Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris may have been kidding – or at least stretching the point for effect – when he called his team "West Coast killers" earlier in the week.
This much is no joke, however: After Tampa Bay's dominant 21-0 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on Sunday, Morris' Buccaneers are legitimate contenders in the NFC playoff race.
The Buccaneers improved to 7-3 with their win, which marked their third straight victory on a trip out West. Tampa Bay prevailed 38-35 at Arizona in Week Eight and topped the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 15 of the 2009 season. Prior to that Seattle contest, Tampa Bay's all-time record in games against West Coast teams (defined here as Arizona, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland/L.A., Seattle and the Rams prior to their move to St. Louis) was 4-28.
If winning out West seems new, the way in which the Buccaneers executed the win felt like old times: Defense, defense and more defense. In fact, Sunday's game was Tampa Bay's first shutout on the road in more than seven years, since a 17-0 win at Philadelphia that opened the Buccaneers' Super Bowl title defense in 2003. It was also just the 10th shutout in franchise history overall, the sixth on the road, and only the third shutout by any team in the NFL this entire season.
And it was a total team effort. The Bucs allowed just 189 yards of offense, including a season-low 71 on the ground. They also sacked red-hot QB Troy Smith six times, their highest total in any game this season, and produced the game's only two takeaways, a forced fumble by LB Geno Hayes in the first quarter and a game-clinching interception by Ronde Barber in the fourth.
It was fitting that the veteran leader on a very young defense would provide the capping play. The pick was the 40th of his career, making him the first player in the entire history of the NFL to reach that milestone and have 25 sacks.
Barber's rookie teammate in the secondary, free safety Cody Grimm, had a marvelous afternoon as well, particularly in run support. He routinely came up to fill run gaps at the line, finishing with a team-high seven tackles. That helped the Bucs hold RB Frank Gore to just 23 yards on 12 carries; San Fran's rushing total would have been positively anemic if not for Smith's 45 yards of scrambles, most of it in the fourth quarter when the Bucs' defense was sagging back to avoid giving up the big completion.
DE Stylez G. White led the sack parade with 1.5 takedowns of Smith. He split his second one with rookie DT Gerald McCoy, who also split a sack in the first quarter with DE Al Woods. Those were McCoy's first sacks of the season. The Bucs also got sacks from DE Alex Magee, DE Michael Bennett and LB Adam Hayward.
Meanwhile, the Bucs' offense, if not necessarily as explosive as it had been in the last two wins over Arizona and Carolina, was certainly efficient. That helped the visitors control the clock all afternoon, finishing with a 36:24-23:36 edge in time of possession. The rushing attack produced 162 yards against the NFL's 10th-ranked rush defense, which had been allowing 100.7 yards per game coming into this weekend.
The Bucs also continued to develop their two-back system with veteran Cadillac Williams and dynamic rookie LeGarrette Blount. Blount was the 250-pound hammer for much of the afternoon, carrying 26 times for 82 yards. Williams came up big in the fourth period, finishing with 51 yards on seven carries, and also scored the game's first touchdown in the second quarter on a six-yard draw-play run. The Bucs also did not commit a turnover in the game and are now 20-2 since 2002 in games in which they completely avoid turnovers, including 3-0 this season.
QB Josh Freeman shook off a slightly sluggish start to finish with outstanding numbers once again. He completed 13 of 20 passes (including nine of 11 in the second half) for 136 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. After setting a career high with a passer rating of 134.2 last week in the win over Carolina, Freeman finished with a mark of 117.9 on Sunday. He gave the Bucs a two-score cushion in the third quarter with an eight-yard lob pass to rookie WR Mike Williams, then closed out the scoring in the fourth quarter with a play-action pass to T Donald Penn for a one-yard TD.
