The Oakland Tribune

Bucs' D a tough reward for 49ers
January 12, 2003
By Roger Phillips STAFF WRITER

TAMPA, Fla. -- This is the reward for that death-defying comeback a week ago.

Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice snarling on the defensive line. Linebacker Derrick Brooks itching to intercept a Jeff Garcia pass and take it to the end zone. Safety John Lynch waiting to smack somebody.

When the San Francisco 49ers rallied from 24 points down seven days ago for a 39-38 wild-card victory over the New York Giants at Candlestick Park, the reward was the perplexing task they face today.

The 49ers -- bruised and aching and starting three offensive linemen with sprained ankles and having traveled across the continent -- could use a week off. Instead, they will visit a well-rested Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that boasts a defense that has been by far the best in the NFL this season.

"That's what that team has been built on, right around that defense," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said of the Bucs, who over the past six seasons have allowed 203 fewer points than any other team.

"Tampa Bay's success over the years, and they have been in the playoffs with frequency, is because of that strong defense."

The winner today advances to next Sunday's NFC championship game at Philadelphia.

For the 49ers to be the team to move one step away from a trip to Super Bowl XXXVII two weeks from now in San Diego, they are going to have to find at least a few answers to a Buccaneers defense that allowed a league-low 196 points this season.

The 49ers roared back against the Giants by putting the ball in the air, but that was out of necessity, considering the big deficit and the little time to overcome it.

This week, they spoke of a need to grind out yards against the Bucs, who were ranked first in overall defense and fifth against the run. The 49ers were eighth overall in offense this regular season and had the sixth-best running attack.

Teams are loath to reveal their strategy before games, so it's always possible the 49ers will put the ball in the air 50 times today. But based on what they have let on, it's more likely going to be a busy day for running backs Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow -- especially if they are having some success and the score is close.

"We have to (run) to be effective," right tackle Scott Gragg said. "We're not going to be able to come back from a deficit like we did last week too many times. We need to be able to have ball control and run the football effectively."

The 49ers also have to hope they can spring Terrell Owens for some big plays, but the fact is the Bucs allow very few. And the 49ers will need to be careful with the football, because Tampa Bay's best offense really is its defense.

The Bucs scored five defensive touchdowns this season, four by Brooks, who this week was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

"He goes sideline to sideline, and he's an every-down linebacker who has great coverage ability and has a real knack for the big play," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "He's an inspiring guy on this team."

And the Buccaneers have a way of forcing opponents to make mistakes, notwithstanding the fact that the 49ers are very good at not turning the ball over. Tampa Bay has forced at least one turnover in 41 consecutive games, and cornerback Brian Kelly led the way with eight interceptions.

The Bucs also have at least one sack in 60 consecutive games, and this year they became the first team to lead the NFL in total defense, points allowed and total interceptions (31) since the 1985 Chicago Bears, who won it all.

"You might have to be methodical throughout the day, you might have to put together 10-, 12-play drives and hopefully end those drives with touchdowns because they're very difficult in the red zone," Garcia said. "It's going to be the ultimate challenge."

Which tells you plenty, given the challenge Garcia conquered last week. Garcia's mobility will be put to the test today, too. In six games this season, the Bucs limited mobile quarterbacks Michael Vick of Atlanta, Aaron Brooks of New Orleans, Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia and Brett Favre of Green Bay to 45 yards on 19 carries.

"I realize they've done a great job of containing quarterbacks, because of the team speed they have," Garcia said. "I don't run like a Vick, or many of these other quarterbacks in the league. I'm not always looking to run up field, but to buy time to allow my receivers to find openings and create plays."

The silver lining for the 49ers might be the Bucs' offense, which is much more ordinary than the defense, and not markedly improved despite the coming of Gruden from Oakland.

The fortunate thing for starting quarterback Brad Johnson was that the Buccaneers earned a first-round playoff bye, giving him an additional week to recuperate from the bruised lower back that sidelined him for the final two weeks of the regular season.

Johnson will start, the Bucs say, and if he is healthy, the Bucs' offense is a lot better than with backup Rob Johnson. Brad Johnson led the NFC with a 92.9 passer rating, and in home games he threw for 16 touchdowns and was intercepted only once.

The Bucs use three receivers (Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius), a running back (Michael Pittman) and a fullback (Mike Alstott).

The 49ers' foremost defensive concern is their secondary. Starting cornerback, Jason Webster, may miss his second straight game with a sprained ankle.

Another, Ahmed Plummer, is playing despite a sore groin and was torched by the Giants' Amani Toomer for much of last Sunday.

And free safety Zack Bronson was able to make it through only a bit more than half of last week's game, his first in more than two months after breaking his left foot.

Defensive coordinator Jim Mora said Bronson will play today, and added he was heartened by Plummer's play late in the victory over the Giants.

"The great thing about Ahmed is he came out the other end glowingly," Mora said. "He fought through a really tough day, and now he's better for it. He learned a great lesson, so I feel a lot better. I feel that we survived that storm. When one of your best players has a tough day and you're still able to overcome it and win, it's a great thing."

I've always enjoyed the underdog role, Gragg said. We'll see what happens. A lot of people would have called us the underdog against the Giants. It's fun to play that role.

Just how much fun, the 49ers will learn today.

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