Sacramento Bee

Garcia doesn't concern Bucs 'D'
January 12, 2003
By Mark Kreidler -- Bee Sports Columnist

TAMPA, Fla. -- The New York Giants did it. The Giants wilted like week-old lettuce. The 49ers shifted into that two-minute drill routine, and the Giants ran around the field as though they'd never seen anything so sophisticated and complex in their football lives. It was a panic attack disguised as a defense. And it could happen again. Couldn't it?

"Do we get the 24-point lead, too?" Warren Sapp replies with a knowing smile.

"You know, just checking all the variables before I answer."

Here's a variable, for those keeping book at home: That's no Giants defense on the field at Raymond James Stadium.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defenders, the top-ranked unit in the NFL, won't come out and say they don't fear the 49ers today, but only because it's lousy form. They'll say pretty much everything else.

They will tell you, for example, that as much as they respect Jeff Garcia as a quarterback, he's nothing they haven't seen already this season.

"We faced (Michael) Vick twice, (Aaron) Brooks twice, (Donovan) McNabb once," Sapp said. "We haven't let one guy kill us. ... Garcia's good at what he does, but we're good at what we do."

They will tell you that Terrell Owens, while undeniably dangerous, is no more worrisome than several other playmakers they've faced.

"We play against a lot of great receivers," safety John Lynch siad. "We play against Randy Moss every year. You have to be aware of where (Owens) is at all times, but we've never been a defense that changes everything we do for one guy."

They will even say polite things about the 49ers, the Bucs will, but only for a while. Stick around long enough, and the mouths emerge. This isn't just the best defense in the league, it's the most arrogant.

Around here, it is all about a Tampa Bay defense that finished first in the NFL in total defense (252.8 yards per game) and passing defense (155.6 yards) and allowed opponents barely 12 points per weekend.

It is about Sapp and Lynch and linebacker Derrick Brooks. It is about a team with the best turnover margin and 43 sacks; and a fast, independent front four that almost never needs help in containing runners and QBs, freeing up the linebackers and secondary to double-team receivers across the field; and just a pirate's booty of big, fat ego.

Last weekend against the collapsible Giants, the 49ers scored 25 unanswered second-half points in that stunning 39-38 comeback. The last time the 49ers were here, in the game in which Jerry Rice was injured in 1997, they totaled six -- against a Bucs defense that bears a striking resemblance to this one.

"Last time you came in, you didn't score a touchdown, and now you're gonna get to 39?" asked an incredulous Sapp. "Tell you what: We're not used to watching an 80-point game. To us, that's not football."

Nope, football around here, when played at a Buc clip, is as mug-ugly as anything you'll ever see. Jon Gruden or no Jon Gruden, this is still a team utterly predicated on defense.

Garcia and Owens, Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow and that offensive line -- they have to be perfect today. Not good, not exceptional. Perfect.

McNabb ran six times for four yards against the Bucs and completed only 12 of 25 passes for 127 yards -- and that was in a winning effort. After Vick was rendered impotent for the second time this season against Tampa, the Atlanta QB admitted, "There was nothing I could do."

Where other mobile quarterbacks use their legs as a rushing threat, Garcia mostly employs his nimble ability in the service of buying time to pass.

He is the wild card for San Francisco, no matter how casually the Bucs discuss his game. Tampa thinks it understands Owens; and while teams occasionally have exploited the Bucs' relatively light defensive front to churn rushing yardage up the gut, it's foolish to think the 49ers can win the game by sending Hearst and Barlow off tackle.

But Garcia is the X factor. He isn't just coming off a decent game; he's coming off the game of his life. That his quarterback rating soars when he's on the run, as opposed to in the pocket, surely can't be lost on coach Steve Mariucci and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.

No, they need Garcia to take off. They need the chaos. They have to design the chaos. It worked against the Giants, and it might be the only thing that can buy the 49ers enough time to make something work here.

"We respect all. We fear none," said cornerback Dwight Smith. It is the mantra of a Tampa defense that, when push comes to shove, is fairly certain it'll do most of the pushing and shoving. The 49ers can't go through these guys. They'll need Garcia to help them go around.

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