When last the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers met, in late November of 2018, there were quarterback changes afoot. The 49ers had just gone to Nick Mullens two weeks prior and he had ripped of a pair of starts with four combined touchdowns, no interceptions and a completion rate over 70%. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers were going back to Jameis Winston under center after Ryan Fitzpatrick had started the previous three games. Since then, two important things have happened to the quarterback situations in the two Bay areas. For the 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo has returned from the knee injury that knocked him out in Week Three last season. For the Buccaneers, Winston has been cemented as the undisputed starter after a strong finish that began in that Week 12 contest, followed by the hiring of new Head Coach Bruce Arians.
As such, the Buccaneers and 49ers meet again to start a new season, with both teams brimming with confidence in their starting quarterbacks. Whether that confidence will be justified over the course of 17 weeks remains to be seen, but a strong opening game would certainly be a boost to both franchises and their potential franchise quarterbacks.
The 49ers also want to recapture the momentum of the five-game winning streak to close out 2017 – all with Garoppolo under center – that had viewers expecting big things last fall. The 49ers instead stumbled to a 4-12 record in Kyle Shanahan's second year as head coach, but they bring a clearly talented roster into 2019. That's particularly true up front on defense, where the drafting of Nick Bosa and the trade for Dee Ford supercharged a group that was already loaded with first-round picks. San Francisco ran the ball well in 2018 and its kicking game is superb, but the offense was miserable in the red zone and the defense set records with its lack of takeaways. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will confront against San Francisco on Sunday:
General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan – both of whom started their NFL careers in Tampa – have constructed a talented roster in San Francisco as the 49ers try to get back to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Here are four 49ers in particular who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:
1. TE George Kittle. All Kittle did in his second NFL season was set the all-time NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end, as he hauled in 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. Kittle was battling Kansas City's Travis Kelce for that honor in the final week of the season, and he passed Kelce in dramatic fashion, catching a 43-yard touchdown near the end of a Week 17 game against the Rams. Remarkably, Kittle was targeted 136 times by 49er quarterbacks; no other player on the team had more than 66 targets. The 49ers have a mostly young and unproven receiving squad, so the fast and fluid Kittle is sure to remain a focal point in their passing attack.
2. DT DeForest Buckner. The seventh-overall draft pick in 2016, Buckner broke out in a big way in his third season, earning his first Pro Bowl invitation. We included Buckner in this same section when the Buccaneers met in late November last year, and at that point he had six sacks, to go with some other spicy statistics. He added his seventh sack in the Niners' loss to the Bucs and finished the season on a tear, with six in the last six games to finish with 12. Buckner is a powerful pass-rusher but he has greatly expanded his pass-rush repertoire, as evidenced by the quadrupling of his sack totals from 2017 to 2018. The 49ers' front is loaded with first-round picks, as noted above, but Buckner might be the toughest one to handle.
3. RB Matt Breida. The 49ers' top rusher from a year ago was born in Brandon and was a prep star in Brooksville, so he'll probably be particularly amped up to play so close to his hometown. That certainly seemed to be the case last November when he ran for 106 yards on just 14 carries and added three receptions for 34 yards. Breida accounted for 41% of San Francisco's offense that day, and its only touchdown. That was part of a very good second season for the former undrafted free agent, as he made up for the loss of Jerick McKinnon with 814 rushing yards, a 5.3-yard per-carry average and 27 receptions.
4. LB Fred Warner. When the 49ers signed Kwon Alexander away from the Buccaneers in the offseason, they paired him with Warner to form another extremely good inside-linebacker duo. A third-round draft pick a year ago, Warner stepped right in and started all 16 games at MIKE, racking up 124 tackles (12th-most in the league) along with three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, six passes defensed and one forced fumble. Warner possesses the speed and athleticism to play sideline to sideline, is good in coverage and is a sure tackler.
San Francisco's offense was near the middle of the pack in most rankings last year, including total yards (16th), rushing yards (13th) and passing yards (15th), which in itself is something of an accomplishment for a team that had to cycle through three quarterbacks The defense also ranked 13th overall but was good against the run, allowing 4.09 yards per carry to rank seventh in the NFL. Here are some other areas in which the 49ers were strong last year and might reasonably be expected to be the same in 2018:
· Kicker Robbie Gould was nearly flawless for a second straight year, missing just one of 34 field goal attempts after going 39 of 41 the year before. As such, the 49ers led the NFL with a field goal success rate of 97.1%. Gould is also a reliable long-range weapon, having made all six of his tries from 50 yards and beyond over those same two seasons.
