BOARDMAN, Ohio -- The 49ers left Tampa with a Week 1 win Sunday because of their defense.
The defense not only helped get San Francisco's offense back on the field, but they put points on the board. Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon both returned interceptions for touchdowns Sunday, and the 49ers didn't score one defensive TD all of last season.
The 49ers' defense kept the entire team energized through Sunday's heat and humidity, according to tight end George Kittle.
“Watching Nick Bosa get sacks and watching Dee Ford get strip fumbles, it gets the offense going,” Kittle said after the 49ers' 31-17 win over the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. “When your defense is playing like that, Sherman with a pick six, Ahkello with a pick six, it just gets you fired up.”
The 49ers set an NFL record in 2018 after they forced just 11 turnovers, the fewest in league history. They forced four Sunday, and Kittle explained how those can set the offense up for success when they get the ball.
“It’s hard to watch an offense go down your defense like a 12-play drive for a touchdown,” Kittle said Sunday. “That kinds of drains the offense just sitting there. But when your defense makes those big plays, it just gets everyone excited and gets the offense moving. It’s good vibes really.”
The offense didn't take full advantage, and sputtered against the Bucs. Penalties wiped three 49ers touchdowns off the board in the first half, two of which were scored by Kittle.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was called for offensive pass interference, while right tackle Mike McGlinchey was hit with an illegal formation penalty. Kittle joked that his teammates had ulterior motives.
“I’m pretty sure Juice and McGlinchey were playing against me in fantasy football so I’m pretty sure that’s what that was,” Kittle deadpanned. “That wasn’t my fault. But yeah, it was frustrating.
“We hurt ourselves a lot. Whether it’s offensive penalties, left and right, if we can clean those up because I think we spotted them like 20 points and so when you’re doing that, it’s kind of hard to win games.”
Kittle had a quiet day, but he still led the 49ers with eight catches for 54 yards. San Francisco accounted for just 256 yards of total offense, and Kittle credited the defense for giving the 49ers' struggling offense a chance.
“You don’t want to put your defense in a hole, but our defense responded,” Kittle said. “They definitely carried us that game, and they gave us just enough opportunities to close the game out.”
In his first regular-season action since tearing his ACL in Week 3 last season, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had a modest showing. Garoppolo completed 18 of his 27 passes for 166 yards, a touchdown and one interception, but Kittle isn’t worried about his QB. Kittle knows Garropolo's potential, and the tight end believes the signal-caller will continue to improve as he gets more snaps under his belt.
“Jimmy is the reason we are going to win any games we are going to win,” Kittle said. “If he’s playing good, the whole offense is going to play good. That’s all it is. Jimmy is the leader of this team and when he’s playing well, we are really running well. Especially on that last drive we connected on a couple of passes and that’s just fun and good football.”
Despite the offensive struggles, the 49ers started 1-0 for the first time since 2015 thanks to Sunday's win. Kittle picked up a first, too.
“My favorite thing is that I’ve never won in this stadium,” Kittle explained. “I lost two Outback bowls here plus last year, so, kind of exciting to get that monkey off my back. It was a big thing for me today, that was my focus. That win was big for me.”