San Francisco Chronicle

49ERS (11-6) VS. BUCCANEERS (12-4)
January 12, 2003
Kevin Lynch

-- WHEN: 10 a.m. today

-- WHERE: Raymond James Stadium

-- TV: 2 40

-- RADIO: KGO (810 AM)


The closer the examination of this game, the more one conclusion becomes clearly evident: The 49ers have no chance. They are injured, outmanned underdogs, who, in their glorious history, have won two road playoff games. They are facing a team that hasn't lost at home this season with their starting quarterback playing and fields a defense similar to Baltimore's when it won it all two years ago. However, the 49ers have one distinct advantage. For possibly the first time since 1981, the onus of winning isn't crushing them. They can play with unfettered abandon, knowing no one is expecting them to win. The 49ers go in with their eyes closed, bent on swinging as hard as they can at every Tampa Bay fastball. On the field the game will boil down to one element -- time. Neither quarterback is expected to have much of it. What Brad Johnson and Jeff Garcia do with the precious seconds they are granted will likely determine the outcome.


-- DE's Andre Carter and Chike Okeafor vs. Bucs OT's Roman Oben and Kenyatta Walker: Oben and Walker are ordinary; Carter and Okeafor will be pressured to pressure.

-- CB's Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster or Mike Rumph vs. Keenan McCardell and Keyshawn Johnson: If Johnson is half as good as he thinks he is, he'll have 200 yards receiving.

-- G's Eric Heitmann and Ron Stone vs. Bucs Warren Sapp: Even with a crow bar it's hard to stop Sapp.


The return of Brad Johnson is huge. When Johnson missed the final two games with a severe back bruise, Rob Johnson led the Bucs on nine scoring drives -- all field goals. According to coach Jon Gruden, Brad Johnson is as good as new, making all the throws and moving well. But could he have rust? Will four weeks off have an effect? It will also be interesting to see how the 49ers attack Johnson. If they put him on his back early, they could take him out of the game, which would greatly level the playing field. Expect the 49ers to blitz in the first quarter. Much like Garcia, Johnson excels at reading defenses and making solid decisions. His 1.3 interception percentage is lowest in the league. It will be up to a hounding pass rush and a shifting secondary to induce Johnson into a mistake.


Tampa Bay's running game had been nearly nonexistent until the end of the season. Without Brad Johnson, the Bucs emphasized the run and maligned runner Michael Pittman responded. He has averaged 4.3 yards per carry in his past three games, which was far better than his season average of 3.5 yards per carry. The 49ers, to protect their secondary, are likely to keep their safeties back. It means the front seven must stop the run. The 49ers will have to make sure they settle down quickly. Against the Giants, the front seven got excited early and overpursued, which opened up cut-back lanes for Tiki Barber. If the Bucs control the clock, that means they will likely run the 248-pound Mike Alstott at the end of the game, which could be ugly for a tired 49ers' defense.


Even though the Bucs have the best pass defense in the league, the 49ers feel they have big-play opportunities -- any team with Terrell Owens must feel that way. The Buccaneers are likely to play much more two-deep zone, the scheme they have perfected. However, they have only been in that coverage 28 percent of the time. If they show it a lot, the 49ers will have to be methodical, throwing short routes to backs and tight ends. It also means running shallow crosses to Owens. The team is comfortable with that. Besides Owens' 25-yard pass to Tai Streets, no other pass traveled more than 12 yards against the Giants. The key to any 49ers game is getting the ball to Owens. If Owens touches the ball 10 or 12 times, he probably scores at least twice, and two touchdowns plus a couple field goals is enough to win.


The 49ers have a difficult choice offensively. Do they grind it out against the Bucs, get four yards per carry with their running game and expose their hurting defense? Or do they just throw with abandon and hope it works and hope their defense holds up? The team, given their underdog status and their rousing win against the Giants, will probably choose the latter. Of course, the 49ers will run some, and the only way to do it against Tampa Bay is right at them. The Bucs have too much speed for the 49ers to run outside. But Tampa Bay is fairly undersized, particularly on the left side of their defense, which sets up well for the 49ers, who like to run right behind 325-pound Stone and 315-pound Scott Gragg.


The Bucs have stayed remarkably healthy, which has greatly helped their special teams. The 49ers have been without Terry Jackson, Kevin Curtis, Saleem Rasheed, and Frank Strong for most of the season. The player they just signed, Terry Killens, becomes their best core player overnight. Given that, there's no way the 49ers can dominate this matchup. If they just stay even with the Bucs, that will be a tremendous victory.


-- San Francisco -- CB Webster (ankle) is questionable. T Derrick Deese (ankle), WR Owens (groin), S Zack Bronson (foot), DE Sean Moran (Achilles), G Stone (ankle) and LB Rasheed (thigh) are probable. Tampa Bay -- WR Charles Lee (foot) is questionable.

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