· The 49ers' defense was adept at keeping opponents from putting together lengthy drives in 2018. San Francisco allowed the third-fewest drives of five minutes or longer and also the fourth-fewest drives that lasted at least 10 plays.
· While the offense may have been roughly league average, it was significantly better than league average in generating long plays. Thanks in large part to the run-after-catch ability of tight end George Kittle, San Francisco recorded 76 plays of 20 or more yards, which tied for the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
· Matt Breida's strong per-carry average, noted above, was reflected in some statistics for the 49ers' offense as a whole. San Francisco ranked sixth in the NFL in average yards per carry on first down (5.0) and sixth in percentage of carries that gained 10 or more yards (14.2%).
San Francisco's defense collected two unwanted all-time NFL records last year, recording the fewest interceptions (two) and fewest takeaways (seven) ever in a single season. Meanwhile, the Niners' offense tossed interceptions on 3.76% of its pass plays, the third-worst total in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, the 49ers finished with the league's worst turnover differential, at negative-25. In addition:
· San Francisco's offense moved the ball relatively well in 2018 but struggled mightily when it got close to the opposing end zone. In fact, the 49ers converted just 41.2% of their red-zone incursions into touchdowns, which was the worst percentage in the league. It didn't help that the Niners turned the ball over on 11.8% of their trips inside the 20, which was also the worst mark in the league.
· The 49ers threw the ball well enough to pick up 241.7 yards per game through the air, the 15th-best average in the NFL. However, that Kittle-dominated attack didn't get a big contribution from its receiving corps. San Francisco's receivers accounted for 46.9% of the team's receiving yards, the lowest percentage for any team in the league in that category.
· San Francisco's defense had trouble defending balls thrown deep downfield in 2018. Opposing quarterbacks combined for a 112.0 passer rating on throws that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, the worst rating allowed by any defense on such plays.
· Though the 49ers may not have allowed a lot of lengthy drives, they did get beat in the two-minute situation more than they would like. Opposing teams scored 25 points on two-minute drives over the course of the season; only four teams allowed more.
NEW FACES IN 2018
The 49ers made two high-profile moves to add to a pass-rush that was relatively unproductive last year. They also added an important piece to the offensive backfield and went to the draft to find a new punter.
1. Dee Ford/Nick Bosa. In March, the Chiefs shipped pass-rusher Ford to the 49ers in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick. In May, the Niners doubled down on their front line by using the second overall draft pick to nab Ohio State's Bosa. Ford had 13.0 sacks and a league-best seven forced fumbles for Kansas City last year, while Bosa racked up 17.5 QB takedowns over three seasons with the Buckeyes.
2. RB Tevin Coleman. The 49ers spent big on running back Jerick McKinnon in 2018 free agency, only to see the former Viking land on injured reserve in each of his first two years. That allowed for Breida to break out in 2018, but the Niners still wanted a complement in the backfield so they went to free agency again to get the former Falcon. With Devonta Freeman hurt for most of the year, Coleman ran up a career-best 800 yards in 2018, averaging 4.8 yards per tote, and also caught 32 passes.
3. P Mitch Wishnowsky. Teams don't often target punters in the fourth round of the draft but the 49ers went that route for the 2018 Ray Guy Award winner, one round before the Bucs selected his Utah teammate, kicker Matt Gay. The Australia native averaged 47.7 yards per punt last fall and blasted 30 of his 64 kicks 50 yards or further. He can also handle kickoffs.
1. RBs Jerick McKinnon/Raheem Mostert. As noted earlier, McKinnon has seen his second season in San Francisco end the same way the first one did, with a trip to injured reserve after he re-aggravated the same knee in which he suffered a torn ACL a year ago. Meanwhile Mostert is currently in the NFL's concussion protocol.
2. DE Nick Bosa. Overall the news is good for the rookie pass-rusher, as he has returned to the field after missing all four preseason games with an early-camp ankle injury. However, it's not a certainly that Bosa will deemed fully ready to go by the weekend when the 49ers take on the Buccaneers.
3. WR Jalen Hurd. The 49ers' third-round pick and the second of two wideouts taken by the team on Day Two of the draft, Hurd missed the last two preseason games with a back injury and his availability for the opener is in doubt.
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