DETROIT — Opening the season with a high-scoring win over the Detroit Lions was expected.
Unexpected: the 49ers nearly choked it all away.
The 49ers piled up just enough points to escape a hideous, injury-strewn fourth quarter for a 41-33 win.
Earlier, the 49ers showcased a play-making pass defense, scoring runs by surprise ball carriers, and, as advertised, a double-whammy quarterback duet with Jimmy Garoppolo’s 314 yards passing and Trey Lance’s intriguing cameos.
There were personnel surprises along the way: wide receiver Trent Sherfield seized most of Brandon Aiyuk’s reps, and Elijah Mitchell emerged as a 104-yard rookie rusher instead of Trey Sermon, a third-round pick and healthy scratch.
There were familiar sights, too, such as Deebo Samuel (189 receiving yards) and George Kittle (78 yards) making open-field moves, and an elite pass rush that got a sack apiece from Nick Bosa and Dee Ford in their return from 2020 injuries.
The 49ers didn’t escape unscathed. Knee injuries took out running back Raheem Mostert early and cornerback Jason Verrett late. Dre Greenlaw left with a groin injury from his interception return for a touchdown, and fellow linebackers Azeez Al-Shaair and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles limped off in the closing minutes.
So it wasn’t perfect, from Garoppolo fumbling away the first snap of the season, to the run defense caving a bit too much, to the Lions’ fourth-quarter rally.
But it came with the 49ers’ most season-opening points since a 49-7 win in Dennis Erickson’s 2003 coaching debut. The top takeaways:
Garoppolo and Lance didn’t swap places as often as the preseason finale two weeks ago, and Lance only played four snaps. He entered for two snaps on the opening touchdown drive and didn’t get in again until a third-quarter, third-and-20 run for a 2-yard gain. Lance’s fourth snap was a predictable third-and-1 keeper that got stopped for a 1-yard loss late in the third quarter.
This was more Garoppolo’s show, and he combined with Samuel for the play of the day: a 79-yard touchdown catch-and-run on a third-down heave. As Samuel raced toward the goal line, Garoppolo was helping up one of the Lions defenders who drilled him on the throw, and it was Garoppolo who comforted the defender with a pat on the helmet.
Garoppolo kept alive the 49ers’ first touchdown drive of the season, and it was Lance who finished it off with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Sherfield. Lance is believed to be the first quarterback since Tim Tebow (2010) to throw a touchdown on his first career pass.
Garoppolo completed his first eight passes and looked not only sharp but in full control of the offense, as expected in his fourth straight season-opening start.
Verrett limped off with an apparent right knee injury with 7:50 to go, after a busy day of being targeted by Goff. Verrett needed help not only walking to the sideline, but again minutes later as he headed into the locker room. Leg injuries stalled Verrett’s career until last season when he emerged in his 2015 Pro Bowl form.
Verrett gave up a 6-yard touchdown to T.J. Hockenson on the Lions’ first drive, which was kept alive when Verrett allowed a 7-yard completion on fourth-and-1.
Fellow cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (knee) was inactive, prompting rookie Deommodore Lenoir to start in his NFL debut and fare relatively well. Fellow rookie Ambry Thomas struggled late in his debut, allowing a 20-yard catch at the 2 and a two-point conversion shortly afterward. A Dontae Johnson pass interference penalty set up one of the Lions’ late TDs.
In the end, the 49ers held off Detroit, with Jared Goff’s fourth-and-9 pass falling incomplete, and pass rushers Nick Bosa, Kentavius Street and Samson Ebukam exhaling at Goff’s feet on the turf.
RUNNING BACK DRAMA
Raise your hand if you had Elijah Mitchell scoring the 49ers’ first rushing touchdown. After starter Raheem Mostert sustained a knee injury on the preceding drive, and with third-round pick Trey Sermon a surprise scratch, Mitchell made the most of his opportunity.
Mitchell scored on a 38-yard, second-quarter run by bursting through a huge lane on the right side and breaking a tackle that left two defenders in his dust for a 14-7 lead.
And who had their second touchdown run? That would be JaMycal Hasty, up the gut from the 3-yard line on a first-and-goal for a 21-10 lead 2:25 before halftime. Hasty often was used as a third-down back, too, and he had a 15-yard conversion in the fourth quarter.
As for Sermon, perhaps offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel hinted Thursday at that deactivation, saying “you want to put them out there with their teammates when they’re ready. So every day we’re evaluating Trey.”
‘BIG PLAY DRE’ AGAIN
Linebacker Dre Greenlaw put the 49ers ahead 28-10 with a 39-yard interception return in Jared Goff’s first two-minute drill with the Lions. Dee Ford gets an assist on the play, with his pass rush from the left end.
Greenlaw sustained a groin injury along the way, however, and headed to the locker room before halftime.
Greenlaw’s penchant for making big plays goes back to his 2019 rookie year, highlighted by a goal-line stop that preserved a Week 17 win at Seattle. Goff’s penchant for turnovers led to his offseason trade from the Rams, who acquired Matthew Stafford in return.
PASS RUSH PROWESS
Dee Ford blasted off the left edge not only to pressure Goff on Greenlaw’s interception, Ford blazed past fill-in right tackle Matt Nelson for a sack just before halftime. It was Ford’s first sack since the 2019 season, having missed all but last season’s opener because of a back issue.
Nick Bosa’s own comeback started strong, too, and that included run support by twice tackling D’Andre Swift for 4-yard losses.
The 49ers’ “turbo” package featured Ford and Bosa on the edges with Arik Armstead in the interior, next to either Samson Ebukam and Kentavius Street.
Sherfield was more than a summer sensation. He seized reps from Brandon Aiyuk and often lined up with Deebo Samuel in two-receiver sets. Sanu’s third-down conversion set up Sherfield’s touchdown catch, so there was plenty of production from the various receivers.
Technically, Samuel was the only starting wide receiver because the 49ers opened with two tight ends, those being Kittle and Ross Dwelley.
Aiyuk eventually got involved, at least as a punt returner with a 7-yard effort in the final minute of the first half.
When he wasn’t pancaking Lions with his blocking, Kittle made his receptions count. He had a 23-yard catch on his first target of the season, then opened the second half with a 35-yard catch-and-run in which he put on the brakes, stiff-armed a defender and raced into Lions’ territory.
A year ago, Kittle played only eight games, having sustained a knee sprain in the opening loss to Arizona and later enduring a foot fracture.
The 49ers’ second defensive series was more impressive than their opening drive, and that one ended with Jaquiski Tartt tackling Jamal Williams for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-2.
The defense was quickly sent back on the field after Garoppolo’s opening-snap fumble, and the Lions failed to convert it into points thanks in large part to Al-Shaair’s tackle for an 8-yard loss on second down. That pushed the Lions back for an ensuing 51-yard field goal attempt Zthat Austin Seibert missed.
Contributed by local news sources