San Francisco Examiner

'D' is for dangerous
January 11, 2003
Of The Examiner Staff

SANTA CLARA -- The 2002 season was young and everyone was searching for reasons to explain why the 49ers appeared so sluggish on offense, why quarterback Jeff Garcia couldn't push the ball downfield with past frequency.

Why Terrell Owen was being taken out of the game.

Why halfbacks Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow were unable to find the running lanes that were there a season before.

Why the offense did not resemble the high-scoring machine that finished the 2002 season as the league's fourth-ranked. Back then, Garcia conceded that his offense was bewildered by what has become the defense of preference in the NFL: The two-deep zone.

The defense was designed by former Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy -- and like anything that works, it was adopted league-wide, just as Buddy Ryan's 46 schemes were the rage during the Chicago Bears' run of success in the mid-'80s.

Well, don't look now, but Garcia and the 49ers' offense must confront a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that executes the defense better than any other in the league.

Dungy is gone, trying to find the players talented and heady enough to play his defense in Indianapolis. He has been replaced by former Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who was hired by Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer to install an offense that would complement Tampa Bay's perennially top-ranked defense.

But there is one constant that remains in Tampa Bay: Dungy's two-deep zone.

"They've made it famous," Mariucci said. "They made the scheme work."

Thus, when the 49ers journey across the country to face the Bucs in an NFC divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium, Garcia and Mariucci must show that they've figured out ways to attack the two-deep scheme Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin cultured during his years with Dungy.

Fail, and the season ends for the 49ers. Succeed, and they're one game away from the team's first Super Bowl since 1994.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here, because even Mariucci concedes that Kiffin's schemes will be tough to counter.

"I think it's the best defense in the league," Mariucci said of the NFL's top-ranked unit. "Statistically, it is. But forget about statistics. You have to look at different situations against the run, in the red zone, on the goal line, in (the) pass rush, disrupting quarterbacks and all of that sort of thing, and scoring points."

"They do that frequently."

And they're able to pull it off because they execute the defense better than any team in the NFL. Furthermore, Tampa has the players -- many of them Pro Bowl caliber -- disciplined enough to play within Kiffin's demanding system. (Just one question? How, in this salary-cap era, is Tampa Bay able to keep all that talent on defense?)

The 49ers got a taste of the scheme last week against the New York Giants, who lost their composure and, as a result, allowed the Niners to overcome the second-largest playoff deficit (24 points) and pull off an epic 39-38 comeback victory in the wild-card game at Candlestick Park.

But the Bucs aren't the Giants; Tampa Bay will not get away from what has made it such a defensive force.

"They made that scheme work. Like I said, this is a copycat league. A lot of people play that version of that two-deep zone," Mariucci said. "It's different than it used to be. I don't think they play it quite as much on a percentage basis. They are playing it 28 percent. They used to be more than that. Other teams play it more often than they do.

"It's here to stay, because it is very productive and it's a good scheme. We face it every week. It's nothing out of the ordinary; it's just that they have very good personnel to play it. They do it well and they've done it for years."

Said Garcia, "Early in the season, we struggled against the two-deep zone and as the season went on, we started to find ways to attack (it)."

One way to neutralize the defense is with an effective running game, but the 49ers have not done a good of a job at it this season. They don't have a 1,000-yard rusher and against the Giants, they rushed for only 90 yards as a team. And 60 of those yards came on scrambles by Garcia.

So, what's a team to do?

"We know what we want to do, and now it's just a matter of going out and doing it," said Garcia. "We need to find a way to execute from the beginning and can't turn the ball over."

There's another reason why the Bucs play the defense so well: They have the league's most talented defensive front, a four-man gang that generates pressure without having to rely on the blitz.

"They are very opportunistic and take advantage of offensive miscues," right tackle Scott Gragg said. "They do blitz a little, but they only really have two defensive fronts. What they do, they do well."

Well enough, in fact, to crush the 49ers' Super Bowl dreams.

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