RB Michael Pittman will look to regain his momentum against the league's 16th-rated rush defense
In retrospect, it may have been against San Francisco that the Buccaneers' 2003 season turned, though it wasn't completely obvious at the time. Perhaps when Tampa Bay's 2004 season is reviewed, the same thing will be said, but for a wholly different reason.
Heading into San Fran last October, the league's defending champions had a 3-2 record and a dominating win at Washington in its last outing. The season had seen its ups and downs, thanks to a pair of bizarre losses to Carolina and Indy, but the Bucs felt as if they could have been undefeated, and were therefore quite confident. Plus, they had undressed San Francisco just nine months prior in the 2002 playoffs.
The 49ers controlled the afternoon, however, taking an easy 24-7 victory and the wind out of the Bucs sails. Tampa Bay would lose 4-5 and render a brief November and December comeback moot.
This time around, the Bucs are 3-6 and in virtual must-win mode. Obviously, 10-6 is still theoretically within reach, and even nine wins might get an NFC team or two into the postseason this year, but those scenarios leave little room for missteps. If Tampa Bay is to pull off a dramatic turn back into the playoff race, it will likely have to start this weekend. If that kind of surprise ending came to pass, the team would surely look back to the San Francisco game as the starting point.
A win in Atlanta on Sunday would have put the Bucs in a much better position. And the game was within reach for most of the second half after the visitors' impressive rally from 17 down. In the end, the Bucs didn't make enough plays when it counted, but even that loss did not rob the team of its confidence.
Because his team has played hard each and every week, Head Coach Jon Gruden is not ready to concede.
"We will continue to coach hard," said Gruden. "Try to coach upbeat and keep the fist rolled up. Keep fighting; that is what you have to do. There are a number of teams in pro football that are in similar streaks that we are. This team is in position to win every week. I have a lot of confidence in our football team and in our coaches."
The 49ers' season has been even rougher, as only a 31-28 overtime win over Arizona has kept San Francisco from a winless season. Still, every team is dangerous in the modern NFL, and the 49ers' 1-8 record might even be a cautionary omen for the Buccaneers. Essentially eliminated from the playoff race, San Francisco's every move could be unpredictable.
"We got our hands full this week with San Francisco who is going to come in here and give us a lot of looks," said Gruden. "They have nothing to lose and they are going to give us everything they have."
In particular, the 49ers can give opponents trouble with their passing game, which ranks 11th in the NFL. It might stand even higher in those rankings had intended starter Tim Rattay not missed three games with a right forearm injury. The 49ers' offense struggled a bit behind Ken Dorsey but has thrown up 27 points in each of its last two games, both losses. Rattay has a nice 85.8 passer rating and has completed 64% of his passes, with 10 touchdown throws in six games.
And, predictably, the 49ers' offense revolves around a tight end, something the Bucs have seen for several weeks in a row. Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez put up more than 100 yards and a touchdown in a loss two weeks ago; Atlanta's Alge Crumpler did the same in a win on Sunday. San Francisco's Eric Johnson, meanwhile, leads the entire NFC in pass receptions. The Bucs know they have to account for the tight end more effectively, and now they have to do so with at least one of their starting safeties on the sideline, if not both. Jermaine Phillips is out with a fractured forearm and Dwight Smith is fighting a knee sprain.
QB Brian Griese is a bit sore, too, after absorbing seven sacks in Atlanta. He'll almost certainly be ready by Sunday, however, and that's good news for the Buccaneers, as Griese's hot play over the past month has led to an encouraging surge by Tampa Bay's offense. Against the 49ers, they'll face the league's 20th-ranked pass defense (19th overall), a group that has held its own at times despite injuries to CB Mike Rumph, CB Ahmed Plummer and LB Julian Peterson, who is outstanding in coverage.
With Griese at the helm, the Bucs have been able to move the ball down the field more consistently than they have in some time, though they came to a screeching halt in the fourth quarter at Atlanta thanks to protection problems against a horde of Falcon blitzers. Tampa Bay will need better protection against the 49ers, who have 19 sacks and are led by blitzing linebacker Jamie Winborn and ends John Engelberger and Andre Carter.
The Bucs also need to rediscover the running game that was so critical to wins over Chicago and Kansas City before the trip to Atlanta. After topping the 130-yard mark on the ground for two straight weeks, the Bucs were held to 68 rushing yards on Sunday in Atlanta. A fresh Michael Pittman will be looking for room to run against the league's 16th-ranked rush defense and such proven run defenders as DT Bryant Young, LB Derek Smith, LB Jeff Ulbrich and S Tony Parrish.
And they need to reestablish a foothold in the NFC playoff race. Even after Sunday's loss, the Bucs can take minor solace in the fact that there isn't a single second-place team in the conference with a record better than 5-4. That means Tampa Bay is two games back with seven to play (tiebreakers not considered). The key is not to spend next Monday thinking about what could have been.
"There is a lot of hovering going on out there, you know," said Gruden. "You see all of the scores and it obviously deepens the pain [of the loss in Atlanta], for not being able to win the game and gain more ground and certainly more momentum. But sometimes, the closer you get, the further away you are."