The San Francisco 49ers open their season in Florida against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and company will be looking to get off to a fast start, hoping to erase the memory of the disastrous 2018 campaign. Football is very much a team sport, however, each week, certain players prove to be the key to success or failure. Here are the players who could make a difference on Sunday afternoon.

Running Back Matt Breida


Kyle Shanahan's offense ideally operates at a high level when the running game is moving the chains. When healthy, third-year running back Matt Breida has been as consistent as any runner Shanahan has had. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and only fumbled the ball once on 180 touches out of the backfield last season. Breida appeared to pick up right where he left off with a stellar preseason that saw him carrying the ball at a 6.0 YPC clip and a fantastic diving touchdown reception against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo saw his fair share of ups and downs during his preseason action. After a horrid performance against the Denver Broncos, he bounced back and silenced some critics with a solid outing in Kansas City. As he returns from a torn ACL, the offense will rely upon Breida to shoulder the load and relieve pressure from Garoppolo against a stout pass rush. Breida's abilities in the outside zone run scheme and ever improving receiving skills can be the key to keeping Garoppolo on his feet.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander


Kwon Alexander enters Sunday's game with plenty to prove. The 49ers awarded the free agent with a 4-year, $54M contract despite the fact that he, like Garoppolo, is returning from a torn ACL. Alexander not only needs to show he is worth the money but also that his knee is fully healed and the Buccaneers made a mistake letting him walk after last season. Now running alongside fellow LB Fred Warner, Alexander is out to form the next great, young linebacker duo in the NFL.

Alexander's skillset is predicated on his ability to roam from sideline to sideline with blistering speed and his knack for locking down both receiving backs and tight ends in coverage. Tampa Bay boasts one of the best tight end tandems in the league with O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. In their 2018 matchup, Howard was sidelined with an injury but Brate was able to haul in a touchdown pass from QB Jameis Winston during their 27-9 victory. Warner's and Alexander's ability to take Winston's safety blankets away will be pivotal to slowing down the Buccaneers' offense.

Defensive End Nick Bosa


This year's second-overall pick Nick Bosa has faced a significant amount of criticism before ever suiting up in a 49ers' uniform. He was shut down for the entirety of the exhibition season after having his ankle rolled up on by an offensive lineman during training camp and has already been saddled with the "injury prone" label. To be frank, if his last name was anything else, this would not be the case. As Sunday approaches, it sounds more and more likely that he will be participating in the season opener.

Outside of DeForest Buckner, the 49ers' pass rush in 2018 was anemic and often left the secondary hung out to dry. Bosa had drawn praise from stalwart left tackle Joe Staley before being sidelined with the ankle injury and appeared to be worth every bit of the high draft pick. Sunday will be the measuring stick for just how effective he can be once the reps start to count. Tampa Bay's offensive line is not known for keeping Jameis Winston clean and Winston himself has a penchant for being careless with the ball when under pressure. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh may have Bosa on a pitch count, per se, but he will have to make the most out of his opportunities for the 49ers to leave Florida with a victory.
  • Matthew Barr
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    Matthew Barr has been writing for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub since 2018 and co-hosts the 4th and Gold podcast which can be found on all podcast platforms. He can be found on Twitter fighting an endless battle to get the underscore removed from his handle, @MattBarr_.