Sacramento Bee

49ers at Buccaneers: Three keys to the game
January 12, 2003
By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

1 Score on defense. Both teams match up poorly on offense. The 49ers' offense is good, but the Bucs' defense is great. The 49ers' defense is average, but the Bucs' offense is shaky, with no run game to speak of and quarterback Brad Johnson trying to shake off the rust of missing the last three weeks with a back injury. One of these offenses will make a mistake -- if not both offenses making several mistakes -- and the defenses must take advantage. The prevailing wisdom is that 21 points will win this game, so the 49ers will have a huge head start with a defensive touchdown. Likewise, allowing the Bucs to score on defense -- as they have five times this season -- would be disastrous. The turnover battle will be huge. The 49ers finished the regular season plus-10, the Bucs plus-17.

2 Establish the run. This goes for both teams. And believe it or not, the 49ers probably will have an easier chance of doing it. Tampa Bay, which ranks 27th in rushing this season, is trying to become only the second team to reach the Super Bowl averaging fewer than 100 rushing yards (97.3 yards). They are facing an underrated 49ers rushing defense, which finished seventh in the NFL. But with an improved passing attack and an outstanding defense, the Bucs have survived their poor running game all season. The 49ers, meanwhile, need to establish the run so Tampa doesn't simply swarm Terrell Owens throughout the day. The Buccaneers invented the two-deep zone that so many teams have used successfully against the 49ers this season. San Francisco eventually learned that the best way to break it is by running against it. Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow were nonexistent last week.

3 Establishing Owens. This should go without saying every week, but especially against a supposedly impenetrable defense, the 49ers can go as far as Owens takes them. He is the most dangerous playmaker in the NFL, and therefore, the 49ers can't be counted out of any game. The 49ers probably need just three touchdowns to win this game. That can happen with just three plays -- a deep ball to Owens, a short screen to Owens that he turns into a deep touchdown run, a slant to Owens on which he stiff-arms past a flailing defender. Tampa Bay surely will concentrate on not allowing Owens to dominate this game -- as he did a week ago with nine catches for 177 yards. But let's say Tampa Bay leads 13-3 in the fourth quarter. Are you willing to count Owens out?

Matchup to watch

Jeff Garcia vs. Warren Sapp. The real matchup will occur across the line, with the Buccaneers' unmatched defensive front providing the toughest test to date for a banged-up 49ers offensive line. But by watching Garcia and Sapp, you will be able to tell which line is getting the job done.

Sapp is a roving defensive tackle, the most disruptive interior lineman in the NFL. He will try to pick on rookie left guard Eric Heitmann at times. But Sapp also will have to line up against Pro Bowl right guard Ron Stone, the driving force in the 49ers' running game. Left offensive tackle Derrick Deese will start despite a nagging ankle injury that sidelined him early in last week's victory over the Giants. He hasn't allowed a sack all year, but Bucs right end Simeon Rice has 15.5 sacks this season.

The Bucs have the fastest and most athletic line in the NFL, which makes it hard for anyone to run against them -- especially quarterbacks. Garcia must escape pressure and try to make things happen on the run.

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