As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the San Francisco 49ers, who the Bucs face on the road in Week 14. Tampa Bay will head west to square off against the 49ers on Sunday, December 11 at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX.
The 49ers' roller-coaster ride of a 2021 season came to a disheartening conclusion at SoFi Stadium in front of a sea of red. The club went deeper into the postseason than many expected after accumulating a lackluster 3-5 record to begin the year. The Week 10 game against the L.A. Rams at Levi's Stadium became the catalyst. The Niners soared to a 31-10 victory with a balanced offensive attack that bullied the Rams' defense, reversing San Francisco's course. The club then won seven of their final nine regular-season games, providing placement in the NFC playoff race.
However, a tortuous stretch lay ahead. In must-win matchups on the road, the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers in a six-day playoff frenzy. The seemingly insurmountable pair of games began with the wild-card contest against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. The matchup ended in nail-biting fashion as the Cowboys took too much time on a quarterback draw with no timeouts, and the clock hit zero as Dak Prescott tried to spike the ball. Dallas could not counteract the Niners' use of Cover Four and the Cowboys' offensive line consistently got beat at the point of attack by San Francisco's defensive front. Per PFF, the 49ers achieved pressure on 50 percent of Prescott's drop backs – that is without the club's top pass rusher, Nick Bosa, for the majority of the second half. Prescott was sacked five times and hit an additional 14 off a four-man rush, allowing seven to cover the Cowboys' wideouts, forcing Prescott into frustrating checkdowns.
Then, the 49ers knocked off the top-seeded Packers in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The Niners relied on the tandem of Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell to put the team in field-goal range to secure the 13-10 victory. Samuel's run-after-catch ability elevated the 49ers' screen game and took advantage of the Packers' tight coverage downfield. It is no secret that San Francisco's passing game struggled to stretch the field vertically, but George Kittle became a reliable target on third downs, bolstering the aerial attack. Nick Bosa returned from a concussion and bullied tackles into submission to get to Aaron Rodgers. He spearheaded the effort, recording two sacks and six pressures. Fred Warner provided physicality against the run and allowed no yards gained on three targets in coverage. Despite the special teams' woes throughout the duration of the season, a blocked field goal and a blocked punt contributed to the win in Green Bay.
The team's demise came against the Rams in the NFC title game. The Niners' blew a 17-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Jimmy Garoppolo went 1-of-6 for -3 yards and an interception on the club's final two drives that sealed the 49ers' fate. Kyle Shanahan's offense is predicated on creating mismatch advantages and the Rams held Kittle to just 27 yards and a touchdown in the clash.
In 2021, Samuel defied position parameters and eclipsed 1,500 receiving yards and 500 rushing yards over the team's 20-game season (including postseason), becoming the only player in NFL history to accomplish both feats. He earned Pro Bowl recognition for his accomplishments on the gridiron and broke the conventional mold with his prowess as a receiver in contested catch situations and as a running back in both downhill runs through tackles and in the club' bread-and-butter: wide outside zones. In addition, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, defensive end Nick Bosa and left tackle Trent Williams earned Pro Bowl nods for their contributions. Williams hit a historical milestone in 2021, earning a 96.6 PFF grade on a scale to 100 – the highest grade over a single season ever given out by PFF. Many linemen begin to show signs of aging in their 30s but Williams' rare combination of size, speed and power continuously wreaked havoc on opponents.
The Niners failed to reach the elusive summit and will once again begin the climb in 2022.
All signs point to Trey Lance taking the reins in 2022 and the 49ers added several key acquisitions including cornerback Charvarius Ward, wide receiver/returner Ray-Ray McCloud, defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, linebacker Oren Burks, safety George Odum, defensive end Jordan Willis, cornerback Dontae Johnson, running back Jeff Wilson Jr., defensive end Kerry Hyder and tight end Ross Dwelley in free agency. The Niners made a splash by addressing their biggest need at cornerback after injuries decimated the secondary in 2021. Ward is the ideal size that the Niners covet on the back end (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) and he can start opposite Emmanuel Moseley. Moseley can then slide into the slot in nickel packages with Ambry Thomas on the outside. With a stout pass rush, Ward will have more opportunities to make plays on the ball. The Niners wanted to get better in the return game and got value in McCloud, who led the NFL in combined return yards last season and averaged 9.66 yards per punt return (sixth).
