SANTA CLARA (AP) — For the first time since coach Kyle Shanahan took over in San Francisco in 2017, the 49ers have a winning record.
After losing 10 straight games to open Shanahan’s first season in 2017 and a 1-7 start last year, the 49ers came out fast in a season-opening 31-17 victory at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
It all started with a defense that struggled to take the ball away at all last season generating four turnovers, including two interception returns for touchdowns. The three interceptions surpassed last year’s total of two that set a record for futility.
“As long as we went last year with that, I can tell you the longer we went last year without interceptions and stuff last year the harder it got. It became a burden on everybody nonstop,” Shanahan said. “To open up this year and beat our interceptions from last year in one game, we’re not proud of last year at all, but we’re proud we could beat that right away and move on from that.”
The special teams delivered a deflected punt by Mark Nzeocha to set up a score on the opening drive. The offense did just enough in Jimmy Garoppolo’s first game back after a season-ending knee injury last September.
It added up to San Francisco’s first road win since 2017 and first win in the Eastern time zone since 2014, ending a 12-game slide.
The Niners hoped an upgraded edge rush with Dee Ford and No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa would help turn around a defense that had just seven takeaways last year. The early results were positive.
Bosa and Ford each had sacks as San Francisco got three, and put consistent pressure on Jameis Winston. That helped generate some errant passes that led to the three interceptions, including ones returned for TDs by Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon.
“It kind of becomes contagious,” Shanahan said. “Just like not getting them can be contagious, so can getting them.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP: Garoppolo looked tentative at times in his first game in nearly a year. He completed 18 of 27 passes for just 166 yards.
He mostly worked underneath, completing one pass that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, a 39-yard TD pass to Richie James Jr. He threw incompletions on his other four passes that traveled at least 15 yards and also threw an interception that Vernon Hargreaves returned for a TD.
“He had a number of good things, just like the rest of the offense,” Shanahan said. “I didn’t think we were very consistent and we missed too many opportunities. I think we’ll be better next week.”
Witherspoon. Opposing quarterbacks spent much of last season avoiding Sherman’s side of the field and picking on Witherspoon on the defense’s right side. That strategy proved successful and dealt a blow to Witherspoon’s confidence following an impressive rookie season. Witherspoon held his own against Tampa Bay’s pass offense and sealed the win with his 25-yard return for a score late in the fourth quarter.
STOCK DOWN: WR Dante Pettis. After having a strong finish to his rookie season, Pettis was expected to be a major part of San Francisco’s passing offense this year. But he had an inconsistent training camp that frustrated Shanahan, and dealt with a groin injury that sidelined him for a week this summer. That led to Pettis playing only two snaps Sunday, catching one pass for 7 yards. Pettis was a full participant in practice Thursday and Friday and wasn’t on the injury report, making this a decision based more on production than health.
“He should have been in more than that,” Shanahan said. “That starts with me and I need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
INJURED: RB Tevin Coleman was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain after an MRI on Monday. Coleman is listed as week to week and the Niners might need to add a third halfback to the roster alongside Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert. The most likely in-house candidate is preseason standout Jeff Wilson Jr., who is on the practice squad.
KEY NUMBER: 6.4 — Garoppolo’s average pass traveled just 6.4 yards downfield, the second-lowest mark in his nine career starts for San Francisco. That’s down significantly from his average of 8.9 yards over the past two seasons.
NEXT STEPS: The 49ers will spend the week in Youngstown, Ohio, preparing for Sunday’s game at Cincinnati rather than head back to California in between Eastern time zone games.