It’s only the first game of the season, but it’s a big one for the 49ers.
The 49ers have a winnable game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. It’s an important game for the club to get off to a good start, which has not happened in either of coach Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons with the 49ers.
The 49ers did not win a road game last season, and they have not won in the Eastern time zone since a victory at the New York Giants on Nov. 16, 2014. It’s a streak that stands at 12 consecutive losses in games played three time zones away.
Here are five pivotal players to watch when the 49ers kick off the regular season against the Buccaneers under first-year head coach Bruce Arians:
5. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky
The 49ers figured they would re-sign Bradley Pinion and that would be that. But, instead, Pinion signed a contract with the Buccaneers. That forced the 49ers to address the position in the draft.
The club is confident they ended up with an upgrade after selecting Mitch Wishnowsky in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. So, of course, both of those punters will be on the field Sunday in the season opener.
This could be a game of field position, and the punters will play a big role. The punter with the higher net average will give his team the better chance of squeaking out a victory.
4. LB Kwon Alexander
Linebacker Kwon Alexander will be fired up for his debut with the 49ers. The issue for him might be getting too excited to go out and play against his former team.
Alexander is returning to action after sustaining a torn ACL on Oct. 21. In four seasons – all as a starter -- with the Buccaneers, he registered 380 career tackles, including a league-best 108 solo tackles in 2016.
He was the 49ers’ top target in free agency, and the sides agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract upon the opening of the new league year.
Alexander brings tremendous energy to the 49ers’ defense, and his presence appears to have brought more swagger to middle linebacker Fred Warner. But Alexander has to remain disciplined as there will be a lot of pressure on him to read his keys, react and tackle. The 49ers’ new wide-9 alignment will rely on their linebackers to prevent big plays in the run game.
3. WR Deebo Samuel
The 49ers figure to have five wide receivers active for Sunday’s game. They certainly will mix and match, depending on the down-and-distance and play calls. Deebo Samuel’s role is undefined at this time, but he quickly could emerge as the team’s top wide receiver.
Samuel brought an attitude and aggressiveness to the table in training camp that Shanahan wanted to see from Dante Pettis. Samuel’s toughness and his ability to run after the catch are traits the 49ers will want to feature Sunday.
The 49ers know what they have in such returning receivers as Pettis, Marquise Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne. Samuel is the player who can give the passing game a different element.
2. DE Dee Ford
It was clear what the 49ers thought of their outside pass rush last season. The answer: Not much. That is why the team added edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa in the offseason in hopes that an improved pass rush will positively impact every level of the defense.
Ford appears to be at full speed after spending most of the summer resting from a case of knee tendinitis. Ford recorded 13 sacks last season with the Kansas City Chiefs and was tagged as the team’s franchise player before the 49ers worked out a trade to acquire him.
Ford should have plenty of opportunities to affect Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who can be expected to take a handful of deep shots throughout the course of the game.
The 49ers registered just two interceptions the entire season. They have a chance to match that number Sunday with a pass rush that makes Winston uncomfortable in the pocket.
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo alleviated some concerns in the 49ers’ third preseason game when he bounced back to look comfortable and in control.
Garoppolo admits he had to clear physical and mental barriers in his return from a torn ACL in his left knee that limited him to just three games last season. Now, he hopes everything is behind him and he can just focus on winning football games.
Garoppolo is surrounded by better offensive players, and it’s still a work in progress for the quarterback to get comfortable with all of his targets. Tight end George Kittle unquestionably is his go-to receiver.
The defense and special teams should also put the offense in better field position, too. Where Garoppolo has to succeed is when the 49ers get within the opponents’ 20-yard line. They must score touchdowns at a rate around 65 percent to avoid relying on kicker Robbie Gould to pick up a mere three points instead of putting the ball in the end zone.
There is no easing into the season for Garoppolo, who must justify the 49ers’ faith in him. Is he a franchise quarterback? If so, this is a game he should find a way to win.