the season, the 49ers already have passed last year’s interception total.
Richard Sherman, who was shut out on interceptions for the first time in his eight-year career last season, picked off a Winston pass in the third quarter and returned it 31 yards for his third career touchdown. That gave the 49ers a 20-7 lead with 11:53 remaining in the third quarter.
Ahkello Witherspoon matched Sherman's pick-six, intercepting a Winston pass just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter and returning it 25 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
Linebacker Mark Nzeocha recorded the 49ers’ first interception of the day.
The 49ers’ defense also made a big play when Fred Warner forced Tampa Bay tight end O.J. Howard to fumble, which Ronald Blair recovered at the San Francisco 8-yard line in the second quarter.
Jimmy has ups and downs
Jimmy Garoppolo, returning from an ACL injury that cut his 2018 season short after just three games, had the expected good and bad in the 49ers’ season opener. The quarterback finished the day having completed 18 of 27 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown with one interception.
Garoppolo was responsible for the first touchdown of the game -- in a bad way. But he came back in the second half with a perfectly thrown 39-yard touchdown pass to Richie James, who beat Bucs defensive back M.J. Stewart on the play. The play gave the 49ers a 13-7 lead.
With both teams struggling to get anything going offensively, Garoppolo delivered points to the Bucs when he stared down running back Tevin Coleman along the left sideline in the second quarter. Tampa Bay cornerback Vernon Hargreaves jumped the route to intercept the pass, and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.
Garoppolo also threw a pick-six in the 49ers’ season opener a year ago. His interception provided a big play in the Minnesota Vikings’ win over the 49ers last season, when Mike Hughes returned the pick 45 yards for a touchdown in a 24-16 victory.
Garoppolo had two first-half TD passes to tight end George Kittle nullified by penalties.
Kwon’s big day ends early
Kwon Alexander was fired up for his return to action after his final season with the Bucs ended with a torn ACL. But the linebacker didn't even make it through the first half before being disqualified from the game.
Alexander was penalized for a personal foul when he hit Winston as the Bucs QB was sliding at the end of a 5-yard run. Upon consultation with the official replay center in New York, referee Alex Kemp announced that Alexander was ejected for targeting.
Alexander had three tackles during his short stint, including a huge hit at the end of a 3-yard run by Ronald Jones. Alexander also had an easy interception slip through his hands.
In Alexander’s absence, starting SAM linebacker Dre Greenlaw, a rookie, moved to the WILL position, and Nzeocha took over at Greenlaw’s spot.