The Bucs certainly weren't afraid to try a few risks, either, as that pass to Penn indicated. In the first quarter, facing fourth-and-a-yard near midfield, they sent out the punt team but then shifted into a different formation with WR Micheal Spurlock taking a shotgun snap from Andrew Economos. Spurlock tried to roll right and throw a quick out to FB Earnest Graham, but the pass was broken up by RB Anthony Dixon. The next time the Bucs got the ball back, they brought in backup QB Josh Johnson for what one might call a Wildcat snap, and he ran around left end for a gain of 11. In the second quarter, Johnson came on again but this time faked a run and threw a seven-yard pass to Benn. The third-year passer actually logged about five plays from scrimmage, several on which he lined up as a wide receiver.
The Bucs' defense had one of its most alert starts of the season, shutting down the 49ers' running game early and keeping Smith from hitting any plays downfield. San Francisco's attack had thrived in Smith's first two starts, both victories, but Tampa Bay held it to just 32 yards in the first quarter, while also grabbing a takeaway on a Hayes' forced fumble.
Tampa Bay's offense didn't get much going in the opening quarter, either, and the game was still scoreless when the second period began. However, the Bucs had begun a solid drive before switching sides, and it continued in the second quarter, all the way to the opposite end zone. The 14-play, 80-yard march included four power runs by Blount for 29 yards, a key first-down scramble by Freeman and a third-and-one sneak at the seven-yard line. The final play was a second-down draw-play run by Cadillac Williams that covered the final six yards for the game's first score.
That was the only score of the first half, as the Bucs' defense stymied almost everything the 49ers attempted. The Bucs forced a quick punt after that failed-punt gambit, and by the end of the half had allowed only 64 yards of total offense. Most notably, Gore was stopped for just 13 yards on nine carries, and much of Smith's passing efforts were swing passes to his back.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
At first, the 49ers appeared to have made some good adjustments during the half, because they came out with a strong drive to start the third quarter. Smith looked down the middle of the field for Morgan and found him for a gain of 17. A holding call on C David Baas pushed the 49ers back but a 14-yard catch by TE Delanie Walker and an offside call on White kept the drive going into Buccaneer territory. That's where the Bucs' defense stiffened yet again, the key being a pass breakup by LB Dekoda Watson that nearly led to an interception.
The resulting punt pushed the Bucs back to their own six, but Freeman got them out of trouble with two passes to Winslow, the first an 11-yard play-action strike to start the drive and the second a 10-yard connection that converted a third-and-seven. Three plays later, Freeman kept the drive alive again with a receiver screen to WR Sammie Stroughter that converted a third-and-four thanks to a road-grading block by Penn. Two plays later, Freeman threw a deep out to WR Maurice Stovall, who slipped away from a defender and ran down the sideline for 22 yards to the 49ers' 30. The drive stalled at the San Francisco 24 and it ended without points, too, when Connor Barth missed a 41-yard field goal attempt, pushing it just left.
The Bucs' defense responded with Hayward sacking Smith for a loss of three on second down and CB E.J. Biggers stopping Morgan short of the first down on a third-and-11 throw over the middle. After the punt, the Bucs moved right back into scoring territory on just two plays. On first down, Freeman rolled right away from pressure and then threw back to the middle of the field, where Mike Williams cut off his route and came back to the ball for a gain of 33. On the next snap, Blount pushed off a pile in the middle, ran around right end and leaped over a defender for 17 yards. Two plays later, the Bucs faced a third-and-one at the eight after a seven-yard catch by Cadillac Williams, and they lined up with Blount in the backfield. Freeman eschewed the handoff, however, and lobbed a high pass to Mike Williams, who was covered one-on-one by CB Shawntae Spencer. Spencer was flagged for pass interference but it didn't matter because Williams fought him off and caught the pass. That gave the Bucs a 14-0 led with less than a minute to play in the third quarter.
The 49ers faced a third-and-one at their own 35 when that period came to an end. They converted that with a two-yard rollout pass to Gore, then quickly fell into another third-and-five at the 42. This time, great coverage downfield forced Smith to scramble and Grimm came up quickly to stop him three yards short of a first down. After initially sending out the punting team, the 49ers reconsidered and went for it on fourth down, burning a timeout in the process. The Bucs held again, this time creating a lot of traffic downfield as Smith tried to hit TE Vernon Davis on a seam pass but it was incomplete.
