San Francisco Chronicle

Defensive power favors Tampa Bay
January 12, 2003
Brian Murphy, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tampa, Fla. -- It will be personal.

Coaches Steve Mariucci and Jon Gruden and their parallel career paths clash today, and with that clash comes so much: their friendship, their roots as Green Bay coaching cubs, and the juicy memory of last February's swift, stunning soap opera -- Mariucci out the door to Tampa, back in the door to the 49ers, and Gruden, gone, in an instant, to the Bucs.

It will be physical.

The legs of 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, churning out an historic, impossible comeback, still moving into today's theater. The hands of receiver Terrell Owens, outstretched and ready to catch and carry the 49ers to an upset win. The mouth of Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, shouting and motivating his team to get over the playoff hump. The body of linebacker Derrick Brooks, swarming the field, picking off passes, not stopping until he has led this Tampa Bay defense to another dominating, suffocating victory.

It is the playoffs, in all their glory.

The NFC South champ Bucs, in their sold-out stadium, beginning the playoff push for a fourth consecutive season, still dreaming of that first Super Bowl. The NFC West champ 49ers, six-point underdogs, both burdened and imbued by playoff history, flying into Tampa Bay free and easy, loose and, yes, playing with the house money after that unforgettable comeback last Sunday at musty old Candlestick Park.

Last Monday, Mariucci sat at team headquarters, still thinking of that heady win over New York, and said the 49ers understand the joy that accompanied the crazy win is good for energy, and good for morale. But, importantly, it is not a game the team can continue to relive by the time this NFC divisional playoff game kicks off at 10 a.m. PST.

He showed the team the film, they reveled in it, and then: "Boom," said Mariucci. "Our minds are off (the Giants) game and on to the Tampa Bay game immediately.

"We know we're in for a dogfight down there. They're very good. It'll be a crazy crowd. They have a great defense. We have our work cut out for us."

A glance at Tampa Bay's season proves Mariucci the master of understatement.

Today, the 49ers offense -- the signature of the franchise, the engine of the 25 unanswered points against New York -- meets a defense that, plainly, is intimidated by no offense, and yields to no offense.

The numbers and names are almost overwhelming. Brooks is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a player in his eighth year out of Florida State who has matured into the league's most potent wrecking ball on defense, a combination of speed and smarts who figures to force his way into Garcia's head on every snap. Sapp is the heavy, the stout defensive tackle who isn't just a four-time All-Pro, but also the emotional anchor of the brash Buc defense, loud and physical -- the memories of his disabling of Jerry Rice and Green Bay tackle Chad Clifton front and center in any NFL player's memory.

Then there's defensive end Simeon Rice, whom the Bucs signed as a free agent from Arizona two years ago and who this season racked up 15.5 sacks, second-best in the NFL. He goes against a 49er tackle, Derrick Deese, who has proven tenacious and speedy in his career but is hampered severely by a high ankle sprain. The list goes on: corner Brian Kelly with eight interceptions, and a coordinator, Monte Kiffin, who has seven years service in shaping the continuity of this group, which is the first since the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the NFL in total defense, fewest points allowed and interceptions.

"Until you're in the heat of battle, you really don't know how fast they'll flow or how fast they move around," said Garcia, who has not faced Tampa Bay in his NFL career. "They fly around . . . They will be extremely energetic, extremely hyped-up because it's a playoff game and it's their home turf and they're looking for better things from their team in the sense of moving on in the playoffs, and giving them a chance at the Super Bowl."

The 49ers counter with so many reasons not to believe: an injured offensive line, featuring three starters -- Deese, center Jeremy Newberry and guard Ron Stone -- who are less than 100 percent against a rested team coming off a bye. A sketchy pass defense, which was torched by New York's Kerry Collins, coming in with an injured corner (Jason Webster, questionable), a beleaguered rookie (Mike Rumph) and a corner thought to be the team's best (Ahmed Plummer) who had his worst game as a pro last week against the Giants.

Moreover, Tampa Bay produces its quiet ace, quarterback Brad Johnson, who will play for the first time in a month after sitting out two games with a lower back injury. Gruden has made Johnson a very efficient passer, utilizing short drops and quick releases to prevent sacks, minimize interceptions, and make him the NFC's top-rated passer.

So why should the 49ers even show up?

Close your eyes, if you must, and remember last Sunday's images: Garcia dropping back time and again, Garcia holding out his pinky and index finger calmly, calling for another two-point conversion after another 49er touchdown, tight end Eric Johnson rumbling down the sideline for 25 yards . . . all sorts of ridiculous, improbable things that the 49ers tuck into their memory banks for another why-not-us, why-not-now playoff game.

There is, also, a weird history to Tampa Bay's playoff runs. The Bucs have lost their last three postseason games and haven't scored a touchdown in any of them. It can be argued there is pressure on the team, and not as much on the 49ers. Intriguing possibilities await in a personal, physical playoff push.

Mariucci knows as much about the weird part. Eleven months ago he was a phone call away from being coach of Tampa Bay. Gruden knows as much. Twelve months ago, in a dark snowstorm in Massachusetts, he had his Super Bowl run taken away by a tuck rule, and then left for this new job. Strange things happen -- like two disciples of Mike Holmgren meeting on this big stage, so far away from small assistant coaches offices in icy Green Bay.

It is the 49ers and Bucs. It is the playoffs. It is Gruden and Mooch, ready to chase their dreams.

"They were fun days," Mariucci said. "We were all without gray hair, we were all a bunch of guys who wanted to work hard and learn . . . Jon loves being in Tampa, I love being here and, coincidentally, we happen to be butting heads in the playoffs.

"In the offseason, we'll sit down and have a beer, probably at Hooter's, and talk about it all."

BRIEFLY: Quarterback Jeff Garcia did not attend Saturday's practice because of a cold. Coach Steve Mariucci said it was only precautionary to rest him. Typically, Garcia doesn't work out on Saturday, but he usually attends practice. Tim Rattay took all the snaps in Garcia's absence.

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