To take down the NFC’s defending champs, the Buccaneers will need to crack a defense that has allowed the third-fewest points in the league and is top-five against both the run and the pass. Tampa Bay will also try to stop the NFL's seventh-leading ballcarrier in Frank Gore, who runs behind perhaps the NFL's most talented offensive line.
HEAD COACH: Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach of the 49ers in January of 2011 after four years at the helm at Stanford and has experienced nothing but success in his jump to the NFL. The 49ers went 13-3 in his first season before losing in the conference championship game in overtime, then went all the way to the Super Bowl last year. With a 9-4 start this year, the 49ers have run their regular-season record under Harbaugh to 36-11-1.
OFFENSE: There is one obvious defining factor to San Francisco’s offense: The 49ers run the football.
No team in the NFL keeps it on the ground more than the 49ers, who have run on 53% of their plays so far this year. Not surprisingly, San Francisco ranks sixth in the NFL in that category, with 133.2 yards per game, but last through the air, at 178.3 yards per outing. The strong running game begins up front, where left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and center Jonathan Goodwin have all been to the Pro Bowl, while right guard Alex Boone has been a Pro Bowl alternate. Iupati has missed the last three games due to a knee injury but was able to participate in practice in a limited fashion on Wednesday. Reaping the benefits of that strong blocking is veteran tailback Frank Gore, still going strong at 30 years old. Gore ranks seventh in the NFL with 931 rushing yards and is averaging an excellent 4.2 yards per tote; he does most of his work between the tackles these days but is still capable of breaking off a long run, as he did for 51 yards last week to set up the 49ers’ game-winning field goal against Seattle. Kendall Hunter provides Gore with excellent relief (254 yards, 3.9 per carry), but it is the scary running ability of quarterback Colin Kaepernick that puts San Francisco’s rushing game over the top. Kaepernick has run for 407 yards, three touchdowns and 5.2 yards per pop, some of it on designed runs and some on scrambles.
Given the strength of their ground game, it’s not surprising that the 49ers rank seventh in the NFL in TD percentage when they get inside the red zone. They are slightly below average in converting third downs, at 36.8%, but have turned the ball over just 18 times, tied for 12th in the league. Bottom line, despite an attack that ranks 28th in the league in yards gained, San Francisco has scored 24.3 points per game, tied for 11th in the NFL.
DEFENSE: While Kaepernick was the hot story for the 49ers during their run to the Super Bowl last year – and for good reason – the San Francisco defense probably deserved as much if not more credit. The 49ers had the NFL's third-ranked defense but were actually number one in the most important category: points allowed. The 49ers were stingy across the board, ranking fourth against both the run and the pass. Not much has changed in 2013; through 13 weeks the 49ers are fourth in yards allowed, third in points allowed, 10th against the run and fourth against the pass.
Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano called San Francisco's linebacking corps one of the best in the league, and indeed it doesn't get much more imposing than Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The 49ers employ a 3-4 front, so Smith and Brooks are primarily edge rushers, with a total of 15 sacks between them. Smith missed a good portion of the middle of the season dealing with a personal issue but still has 6.5 sacks this year to add to the incredible 33.5 he had in his first two NFL seasons. Smith was a first-team AP All-Pro last year and Brooks a second-teamer, and the men between them, Willis and Bowman, have combined for eight first-team selections. Willis has long been considered one of the most complete and impactful linebackers in the NFL and only London Fletcher has posted more tackles since 2007. One of only 17 players in league history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons, Willis remains in his prime at 28 years old and this year has 106 tackles, two sacks, 14 QB pressures and two forced fumbles. It's Bowman that actually leads the 49ers in tackles – and the entire league, for that matter – with 160, along with four sacks, 17 pressures, six passes defensed and three forced fumbles.
While the 49ers have gotten most of their sacks off the edges, they still have one of the NFL's most accomplished interior linemen taking care of business at the line of scrimmage. Justin Smith leads all defensive linemen in tackles since 2001 with 834 and this year has 96 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Smith routinely collapses the pocket from within; according to the 49ers' own statistical compilation, he has 49 quarterback hits and 73 QB pressures this year.
The 49ers are sixth in the NFL in stopping opponents on third down, allowing a 34.4% success rate. Opposing quarterbacks have a combined 73.3 passer rating and running backs are picking up 3.9 yards per tote. Since Harbaugh took over, the 49ers have allowed 3.65 yards per carry on first-down runs and 3.70 on second-down runs, both first in the entire NFL.
SPECIAL TEAMS: If you're looking for a 49er weakness to exploit, you won't find it here. Across the board, San Francisco may have the best kick-and-return game in the NFL.
Dawson, meanwhile, has followed up his 2012 Pro Bowl campaign with another strong season, making 23 of 26 field goal attempts. His career field goal success rate of 84.3% ranks first in NFL history among kickers with at least 300 tries. He can make the long-range kick, hitting on three of five tries this year of 50 years or longer, and in his career making 69.2% of such attempts.
The 49ers' return game has actually been fairly average, with LaMichael James and Kyle Williams combining for a 7.8-yard average on punts and a variety of players combining for 22.3 yards per kickoff return. However the 49er coverage team has been effective, ranking seventh in the NFL by allowing a 21.0-yard mark on kickoff returns. The 49ers' special teams have also blocked two punts this year, tying the Buccaneers in that category.