San Jose Mercury

49ers steering into teeth of Bucs' defense
January 11, 2003

By Dennis Georgatos
Mercury News

The opposition has pretty much tried everything against Tampa Bay's top-ranked defense and, for the most part, there has been little to show for it.

``We've seen two tight ends and two backs,'' Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said. ``We've seen five wide receivers and no backs. We've seen scrambling quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb.

``We've seen a lot of different styles, but we've been solid week in and week out. We have a fast defensive club, a veteran team that has a great feel for what we want to get done. We've been able to withstand a lot of these challenges.''

The 49ers (11-6) pose a fresh challenge in Sunday's divisional playoff game at Tampa's Raymond Raymond James Stadium. It is the first postseason encounter between the teams and their first meeting since 1997.

``They're a defense that's loaded with experience and talent,'' 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia said. ``We need to handle our own business, go out there and try to find ways to do our own thing and not get caught up in the pressure of facing the top defense in the league.''

The unit includes four Pro Bowl players: defensive tackle Warren Sapp, safety John Lynch, defensive end Simeon Rice -- whose 15 1/2 sacks led the NFC -- and linebacker Derrick Brooks, who scored four touchdowns off turnovers and was named the NFL's defensive player of the year.

The 49ers pulled off the second-greatest postseason comeback Sunday in a 39-38 win over the New York Giants, storming back from 24 points down.

But it would be asking a lot just to score 24 points against the NFL's stingiest defense, let alone repeat that kind of monumental rally. Tampa Bay (12-4) allowed a league-low 196 points this season.

For all the imposing defensive numbers, equally imposing players and array of schemes the Buccaneers have quashed, Tampa Bay's defense was by no means invincible.

The New Orleans Saints beat the Bucs twice, hitting big plays downfield after Deuce McAllister softened up the defense by running for a combined 208 yards in the victories. The top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles followed a similar strategy, getting 152 rushing yards from Duce Staley in a 20-10 win.

The 49ers, whose rushing game ranked sixth in the league (140.3 yards per game), can attack Tampa Bay's quick, athletic but undersized defensive line in waves by taking turns handing the ball to Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow.

``We're going to have to run straight ahead and right at those guys,'' Barlow said. ``They are fast, but they aren't big thumper guys like the New York defense.''

Garcia said the running game could be especially effective when Tampa Bay goes to its two-deep zone. The scheme makes it difficult to throw mid-range or deep passes because the middle linebacker and safeties drop back into zone coverages; that could leave the middle vulnerable to the run or a scramble by Garcia.

If the 49ers have some running success, they could get their play-action passing game in gear, and Terrell Owens has shown all season that he can turn even short completions into game-breaking plays. Last Sunday, he took two short passes and turned them into scoring plays of 26 and 76 yards. Of his 177 yards on nine receptions, 109 came after the catch.

Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said the 49ers need a few big plays to succeed because it is difficult to sustain drives against an opportunistic Bucs defense.

The 49ers also like Garcia's chances to hit a big play on a rollout or while buying time inside or outside the pocket.

As a counter to the Bucs' defensive speed, the 49ers also could change up at some point and jump into their no-huddle scheme, which was effective against the Giants.

Tampa Bay, though, has thrived on shutting down mobile quarterbacks, including chasing down Vick repeatedly in a 34-10 drubbing of the Falcons on Dec. 8.

Knapp said he expects Garcia to fare better than Vick did.

``Maybe that's where Jeff's experience comes in,'' he said. ``Michael Vick is not quite as experienced and maybe didn't see the field as well when he left the pocket. I think that's one of the strengths we're going to have to show, Jeff's mobility against that defense, because it creates passing lanes when he gets outside the pocket.''

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