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49ers thriving on opening statements on offense and defense

First possessions find 49ers outscoring foes 45-13 with six TDs and a field goal in nine games

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass with wide receiver Jauan Jennings (15) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass with wide receiver Jauan Jennings (15) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
Jerry McDonald, Bay Area News Group Sports Writer, is photographed for his Wordpress profile in Pleasanton, Calif., on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

SANTA CLARA — It took exactly two series for the 49ers to demonstrate they were back on track against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a tone-setting opening act.

The 49ers are at their best as front-runners. Get a lead, then dictate the pace while gradually squeezing the life out of their opponent like a boa constrictor. They’ve been that way for a few years now, but have taken it to an extreme with a 6-3 record in 2023.

When the 49ers forced a three-and-out on defense on the first series, then drove 57 yards in four plays culminated by an ill-advised but ultimately successful 13-yard touchdown pass from Brock Purdy to Brandon Aiyuk, it was their sixth opening-possession touchdown in nine games.

Throw in a first-drive field goal against the New York Giants, and the 49ers have scored 45 points on their first drive while giving up just 13. In their three-game losing streak, the 49ers had a first-drive touchdown against Cleveland but ended up losing 19-17, lost a fumble by Christian McCaffrey on their first possession against Minnesota and went three-and-out while Cincinnati scored a touchdown in a 31-17 loss preceding the bye.

To 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, possessions are like his children — he doesn’t value one above the other.

“Anytime you don’t score on a drive, you’re always feeling real frustrated,” Shanahan said. “You want to start out great and do it on the first as much as possible, but I’ve never sat there and made a big emphasis to our team about that being more important than any other one.”

In first drives over nine games, Purdy is 26 of 31 for 295 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Three of those five incompletions came in succession against the Giants in Week 3, a drive when they settled for a field goal the first time they had the ball.

When informed Wednesday he had just two incompletions on opening drives other than against the Giants and a 145.9 paser rating (158.3 is perfect), Purdy paused for a moment in front of his locker.

“Wow. That’s crazy,” Purdy said. “I didn’t know that. We just go out and execute the plays. I had no idea.”

McCaffrey, who has 26 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns on opening drives to go along with five receptions for 51 yards and another score, takes a snap-by-snap approach.

“Obviously Kyle’s really good at calling plays,” McCaffrey said. “Has been for a long time. For us, each play has a life of its own. That’s the way I look at it. You can’t really predict a whole lot in this league and you’ve just got to trust the play-caller — who’s really good at what he does. You can’t mess up.”

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 12: Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after a touchdown pass during the third quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Stadium on November 12, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
In nine games, Brock Purdy has just five incomplete passes on the opening drive — and three of those came in succession Week 3. Getty Images

The 49ers served notice in Week 1 they were to be reckoned with at the outset, following up a defensive three-and-out against Pittsburgh with a 54-yard touchdown drive with Purdy hitting Aiyuk from eight yards out.

Their two other most convincing wins of the season, 40-12 against Dallas and a 34-3 win over Jacksonville, began with opening-drive touchdowns and a defensive stop.

Opponents are aware what they’re in for if the 49ers get rolling early.

“We did all the stuff we talked about not doing during the week,” Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence said postgame Sunday. “We start with a three-and-out, gave them momentum, and they went and scored. That’s just not how you want to start a game against a team like this. They’re really good, especially playing with a lead.”

The six opening-drive touchdowns match last year’s total over 20 games including the playoffs. Including field goals, the 49ers outscored teams 53-48 last season after each team had a possession. They had five touchdowns and a 41-30 margin in 2021 in 19 games, with the high-water mark under Shanahan being seven touchdowns and a 64-34 margin in 2019 when they advanced to the Super Bowl.

So being at six opening touchdowns and a field goal in seven games with a 32-point margin is pretty heady stuff.

“Obviously you want to set the tone for the game, but at the same time, it’s usually plays we’ve run in practice and we know those plays a little better than ones we hadn’t run multiple times,” center Jake Brendel said.

Without knowing first-hand, Brendel suggested negative runs, sacks and penalties were virtually non-existent on the first possession.

“We probably never went backwards, and that just comes down to being dialed in, knowing the snap count and having the operation at 100 percent,” Brendel said.

Sure enough, the 49ers haven’t had a penalty on offense in any of their first drives and just one 4-yard sack of Purdy in Week 3 when they settled for a field goal.

Defensively, the 49ers have opened with three-and-outs four times, had two interceptions, given up two field goals and the lone touchdown against Cincinnati.

While linebacker Fred Warner is all for getting off to a good start, he stressed the 49ers need to win in other ways as well.

“I’m sure it’s something other teams talk about because they know if we get going hot from the start that it’s going to be hard to stop us once we get rolling,” Warner said. “I want to see who we are when we don’t get the stop on the first drive. It’s all about finding a way to win. We’ve got to make sure we’re on it,not only from the start, but especially the finish.”

49ers’ first possession on offense (scored 45 points)

Week 1 at Pittsburgh: Aiyuk 8-yard pass from Purdy (Moody kick), 54 yards, seven plays

Week 2 at L.A. Rams: McCaffrey 14-yard run (Moody kick), 75 yards, 11 plays

Week 3 vs. N.Y. Giants: Moody 28-yard FG, 64 yards, 15 plays

Week 4 vs. Arizona: McCaffery 1 run (Moody kick), 62 yards, eight plays

Week 5 vs. Dallas: Kittle 19-yard pass from Purdy (Moody kick), 75 yards, seven plays

Week 6: at Cleveland: McCaffrey 13-yard pass from Purdy (Moody kick), 84 yards, five plays

Week 7 at Minnesota: Lost fumble at Vikings 12-yard line

Week 8 vs. Cincinnati: Three-and-out

Week 10 at Jacksonville: Aiyuk 13-yard pass from Purdy (Moody kick)

49ers’ first series on defense (allowed 13 points)

Week 1 at Pittsburgh: Three-and-out

Week 2 at L.A. Rams: Maher 43-yard FG, 50 yards, 11 plays

Week 3 vs. N.Y. Giants: Gano 44-yard FG, 49 yards, 12 plays

Week 4 vs. Arizona: Three-and-out

Week 5 vs. Dallas: Three-and-out

Week 6 at Cleveland: Interception, Warner

Week 7 at Minnesota: Interception, Ward

Week 8 vs. Cincinnati: Boyd 7-yard pass from Burrow (McPherson kick), 85 yards, 11 plays

Week 10 at Jacksonville: Three-and-out