So how will the Bucs approach a meeting with the team that runs the ball more than any other team in the NFL? You guessed it.
“First and foremost, we know they’re going to try to establish the running game on us," said Buccaneer linebacker
The "they" in question is the San Francisco 49ers, who have run the ball on a league-high 53% of their offensive snaps this year, an almost-anachronistic percentage. It gets even more pronounced when the 49ers go on the road; they respond to hostile environments by running on nearly 56% of their plays and keeping their quarterback out of dangerous situations.
That quarterback is third-year man Colin Kaepernick, the 2012 sensation who threw and ran the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl and has an extremely powerful arm. He has at his disposal one of the players instrumental in beating the 49ers in that Super Bowl, former Baltimore Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin, as well as the fresh-off-injured-reserve Michael Crabtree, a former first-round pick. He also has one of the league's fastest tight ends in Vernon Davis running dangerous routes all over the field. Despite all of that, the Bucs still view running back Frank Gore as public enemy #1.
“I don’t know why people don’t focus on Frank Gore," said defensive tackle
McCoy's contention is backed up by the numbers. The 30-year-old Gore is seventh in the league with 931 rushing yards, he's averaging 4.2 yards a pop and he's already scored eight rushing touchdowns. Gore is reaping the benefits of running behind a star-studded San Francisco offensive line that features four players who have been to the Pro Bowl or been an alternate for the all-star game.
"Frank Gore … is still running at a very high level: great vision, patience, strength," said Schiano. "I remember when we were recruiting Frank when I was down at the University of Miami. You should have seen his high school tape – phenomenal – and he’s only gotten better and better. You’re talking about a great group of skill people and then a really, really good offensive line – probably the best offensive line we’ve been up against."
* The Buccaneers held five players out of practice on Wednesday: defensive end
Nicks, of course, hasn't played or practiced since undergoing foot surgery in Week Five of the season. Bowers, Jackson and Joseph all played against Buffalo in Week 14 after being limited during the previous practice week by the same injuries, though Joseph added a shoulder issue to his knee ailment against the Bills. Zuttah is the new addition to this list, having left the Buffalo game early with a shoulder injury of his own. It is common for veterans like Jackson and Joseph to get added rest at this late date in the season, particularly if they are nursing minor injuries. Whether any of these injuries are serious enough to affect the starting lineup against San Francisco will probably not be obvious until Friday.
Meanwhile, rookie defensive end William Gholston sustained a head injury in the Buffalo game and thus must be run through the NFL-mandated concussion protocol this week. So far, Gholston has done fine on his tests and he was able to practice without limitations on Wednesday; however, the tests will continue throughout the week.
* Tampa Bay beat Buffalo by three touchdowns on Sunday despite a relatively low net yardage mark of 246. It looked like the Buccaneers were off to a big day when they finished the first half with 218 yards and 24 points, but the offense produced just 28 yards and three points after the intermission. That continues a troublesome trend in 2013, as the Bucs have scored 174 points in the first halves of their 13 games combined – notably, that's 29 more points than they've allowed in the first half – but just 70 in the second half.
The game situation played a part in the drop-off against Buffalo, of course. The Bucs opened the second half with a 21-point lead and were enjoying a stifling performance by their defense. The decision to focus on the run in the second half to drain the clock and avoid negative plays was certainly a defensible one, particularly because it worked. Still, the Bucs weren't trying to shut themselves down after halftime on Sunday, and were thus disappointed by their offensive output in the second half despite the encouraging victory.
"We know as an offense the second half hasn't been great, so that's one thing we've been working on," said wide receiver
Underwood averaged 61 yards per game in his first four starts in place of the injured
"There's no excuse for that," he said. "As a receiver, if the ball touches your hands your supposed to catch it. It's my job to do that. Mike put it where he needed to put it and I've got to make that play for him."
* The Buccaneers made it through the first three days of the week without making a change to their 53-man roster, something that hadn't been possible since Week Six, when they were coming back off their bye. However, a change was made to the eight-man practice squad on Wednesday, likely prompted by all the offensive linemen being held out of practice to start the week.
The Bucs have re-signed Richard Clebert, a former University of South Florida player as well as a former member of the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm. Clebert first signed with the Buccaneers in January and spent several months practicing with the team until his release in May. At the time, he was working at defensive tackle, the position he played at USF. However, upon his return to the team on Wednesday the Bucs gave him jersey number 64 and told him to join the offensive linemen. He will get a look at center as the team begins to contemplate what the roster will look like heading into the 2014 offseason.
“We’re going to try him and work him at center a little bit," said Schiano of Clebert. "Again this is the time of year you kind of bring guys through and get ready for who you want to have on your roster at the end of the season.”
Clebert started at nose tackle for three seasons for the Bulls, registering 31 tackles as a senior and 22 as a junior. He got a tryout with the Saints after going undrafted in 2009 but eventually ended up with the New York Sentinels of the United Football League. He has spent most of the past four years playing in the Arena League, seeing time with four different teams and winning a pair of league titles.