The 49ers go into Sunday’s season opener at Minnesota as underdogs. It’s a familiar position for a San Francisco team that has been 5-11, 2-14 and 6-10 over its three previous seasons.
Yet there’s a different feeling around this year’s team, based on its five straight wins to finish 2017, the play of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and some key offseason additions in free agency and the draft. Though the Vikings have a shiny new quarterback in Kirk Cousins and a terrific defense – two reasons they are listed as anywhere from 5- to 6½-point favorites – the Niners could pull an upset Sunday and start 2018 with a victory. How could it happen? Here are five keys:
- The re-made offensive line, with new center Weston Richburg, either Joshua Garnett or Mike Person at right guard and No. 1 pick Mike McGlinchey at right tackle, must have a strong game. Garoppolo needs time to throw and – maybe even more importantly – the running backs will need holes to run through to allow the offense to attack the defense effectively.
- Without injured starter Jerick McKinnon, backup running backs Matt Breida and recently signed veteran Alfred Morris will need to make some plays on their own, both in the running game and as receivers.
- Richard Sherman will need to show he’s still Richard Sherman. If the former All-Pro cornerback with the Seahawks is back to his prime-time self, it will go a long way toward shutting down Cousins’ passing game and setting the tone for the entire secondary for the rest of the season.
- Pressure the quarterback. The news out of training camp was how front-line defensive linemen Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Earl Mitchell were making huge steps forward as individuals and as a unit. If the front four can put pressure on Cousins, the linebackers and secondary will be much more effective.
- Get the young playmakers some opportunities. The 49ers brought in some young, game-breaking wide receivers and returners this offseason in Dante Pettis, Richie James and D.J. Reed Jr. If one or more of the rookies can break a reception for big yards or a return for a score, it will go a long way to energize this team in its season opener.
Kickoff for Sunday’s game is set for 10 a.m. (PDT).