NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (3-1) at San Francisco (3-1)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - One of the early surprises of this 2011 season takes on perhaps the biggest turnaround story from last year Sunday at Candlestick Park, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put a three-game winning streak on the line in a showdown with the resurgent San Francisco 49ers.
This matchup of NFC division leaders wasn't presumed to be billed as such, as the 49ers haven't had a winning season since 2002 and are under the leadership of a new head coach, while the Buccaneers reside in a well-stocked NFC South that also contains well-regarded heavyweights Atlanta and New Orleans. That seemingly-unlikely scenario is in fact the case, however, after both teams jumped out of the blocks with victories in three of their first four outings.
San Francisco's ascension has been especially startling, as was the way it rallied to win its most recent contest. Down by 20 points in the third quarter of last week's road clash at defending NFC East champion Philadelphia, the 49ers roared back with three unanswered touchdowns to come away with a 24-23 upset of the highly-touted Eagles.
Much-maligned quarterback Alex Smith fueled the comeback with a sensational second half in which the 2005 No. 1 overall pick hit on 13-of-17 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, while the Niners came up with a huge late defensive stop when lineman Justin Smith forced a fumble by Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin with the Eagles driving with just over two minutes left.
"That was as good a win as I can remember being a part of," said 49ers first- year sideline boss Jim Harbaugh. "[His players] never flinched, you know, there was never a moment or circumstance that made them nervous in this ball game."
That resolve has given San Francisco, which also recorded a 13-8 triumph at Cincinnati on Sept. 25 in the opener of its just-completed two-game road trip, a chance to begin a season 4-1 for the first time since its last winning season and playoff appearance in 2002.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, continues to build off an outstanding 2010 campaign in which the Buccaneers raised their win total from three in head coach Raheem Morris' debut season to 10 last year. After coming up short against still- unbeaten Detroit in the opener, the young Bucs have bested their last three opponents.
The Buccaneers also had to come from behind in Week 4, overcoming a sluggish start and a 10-point deficit to defeat slumping Indianapolis by a 24-17 score this past Monday. Two weeks earlier, Tampa trailed Minnesota 17-0 at halftime before fighting back for a 24-20 decision at the Metrodome on Sept. 18.
Tampa Bay hasn't been 4-1 since 2005, a year in which the Buccaneers finished 11-5 and captured the NFC South.
The Buccaneers also enter Sunday's tilt having won three straight and seven of their past nine road games. Included in that stretch was a 21-0 shutout of the 49ers at Candlestick Park during Week 11 of last season.
San Francisco mustered a mere 189 total yards and 11 first downs in that loss, though Alex Smith did not play in the game.
San Francisco has won 15 of 19 regular-season meetings between the teams, but as previously mentioned, was a 21-0 home loser to the Buccaneers last November. That win was only Tampa Bay's second in 13 lifetime visits to Candlestick Park and snapped an eight-game road losing streak for the Bucs in this series, which included setbacks in 2005 (15-10) and 2007 (21-19). Tampa Bay's only other victory in San Francisco was a 24-23 verdict in 1980.
The Buccaneers did prevail in their only postseason matchup with the 49ers, a 31-6 decision in a 2002 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Harbaugh has never previously faced Tampa Bay as a head coach, while Morris lost his only prior encounter with San Francisco last season and will be going head-to-head with Harbaugh for the first time.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Morris and offensive coordinator Greg Olson like to establish a strong running game, but the Bucs had encountered some difficulty doing so until breaking out in Monday's win over the Colts. Tampa Bay rushed for 192 yards on the night, with bruising lead back LeGarette Blount (294 rushing yards, 3 TD) piling up 127 of that total and snapping a 17-17 tie with a 35-yard touchdown burst with 3:15 to go. The second-year pro is clearly the centerpiece of the team's ground attack, and there's also little doubt that quarterback Josh Freeman (969 passing yards, 3 TD, 4 INT) is the unquestioned focal point of the offense as a whole. Though he hasn't put up great statistical numbers over the first month, the strapping 23-year-old is a terrific talent and proven leader who's orchestrated eight fourth-quarter comebacks in his two-plus professional seasons, and he's coming off a sharp 287-yard, no-turnover performance against the Colts in which he passed and ran for a touchdown. The receiving corps doesn't offer much experience other than tight end Kellen Winslow (17 receptions), but second-year receivers Mike Williams (15 receptions, 1 TD) and Arrelious Benn (9 receptions, 1 TD) are highly-skilled players and fellow youngster Preston Parker (16 receptions, 1 TD) has emerged as a viable option out of the slot. Veteran running back Earnest Graham often serves as Freeman's safety valve, having snared a team-best 23 receptions on the year.
