How the 49ers can win Sunday

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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.

3. Pick up the Bucs’ blitzes.

The Bucs’ new defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, is an old foe of the 49ers. He coached the Arizona Cardinals’ defense from 2013 to 2015 before the New York Jets made him their head coach. He’s one of the most respected coordinators in the NFL.

“Todd’s defense is a little bit different than ours,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained recently. “His is a lot more pressure based.”

Meaning Bowles likes to blitz, especially on third downs. And he loves to blitz two linebackers up the middle, what he calls a “Double-A-Gap blitz.” Both inside linebackers line up in front of the center before the snap, then attempt to run by him and sack the quarterback. The center can’t block both of them.

The 49ers will need a running back to block the other A-Gap blitzer. Which running back should they use on third down?

Probably not Tevin Coleman or Matt Breida. Neither weighs more than 210 pounds. Linebackers engulf them. A better choice would be fullback Kyle Juszczyk, an excellent blocker who weighs 240 pounds. He can police the pocket and protect Garoppolo, who will need all the protection he can get during his first game back from ACL surgery.

4. Help Ahkello Witherspoon.

The Bucs’ new head coach, Bruce Arians, is another old foe of the 49ers. Arians coached the Cardinals from 2013 to 2017. His record against the 49ers is 8-2.

“Bruce is aggressive,” Shanahan said. “He gets very creative in the pass game. He’s not scared to air it out, put some pressure on his quarterbacks and that’s why his quarterbacks usually make a lot of plays.”

Arians takes more deep shots than just about any play-caller in the NFL. He almost certainly will put his best receiver, Pro Bowl performer Mike Evans, on the 49ers’ worst corner, Witherspoon, who struggles defending deep passes. Expect Arians to challenge Witherspoon deep.

Witherspoon may need help. Saleh can move free safety Tarvarius Moore a few steps toward Witherspoon so those two can double-cover Evans. Force the Bucs to attack someone other than Witherspoon.

5. Generate a pass rush with just four players.

The 49ers brought back the same secondary that gave up an average passer rating of 105.4 and intercepted just two passes last season. They know their coverage won’t be great.

The success of their pass defense will depend on their four-man pass rush. If it’s good, the 49ers won’t have to blitz, meaning they can drop seven players into coverage to help the secondary. That’s what Vic Fangio did when he was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. He almost never blitzed.

The 49ers won’t need to blitz if their two big defensive additions this offseason, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, play well. Ford has knee tendinitis, but will play. Bosa is recovering from a high-ankle sprain, and the 49ers list him as “questionable” for Sunday’s game.

“Definitely not all the way there yet, but had a good week,” Shanahan said about Bosa. “The big thing is traveling this far. We want to see how (the ankle) reacts on the plane. Sometimes guys who are going through things, it can swell up a little bit.”

If Bosa plays, he’ll face an offensive line that gave up five sacks in the first half of their dress-rehearsal preseason game. He should want to play. The 49ers have a chance to win this game with their defense, if it shows up.

Will it show?

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