Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season will kick off at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon for the San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This will be a battle between two teams that are looking to bounce back from rough 2018 seasons (a combined 9-23 overall).
San Francisco will be looking to take a step towards playoff contention under coach Kyle Shanahan. Last season, the loss of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 at Kansas City was a crusher, as the 49ers went 3-10 the rest of the way. Tight end George Kittle is a dangerous weapon in the passing game for San Francisco after a huge 2018 season (88 rec., 1,377 yards, 5 TDs). Wide receiver will be an interesting position group to watch for the 49ers, as they need more productivity across the board out of Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin, along with rookies Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd. Defensively, with additions such as Nick Bosa and Dee Ford along the defensive line, it is going to be important for the 49ers to control the line of scrimmage and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, even if it doesn’t result in sacks.
The Bruce Arians era begins in Tampa Bay as Arians has come out of retirement to see if he can elevate quarterback Jameis Winston to the next level. Arians also has the task of getting the Buccaneers back into the playoff conversation in a tough NFC South Division while navigating a difficult schedule. After Sept. 22, Tampa Bay will not have another true home game until November 10; this stretch includes a "home game" in London and two long trips out west to play the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks. Mike Evans is a great building block for Arians after a huge 2018 season (86 rec., 1,524 yards, 8 TDs), but the question for the offense will be the run game. Health on defense is also a problem as Vita Vea and Jason Pierre-Paul are out with a knee and neck injury, respectively. So, if the Buccaneers are going to make a run at .500 in 2019, they are probably going to have to win a few shootouts.
San Francisco at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 8 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Buccaneers -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Jameis Winston
This will be a fun battle to watch unfold between Garoppolo and Winston, as both quarterbacks have a lot to prove in 2019. Garoppolo was up and down in the preseason, which is understandable considering how long he was out with the knee injury. It will be interesting to see how he responds when it counts on Sunday afternoon once he gets hit a couple of times by the Tampa Bay defense. Winston threw for 2,992 yards with 19 TDs and 14 interceptions in 2018, completing 64.6 percent of his passes. That type of carelessness with the football by Winston won’t go over very well with Arians, who is known as a quarterback guru. Winston will be under fire from the opening snap against the 49ers front seven and will need to display great patience and take what is available to him in the passing game.
2. Turnover battle
These two teams were two of the worst in the NFL in 2018 in turnover margin. Tampa Bay was minus-18, forcing 17 turnovers but giving the ball away 35 times. San Francisco had even bigger issues in that department, as the Niners caused only seven turnovers and gave the ball away 32 times. The ability to take care of the football and not commit the backbreaking turnover that can create a seven- to 14-point swing will be crucial for both teams. If either team can cause a couple of quick turnovers, that will be a gamechanger.
3. Tampa Bay receivers vs. San Francisco secondary
Mike Evans and the rest of the Buccaneers receivers should flourish on Sunday against a 49ers secondary that allowed only 233.2 yards per game but had issues defending the deep ball. Opposing teams had a 112.0 passer rating against San Francisco on balls that traveled 20 yards or more in the air. Look for Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to go after the 49ers’ secondary early and often. The ability to stretch the defense will open things up for running the football and the intermediate passing game. Chris Godwin is an ideal slot wide receiver for this offensive scheme. Godwin caught 59 passes for 842 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018 and should see those numbers take off in 2019 as he will see well over 120 targets this season at minimum.
The Buccaneers should come out of the gates fired up and ready to go under Arians in front of their home crowd. Tampa Bay will have the advantage of hosting a 49ers team that has to fly across the country and play in some good old-fashioned humidity. Turnovers could decide this fairly high-scoring affair, as both teams need to prove themselves defensively. In the end, this should be decided by about a field goal with the Buccaneers creating enough big plays to get win number one on the season.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, 49ers 24
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.