A sturdy San Francisco defense held Blount (26 carries, 82 yards) pretty well in check in last year's meeting and should present a challenge once again this week, as the unit is limiting the opposition to a scant 74 rushing yards per game (4th overall) and hasn't allowed an individual over the 100-yard mark in 26 consecutive tests -- the longest active streak in the NFL. With the outstanding inside linebacker duo of perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis (28 tackles, 3 PD) and rising star NaVorro Bowman (33 tackles) leading the charge, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy managed a paltry 18 rushing yards on nine attempts a week ago. The 49ers weren't as successful at containing the Eagles' potent passing game, however, with quarterback Michael Vick accumulating a career-best 416 yards through the air, but the defense did force three turnovers and stood tall within the red zone. Those are two areas in which San Francisco has excelled all year long, with the team having come up with 11 takeaways and yielding a league-low 28.6 percent touchdown rate inside its own 20-yard line. The pass rush has generally been good as well, with both Justin Smith (11 tackles, 2 sacks) and end Ray McDonald (9 tackles, 2.5 sacks) effective interior rushers up front and rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith (5 tackles) netting 1 1/2 sacks of Vick in last Sunday's win.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco has hardly put up eye-popping offensive numbers, as the team ranks just 28th in total yards (270.8 ypg) and is third-to-last in passing (177.5 ypg). However, the Niners have gotten notably efficient play under center from Alex Smith (795 passing yards, 4 INT, 1 INT), with the cerebral signal-caller completing better than 67 percent of his attempts and committing only two turnovers over the first four games. A ground game that had been relatively non-existent through the first three weeks broke out big against the Eagles, with workhorse back Frank Gore (275 rushing yards, 2 TD, 8 receptions) amassing 127 yards and a key touchdown on just 15 carries while playing on a sprained ankle and the offense generating 164 rushing yards overall. Athletic tight end Vernon Davis (19 receptions, 1 TD) is the headliner of a rather pedestrian group of receivers that will be without veteran wideout Braylon Edwards (sprained knee) for a third straight week, though the inconsistent and injury-prone Michael Crabtree (9 receptions) had an encouraging five-catch, 68- yard output last Sunday. Expect Smith to incorporate Gore and backfield mate Kendall Hunter (68 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions), both of whom are capable pass-catchers, into the game plan as receivers, which will help neutralize the struggles of a front line that's allowed 14 sacks already this year.
The 49ers may be more inclined to air it out this week against a Tampa defense that was susceptible to the big play on Monday, surrendering long touchdown passes of 87 and 59 yards to the Colts. On the positive side, the group did record four sacks of Indianapolis fill-in quarterback Curtis Painter, with end Michael Bennett (13 tackles, 2 sacks) accounting for two of those takedowns, and rookie counterpart Adrian Clayborn (6 tackles, 2 sacks) has produced a sack in each of the last two weeks. Another 2011 draft choice, middle linebacker Mason Foster (26 tackles, 2 sacks), has helped key a run-stopping effort that's been superb as of late, with the Buccaneers keeping Indianapolis to a non- threatening 62 rushing yards a week after permitting just 30 on 15 attempts in a big win over Atlanta. Tampa Bay also prevented Gore from doing any damage in last November's bout, with the accomplished San Francisco back gaining a modest 23 yards on 12 carries in that game. The pass rush was working that day as well, with the Bucs compiling a total of six sacks.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Neither of these teams can be termed as offensive juggernauts, so it's important each maximizes their scoring opportunities that will be available, which could be few. The Buccaneers have had their problems operating in the red zone in the early going, which is a concern when considering how stingy San Francisco's defense has been in that part of the field.
Keep the mistakes to a minimum. The 49ers have done a very good job of doing just that this season, having turned it over only three times while assembling a plus-eight takeaway-to-giveaway ratio that's tied with unbeaten Detroit for tops in the NFL. Tampa Bay has been hurt by penalties at times, but was able to overcome drawing an unacceptable 14 flags totaling 106 yards on Monday in part because it played a turnover-free game.
San Francisco offensive line vs. Tampa Bay pass rush: The Buccaneers relentlessly harassed Niners quarterback Troy Smith in last season's shutout and have registered eight sacks over the last two weeks. That could be a problem for a San Francisco blocking corps that's had issues protecting Alex Smith. If the 49ers aren't able to run the ball well on Sunday, the offense could be in
The 49ers may not be overly talented, but they've shown a knack for playing smart and disciplined football and have completely bought in to Harbaugh's philosophies. The Buccaneers also possess an unwavering confidence that the exuberant Morris has instilled, and that swagger has often carried a young team that really hasn't put it all together as of yet. Expect this game to be close, as all of Tampa's first four outings have been decided by seven or less points and each of San Francisco's past three tests have had a margin of victory of five or fewer points. The Buccaneers were able to get away with some mistakes in earlier wins against Minnesota and Indianapolis, two teams that are in tatters at the moment, but may not be so fortunate against an opportunistic San Francisco squad.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 17, Buccaneers 13
10/07 18:09:02 ET