How the 49ers can win Sunday
SANTA CLARA — Not a must-win game for the 49ers, but close.
They open the regular season Sunday in Tampa against one of the weakest teams on their schedule, the Buccaneers. The following week, the 49ers will play the Bengals in Cincinnati, which will be the 49ers’ second straight game in the Eastern time zone — a brutal task for a West Coast team. And Week 3, they will play their home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the best teams in the AFC.
After that, the 49ers’ schedule only becomes more difficult. A win Sunday would make their path to the playoffs much easier.
Here are five things the 49ers must do to beat the Bucs.
1. Show up.
The 49ers were the only team that lost all of their road games last season. And they’ve lost 12 straight in the Eastern time zone. They still are learning how to win on the road.
“I just realized how much it takes a toll on your team traveling from coast to coast,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday. “I’ve been in the NFL for a while and I was mainly on the East Coast for most of my career so I didn’t think it was as big of a deal traveling from coast to coast. But, I’ve noticed over two years that it’s different. When you go through the time difference, your sleep-wake cycle gets messed up.”
Meaning it’s easier for an athlete to stick to a routine and maintain peak physical condition at home than on the road.
“You’re staying in a hotel, so things change, sleep especially,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo explained. “People do these sleep studies and how it affects you on the field, in the classroom, walkthroughs, everything. That’s a crucial part to our game. I try (to go to sleep at) 9:30. During the season, it’s a little tough sometimes, but I try for it.”
Winning on the road depends on the players’ professionalism. Do they treat a road trip like a business trip or a pleasure cruise?
If the 49ers play with energy on Sunday, you’ll know they got their Z’s.
2. Use one wide receiver instead of two on first and second down.
Shanahan held a competition during preseason to determine which wide receivers would start Week 1.
The competition goes on. The best wide receiver in camp, Trent Taylor, broke his foot and will miss this game. None of the other wide receivers have separated themselves from the pack to earn a starting job.
“That’s something that isn’t set and depends on the play called,” Shanahan said.
Wide receiver probably is the shakiest position group on the 49ers’ offense. None of their wide receivers are every-down players. Meanwhile, the Niners have three quality tight ends. They have Pro Bowl performer George Kittle, training-camp standout Ross Dwelley and veteran Levine Toilolo.
If the wide receivers are struggling, Shanahan can play three tight ends together on first and second down, and just one wide receiver. All those tight ends will improve the run-blocking and aid the play-action passing attack.
A coach’s job is to emphasize his team’s strengths and de-emphasize its weaknesses. For the time being, Shanahan can emphasize the tight ends and deemphasize the wide receivers. Most of Garoppolo’s interceptions this preseason came when he targeted wide receivers.