In the draft, the Niners picked up USC edge Drake Jackson in the second round and LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price and SMU wide receiver Danny Gray in the third. With solid hand placement, good first step and superb bend, Jackson poses an athletic upside to bolster the 49ers' front. Davis-Price is a downhill back with the agility to make defenders miss on a lateral jump cut. He will add depth to the running back corps and elevate the ground attack. Gray possesses deep speed to separate (4.33) and can become a viable downfield target for Lance.
Left guard Laken Tomlinson signed with the Jets after making the Pro Bowl last year. Defensive lineman DJ Jones parted ways with the Niners after being entrenched in a key interior role. He joined the Broncos, along with cornerback K'Waun Williams. Williams became a mainstay in the 49ers' secondary over the previous five seasons but now transitions to the AFC West. Versatile offensive lineman Tom Compton also joined the Broncos and running back Raheem Mostert followed Mike McDaniel to Miami. Defensive end Arden Key hit a milestone last year with a career-high 6.5 sacks and was rewarded with a contract in Jacksonville.
What Else is New?
Brian Schneider will take over as the club's new special teams coordinator to revitalize the unit in 2022. While he filled the same role for the Seahawks from 2010 to 2019, Seattle finished in the top 10 in kick-return average six times in that span under Schneider's tutelage. He will now bring the same aggressive mentality to the 49ers to fortify the undervalued unit. The 49ers' special teams were dominant in the playoff victory in Green Bay last year, including a blocked field goal, a blocked punt and a game winning field goal but overall the unit left much to be desired down the stretch.
Will Deebo Samuel see less time in the backfield in 2022?
In 2021, a large portion of Samuel's carries and production in the backfield came because of sustained injuries to the running back room. His workload was out of necessity and the club has bolstered the position group by drafting Tyrion Davis-Price. With developmental project Trey Lance taking over under center and additional depth at running back, Samuel will likely have more of a stationary role at receiver this season. Time will tell. The 49ers refused Samuel's trade request and will now strive to resolve issues with him. The do-it-all star will play a significant role in not only the offense's success but Lance's as well.
It's all but certain that Trey Lance will start at quarterback. How will the offense shift?
The Niners traded away lofty draft capital in order to secure Lance, cementing his future starting role. San Francisco has yet to trade Jimmy Garoppolo following offseason shoulder surgery, but it is presumed that Lance will take over the offense. As a starter, Garoppolo is 31-14, including a trip to the Super Bowl in 2019 and an NFC Championship game showcase following the 2021 season. Kyle Shanahan's run-first philosophy and play-action-centric system benefited Garoppolo's efficiency on short, intermediate passes to generate run after the catch. He rarely targeted the sidelines and has faced criticism for a lack of deep balls. Lance can open up the playbook by spreading the ball out to include outbreaking shots towards the sideline and attack downfield, stretching the field vertically. Garoppolo certainly has the experience advantage in a system featuring a myriad of shifts and motions pre-snap, but Lance's pocket movement, understanding of run concepts and arm strength will add another dimension to the 49ers' offense.
Will the offensive line take a step forward?
The 49ers' offensive line struggled in pass protection down the stretch in 2021 and will undergo a lineup transition this upcoming season. Left guard Laken Tomlinson departed via free agency and center Alex Mack retired, ushering in a revamped unit. For the men in the trenches, the foundation is built on continuity. Will Jake Brendel effectively replace Mack and anchor the interior? Will second-year pro Aaron Banks produce at left guard? Right tackle Mike McGlinchey is coming off a torn quad adding to the mix of permeating questions for the team's embattled group. The success of Shanahan's offense will be dictated by the production and consistency of the front five. In order to vie for contention in the NFC pecking order, the offensive line must improve in 2022.