49ers

49ers takeaways: What we learned in 31-17 season-opening win over Bucs

49ers takeaways: What we learned in 31-17 season-opening win over Bucs

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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.

How Emmanuel Sanders trade helped 49ers, likely hurt Patriots' offense

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How Emmanuel Sanders trade helped 49ers, likely hurt Patriots' offense

Two of the NFL’s best teams in 2019, the New England Patriots and 49ers, both faced a similar problem as the trade deadline approached.

The seemingly well-oiled machines had identified an identical issue: A lack of consistent play from the wide receivers.

While both teams attempted to rectify their passing-game issues at the deadline -- the 49ers dealt a pair of draft picks to the Denver Broncos for Emmanuel Sanders while the Patriots used a second-round pick to acquire Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta -- the results weren’t exactly analogous for the two contenders.

Sanders just completed a dominant performance in New Orleans, catching seven passes for 157 yards and a touchdown -- he threw for one, too. Meanwhile, Sanu caught just one pass for 13 yards in Week 14 as New England suffered a home loss at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Since Oct. 22, the day both players found their new homes, Sanders is averaging 10.44 receiving yards per target. Sanu? The former Falcon is averaging just 4.66 yards per target.

The 49ers reportedly balked at the price Atlanta wanted for Sanu, but the Patriots might have been better off bringing Sanders in, according to The Athletic’s Mike Sando.

"Sanu has been a solid receiver for a long time, but not as much of a downfield threat. Over the past four seasons, Sanders holds a 67-44 edge over Sanu in passes gaining more than 15 yards, despite Sanu playing four additional games. Sanu could have been a natural fit in San Francisco given that Shanahan was previously his offensive coordinator in Atlanta. He might even be flourishing there, given San Francisco’s superior surrounding talent, including George Kittle. The fit has been questionable in New England.”

The 49ers also have an obvious advantage in fielding George Kittle, who continues to cement his status as one of the NFL’s top tight-ends week in and week out.

[RELATED: Where 49ers, Raiders stand in NFL power rankings now]

But imagine what Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady could have whipped up with Emmanuel Sanders stretching the field.

This might go down as a rare mistake in player personnel from the Patriots’ front office, and it also might just be the move that propels the 49ers into playing February football.

Chris Simms breaks down George Kittle's catch in 49ers' win vs. Saints

Chris Simms breaks down George Kittle's catch in 49ers' win vs. Saints

George Kittle made the most significant play of the NFL’s Week 14 slate, catching a short fourth-down pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and willing his way into field-goal range.

The herculean effort from Kittle set kicker Robbie Gould up for a game-winning 30-yard field goal to give San Francisco a crucial 48-46 victory in New Orleans that propelled the 49ers back to the top of the NFC standings.

Unsurprisingly, coach Kyle Shanahan diagrammed this play for Kittle to be the No. 1 option, and that’s exactly what happened.

“The rookie [C.J.] Gardner-Johnson is matched up 1-on-1 with Kittle,” NBC Sports NFL analyst Chris Simms said. “The beauty of this play is, a lot of times the 49ers will run an in-breaking route off of this, but here he had the option to break out and he breaks out.

“Gardner-Johnson, who’s kind of laying inside for it, now is at a disadvantage and he’s trailing behind and that becomes the completion to George Kittle.”

[RELATED: Injuries continue to pile up for 49ers after extended trip]

Kittle’s wise decision to break outside put San Francisco back into the driver’s seat for the NFC playoffs, but the 49ers will need to keep the momentum going as the final weeks of the season roll on in order to secure the home-field advantage NFL teams so desperately crave come postseason time.