Key 1: Cause an Earthquake with Blount
Twenty-six games and counting is the streak of the 49ers not allowing an opposing running back to rush for 100 yards, which is the longest current streak in the NFL. Allowing just 74 yards per game rushing, this Niners defense will provide the Buccaneers' offensive line its stiffest test so far this year.
While it is not a must for Blount to get 100 yards for Tampa Bay to win (see last year's 84-yard effort in the Bucs' 21-0 win) it certainly won’t hurt. And hey, breaking streaks is fun! In all seriousness a successful rushing attack has been an excellent formula in the last three weeks, all resulting in wins. Tampa Bay stands a much better chance of leaving the "City by the Bay" with four wins if Blount can impose his will on the Niners' front seven.
Key 2: Bring Smith Back to Earth
Where has the erratic, deer-in-the-headlights-looking Alex Smith gone in 2011? In Smith’s first six NFL seasons he was only able to hit the 60 percent completion percentage plateau once (60.5 percent in 2009) and through his career had only thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in a season twice. But head coach Jim Harbaugh has worked his mojo with Smith so far in 2011 and the former University of Utah standout is having his best season since his college playing days.
So far in 2011 under Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman (Smith’s seventh different O.C. in seven years) Smith finally looks like the quarterback 49ers fans have been expecting since he was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft. With a 97.7 QB rating, four TD’s and only one interception, arguably no NFL player is having a better turnaround season/career like Smith.
Just as the running attack has come on for the Buccaneers in recent weeks, so has the pass rush. With eight sacks in the last two games Keith Millard’s band of pass rushers is finally starting to showcase its abilities. In order for the Buccaneers to win Sunday players like Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett must pressure Smith into thinking it is 2006 all over again.
Key 3: Put the Brakes On Gore
There is a reason Frank Gore is a perennial top-10 fantasy pick every year. The former Hurricane is a load with deceptive shiftiness and speed.
The last two weeks the Buccaneers have been able to contain two of the better running backs in the league in Michael Turner and Joseph Addai, holding both to less than 100 combined yards. And it is no coincidence the Buccaneers were victorious in those two games. Even in the Minnesota game Adrian Petersen didn’t gouge the Buccaneers and the run defense was a big part in Tampa Bay’s come-from-behind victory.
The Buccaneers did a good job last season in stopping Gore and the San Francisco rushing attack last season (12 carries, 23 yards) allowing the defense to dare Troy Smith to throw the ball. Smith struggled and Tampa Bay came home with the 21-0 win.
Last week the Buccaneers defense line totaled 17 tackles and will need to have similar numbers Sunday against San Francisco. Gore is a bruiser and if he can get a head of steam to the second level it could be a long day for the Buccaneers linebackers and secondary.
Key 4: Be Special On Special Teams
As reported by PewterReport.com’s Eric Horchy Saturday in his special teams preview story, the 49ers boast one of the top special teams units in the NFL led by speedy return man Teddy Ginn Jr. Raheem Morris expects a battle.
“I feel like it’s going to be a heavyweight fight with those guys,” Morris said. “Our special teams have been really good; their special teams have been really good. It’s two young teams going out there competing.”
Morris’s tradition of success in promoting from within seems to have worked again with Dewayne Stukes’ unit performing even better than under longtime coordinator Rich Bisaccia. On the season the coverage units are standing out, as Tampa Bay is second in the NFL for total opponent kick return yards. Part of this success has been Michael Koenen’s ability to kickoff deep, with only seven of his kickoffs even attempted to be returned.
The 49ers are third in the NFL in kickoff return average at 33.5 per return so this will be as Morris said: a matchup of heavyweights.
Punt coverage has also been stellar, as the Buccaneers have limited punt returns by opponents to just 4.8 yards per return, which ranks fifth in the NFL. Like on kickoffs, the weapon Tampa Bay has in Koenen is a huge factor.
In a game that may be decided by a field goal, the placekickers figure to play a prominent role this week. Conner Barth has been solid but did suffer his first miss of the season last week against the Colts, clanking one off the right upright in the first quarter. San Francisco counters with one of the best in the league in David Akers, who on the season is 8-for10 with a long of 55 yards.
Key 5: Rebound From a Short Week and a West Coast Trip
From 1976 to 2008 the Buccaneers were a dreadful 4-28 on visits to the west coast. But since 2009 the Buccaneers have been, as Morris joked this week, “west coast killers.” Since 2009 Tampa Bay is 3-0 on trips to the Pacific Time zone with wins at Seattle, Arizona and, of course, last season’s 21-0 victory at San Francisco.
This trip poses an additional problem, however, as the Buccaneers' schedule has been a day behind because of the Monday night matchup with Indy. Not only has Tampa Bay lost a day, they decided to leave a day earlier than normal, choosing to fly out Friday rather than the usual Saturday.
None of the Bucs players or coaches feels it will be much of a hindrance, but chances are there will be some fatigue issues. Of course one good thing about being one of the youngest teams in the NFL is younger players tend to recover easier and much faster, whether it be from injury or even time-zone changes.
Final Analysis: This game is one that early in the season looked like an easily checked off win. However few saw the 49ers going east and knocking off the dream team from Philly in the manner in which they did. Jim Harbaugh looks like the perfect coaching choice as he commands the respect from Niners players and is working magic with Alex Smith.
The Buccaneers are coming off a hard-fought, emotionally draining game last Monday and may suffer some ill effects from the short week.
Cook’s Prediction: 49ers 21, Buccaneers 20
Reynolds Prediction: Buccaneers: 23, 49ers 20
Horchy’s Prediction: Buccaneers 23, 49ers 17