In 2018, the San Francisco 49ers recorded a league-low two interceptions. In their first regular season game of 2019, they snagged three.
In a sloppy, flag-filled season opener in Tampa Bay, the 49ers defense also found the end zone twice, carrying San Francisco to a 31-17 victory over the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
“It’s good to get that monkey off of our back a little bit.” head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. “We didn’t play our best ball today but the guys played very hard.”
San Francisco’s afternoon did not get off to the quick, buttoned-up start that Shanahan envisioned to open the game. In fact, on their fourth offensive play, the 49ers had an eight-yard touchdown from tight end George Kittle nullified by offensive pass interference.
It was the first of five total touchdowns (three for San Francisco) called back due to penalties on the day. In total, 11 flags defined the first half, as neither team was able to establish any rhythm.
“We gave them a lot of free first downs off of penalties,” Shanahan said. “Just a lot of self-inflicted wounds that we weren’t proud of. But the guys just still battled.”
San Francisco’s offensee totalled just 50 yards through 30 minutes, and struggled behind quarterback JimmyGaroppolo, who made his first start since tearing his ACL in Week 3 of last year. Their defense, though, shined.
With a revamped defensive line featuring rookie defensive end Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, San Francisco forced the Buccaneers into a three-and-out on their opening possession, with Mark Nzeocha blocking the ensuing punt by former 49er Bradley Pinion.
Two series later, after the Buccaneers returned an intercepted pass from Garoppolo for a touchdown, Nzeocha was back in the mix as he snagged a tipped pass off of the hands of Tampa Bay tight end O.J. Howard for an interception.
Nzeocha was inserted into the game as the 49ers weak-side linebacker after Kwon Alexander was ejected from the game for lowering his helmet to initiate contact with Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston.
Nzeocha’s takeaway was the first of three picks recorded by San Francisco, who ranked dead last in the NFL last year with seven turnovers all season.
San Francisco’s second interception came just two plays into Tampa Bay’s first drive of the second half, as cornerback Richard Sherman hauled in a pass from Winston intended for running back Peyton Barber, who fell down just before Winston released the ball.
“We knew we were pressuring them and we had a mismatch in the slot,” Sherman said. “I knew what the route was and I waited for the quarterback to break. I was able to get my hands on it and the rest is history.”
Sherman tip-toed down the sideline for a 31-yard pick six, giving the 49ers a 20-7 lead with 11:44 to play in the third quarter.
The score came just 45 seconds after San Francisco’s offense found the end zone for the first time, as Garoppolo connected with wide receiver Richie James on a 39-yard fade route.
San Francisco’s offense fell dormant once again in the second half, scoring just three points in the remainder of the game.
A 31-yard Matt Gay field goal got Tampa Bay within one score, and then it was up to San Francisco’s defense to finish.
Dropping back to throw on the first play of the Bucs’ next drive, Winston saw a wall of 49ers pass rushers gunning for him.
Heaving the ball forward as he took the hit, Winston’s pass fell short and into the arms of 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who took the shoe-string interception 25 yards for San Francisco’s second defensive touchdown of the afternoon.
The win was San Francisco’s first season-opening victory in the Shanahan era.
“There were some things out there that we missed today,” Shanahan said. “Fortunately our defense got use some turnovers… That makes it easier to overcome some sloppy play. It was a good win.”