San Jose Mercury

49ers must slip Bucs' defense
January 12, 2003

By Ann Killion
Mercury News

TAMPA, Fla. - Jeff Garcia wasn't at the 49ers' brief walk-through Saturday afternoon. The official word was that he was fighting a cold. It was decided that resting at the hotel would be better for the quarterback than taking a bus to a practice where he wasn't even scheduled to take snaps. He is expected to be fine for today's second-round playoff game.

So that's the pronouncement: sniffles. However, you wouldn't blame Garcia if he had a sudden attack of the Sapp-flu. If he was feeling just a bit weak and queasy at the prospect of what he's going to face today at Raymond James Stadium:

Something ferocious.

Something ``smothering,'' according to General Manager Terry Donahue.

Something ``aggressive,'' according to Coach Steve Mariucci.

A swaggering, attitude-oozing, intimidating presence. Forget the mad offensive scientist who was hired to lead the team. Tampa Bay is all about defense.

Garcia and his teammates are trying to do something the 49ers haven't done in 14 years: win a playoff game on the road. The last time the 49ers accomplished that was in Chicago in January 1989.

To do it, the 49ers will have to defeat the daunting Tampa Bay defense.

``We've got some nasty standards,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``If someone gets 3 yards on first down, we say, `That's too many.' ''

The Buccaneers' defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL. It led the league in seven categories. It is tied for the best turnover margin in the NFL (plus-17). It ranked first in red-zone defense. The secondary, once considered the weak link in the unit, ranked first in the league in pass defense and had a league-leading 31 interceptions.

This has been the Bucs' identity for years, since their coming-out party in 1997 that led to the 49ers' trip to the hospital. Though they were still called the Yucks by some, Tampa Bay opened that season by swarming the 49ers and injuring Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Some people remember that game as the birth of the franchise.

Flash forward to January 2003 and the team's calling card hasn't changed. Jon Gruden is trying to implement his offense, but his team is winning because of defense. The new coach's main impact is to make Tampa Bay's defense even hungrier, to impress upon them the desire to take their aggressive style ``global,'' as Gruden likes to say.

``He feeds that fire,'' Sapp said. ``He drops a little more gas on it.''

The Bucs watched the 49ers' 39-38 come-from-behind victory against the New York Giants with some confusion.

``We're not used to watching 80-point games,'' Sapp said.

Not this year. Tampa Bay is giving up an average of 12.3 points per game.

The Bucs' defense is star-studded. Talkative, controversial Pro Bowl player Sapp is the national face of the Bucs. When asked about Terrell Owens' famous touchdown celebration, Sapp said, ``My life is a Sharpie moment.''

Linebacker Derrick Brooks is the NFL defensive player of the year. He is in on every play and scored four touchdowns off turnovers this season. John Lynch and Simeon Rice have earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. Ronde Barber is an All-Pro cornerback.

All those stars on one side of the game's scale. Terrell Owens is on the other. At least that's the way it seems. Though the Bucs are respectful of the 49ers' offense, they seem preoccupied with one guy.

``Garcia has got that beast out there,'' Sapp said. ``When you got that beast out there, you look for him at all times.''

Sapp and Owens are cut from the same sequined show time banner.

``I love T.O.,'' Sapp said. ``What's not to like about him? Like I said after that Dallas thing, keep him out of the damn end zone and you don't have to worry about him cutting up on you.''

The Bucs plan to get physical with Owens. With their Cover 2 defense, they won't make the mistake of trying to cover him one-on-one.

And they plan to keep Garcia contained. They have faced other scrambling quarterbacks with phenomenal success. In two games against Tampa Bay, Atlanta's Michael Vick gained exactly 10 yards. In the Bucs' October loss to the Eagles, Donovan McNabb gained just 4 yards.

``We haven't let one guy kill us with his legs,'' Sapp said.

So what can the 49ers do?

``We need to keep our poise, get started fast, finish strong,'' Mariucci said. ``All those cliches.''

The 49ers' best hope is to get started fast. To score first and let their defense contain the Bucs' average offense.

Another answer may be to run the ball. Run defense was the one chink in the Bucs' armor. The team finished fifth in the league, giving up an average of 97.1 yards per game. The go-for-the-throat, no-huddle-every-play, adrenaline junkies might howl in distress, but a heavy inside dose of Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow might be the 49ers' best hope.

The truth is, there aren't a lot of ways to solve a defense as fearsome as the Bucs'. It's enough to make you want to stay in bed and pull the covers up over your head.

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