DETROIT – It’s been 40 years since the 49ers’ first Super Bowl run, and it all began with a season opener at the Lions.
“Did we win that?” former linebacker Keena Turner tried recalling while at practice this past week. “The last one there, for sure, we won.”
Indeed, after a 24-17 opening loss, the 1981 49ers circled back four months later to the Pontiac Silverdome to beat Cincinnati and claim their first Lombardi Trophy. Not bad for a team coming off a 6-10 record.
Fast forward to this Sunday’s opener: Beating the host Lions could be the first step toward another Super Bowl, for a franchise coming off another 6-10 season, like the ’81 team.
“We have most of our guys out there for this week, and whenever that’s the case, we’re pretty dangerous,” said defensive end Nick Bosa.
“There’s only one goal: we’re trying to get back to the Super Bowl,” wide receiver Deebo Samuel added.
That goal escorted the 49ers into last season’s opener as the reigning NFC champion. They flopped 24-20 at home to the Arizona Cardinals. It was a harbinger of doom.
Now the 49ers are refreshed. They’ve poured out that 2020 cocktail mixed with injuries, COVID issues and 10 total losses. Optimism abounds, and it should if the 49ers conquer these five aspects against the Lions:
1. Run for the borders
No, not literally, although Canada is only a downtown bridge away from Ford Field. Look for the 49ers to establish a NFL-best rushing attack, and to do so by running their outside-zone scheme to perfection.
“Our run game will be crazy,” Samuel said. “In this offense, that’s where it starts. The more yards we get, the more it opens up the offense.”
The 49ers have a healthy Raheem Mostert ready to blaze around the edge blocks set by offensive tackles Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey, not to mention maniacal blocker George Kittle and other enablers.
The options to carry the ball go beyond running backs and rookie quarterback Trey Lance’s potential cameos. Samuel, for example, was a motion-based catalyst last season, to which he said of his job title: “I put myself in the ‘athlete’ category.”
The Lions ranked 28th in rushing defense last season. Thus, new coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have some heavy lifting to do in flipping that script.
2. Flawless quarterback play
Jimmy Garoppolo returns as the starter, and any errant throw or ill-timed blunder won’t be overlooked this season, not while Lance looms and learns on the sideline.
Garoppolo is more in tune and more confident than ever with Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Heading into his fourth straight season-opening start, Garoppolo noted he “loves the supporting cast,” from an offensive line “keeping things clean in the pocket” to the weapons who have “a lot of speed.”
“It’ll be fun to see how Kyle uses them in the offense and game plan and everything,” said Garoppolo, underscoring this season’s biggest mystery of a potential rotation with Lance, whose Aug. 29 injury to his right-index finger looks healthy enough for Sunday’s debut.
Garoppolo opened the 2018 season by throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six, to doom the 49ers’ debut at Minnesota. He rebounded the next year, complete with a rebuilt knee, to throw for 166 yards with one touchdown and one interception in a defensive-led win at Tampa Bay in Week 1.
3. Bosa, Bosa, Bosa
We buried the lede here: Bosa’s comeback from knee reconstruction could swing how the 49ers’ season goes.
For starters, he can feast on rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who played left tackle 1 ½ seasons at Oregon before opting out in 2020. Sewell might move from right tackle to the left side because of Taylor Decker’s finger injury.
A couple of sacks on Rams-turned-Lions quarterback Jared Goff can send Bosa on his way to NFL defensive/comeback player of the year honors. But Bosa should not be overworked in his debut. To help with the pass rush is 2019 sidekick Dee Ford, who missed all but last season’s opener because of back issues.
Samson Ebukam and Arden Key also are available off the edge, as is Arik Armstead, who won’t be as needed on the interior thanks to the presence of D.J. Jones, Zack Kerr and Kentavius Street. Javon Kinlaw, last year’s top draft pick, missed practice this week with a knee issue, however.
DeMeco Ryans is not a NFL rookie. He’s 15 years into the pro ranks, first as a star linebacker in Houston and eventually debuting in 2017 as an entry-level assistant. Now it’s time for his debut as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.
“DeMeco came up with his own slogan: S.W.A.R.M.,” linebacker Fred Warner said.
Special. Work ethic. And. Relentless. Mindset
“That’s been his thing for our defense, and we’ll probably just roll with that,” Warner added.
The question is how that will show up in Week 1 as Ryan succeeds Robert Saleh, now the New York Jets coach.
Early in the offseason, players alluded to more blitzes, more front-line assaults, more misdirection. It’ll help that there’ll be more Bosa than last year, too, of course.
Free safety Jimmie Ward, an eighth-year veteran and first-time captain, could get turned loose more than he ever has. Linebacker Fred Warner has the All-Pro license and capacity to roam, too.
It all starts up front with that defensive line. So watch how Ryans and position coach Kris Kocurek deploy them in various ways with stunts and twists and sacks and swarming success.
5. Fill in the gaps
The 49ers are a picture of health compared to last year’s carnage. That can change fast, of course. But they’re deeper than ever, and some reinforcements could get a quick call.
The suspect positions are:
Cornerback. If Emmanuel Moseley (knee) can’t go, then the 49ers could debut a rookie in Deommodore Lenoir (or Ambry Thomas), but if it’s a veteran they want, Josh Norman could be rushed into service, which sounds more enticing than practice-squad options Dontae Johnson and Dee Virgin.
Punt returner. Brandon Aiyuk is atop an unofficial depth chart produced by the 49ers’ communications staff, but hamstring tightness is a concern and no need to make him do this job when receiving is more a priority. Simply put, the 49ers just need someone to not muff a punt return, be it Mohamed Sanu Sr., Trent Sherfield or Travis Benjamin.
Kinlaw (knee) and Kevin Givens (hip) are young, powerful defensive tackles, but if they can’t go, there shouldn’t be a noticeable dropoff with Jones, Kerr, Street and Arik Armstead.
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