Clearly focused on running down the clock, the Bucs ran twice to no effect and then snapped to Freeman on third-and-11, but clearly with a mandate to be careful. Freeman eventually rolled to his right and held onto the ball, staying inbounds as he was sacked from behind by LB Patrick Willis. The Bucs punted from midfield and stopped return man Kyle Williams at the San Francisco 18.
The Bucs probably would have been content to force the 49ers to grind the clock, too, but Barber had different ideas. On the second play of the possession, the veteran cornerback snagged a pass intended for Morgan on the left sideline, reversed field and got all the way back to the San Francisco seven. A defensive holding call gave the Bucs a first down at the two. After two Blount runs failed to get the ball into the end zone, the Bucs lined Penn up on the left edge of the line, as an eligible receiver, and threw him a play-action pass. Penn showed nice hands in plucking a somewhat low pass for his first career score.
That gave the Bucs a three-TD lead with roughly eight minutes to play. Smith started the drive from his own 31 with a scramble up the middle for 11 yards. Magee nearly sacked him on the next play, forcing a throwaway, and White dropped him on second down for an 11-yard sack. Smith moved the chains, however, with a 23-yard strike to Morgan on third-and-21. With the Bucs' defense sagging back to avoid quick scores and burn the clock, the 49ers advanced into Tampa Bay territory and faced a third-and-three at the 39. Watson kept Smith from hitting WR Dominique Zeigler downfield on that play, and Smith missed again on fourth down when he tried to hit Zeigler on a fly.
The Bucs took over at their own 39 and ran Blount twice for a total of five yards. On third down, Cadillac Williams kept the drive alive, slicing over left guard and then zipping around a host of defenders for a 26-yard gain to the San Francisco 30. The 49ers chased Blount down in the backfield for a loss of eight on the ensuing snap, and his next run was good for just one, making it third-and-17. The 49ers used their second timeout with 3:12 remaining. One more run, by Graham, and San Francisco's last timeout set up a punt from the 34 and downed it at the San Francisco nine.
The 49ers came out in a hurry-up offense, obviously, and another Smith scramble produced a first down at the 27. A six-yard pass to Gore brought on the two-minute warning, and Magee sacked Smith after the stoppage for a loss of four. A personal foul call on Watson for hitting Smith with his helmet gave San Francisco a first down at their own 44, but they faced a third-and-two three plays later. LB Barrett Ruud knocked away a pass down the middle of the field and White finished the drive with a sack on fourth down.
Game Notes: The Bucs reduced the 49ers' lead in the all-time series to 15-4, including an 11-2 mark in San Francisco. Sunday's win marked Tampa Bay's first victory in San Francisco since 1980. … C Jeff Faine played in his 100th NFL game on Sunday and also made the 100th start of his career. … Rookie RB LeGarrette Blount was in on the first play of the game and thus was credited with his first career start. … One week after becoming the first team since 2002 to start seven rookies in a game and win, the Bucs started six against San Francisco: Blount, WRs Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, G Ted Larsen, DT Gerald McCoy and S Cody Grimm. … Tampa Bay's first scoring drive of the game, a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown march in the second quarter, consumed 7:31 off the clock. That made it the team's longest scoring drive of the season, touchdown or field goal, in terms of time elapsed. … WR Mike Williams' touchdown catch in the third quarter was his sixth of the season, leaving him one shy of Michael Clayton's 2004 record for TD receptions by a Buccaneers rookie. The Bucs are now 5-1 in games in which Williams scores. … QB Josh Freeman threw at least two touchdown passes in a game for the eighth time in his career. Tampa Bay is 6-2 in those contests. … San Francisco was shut out for the first time in over three seasons. The last team to shut out the 49ers was Seattle, which won 24-0 on November 12, 2007.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: FB Erik Lorig, LB Quincy Black, T Will Barker, T Derek Hardman, WR Preston Parker, DE Kyle Moore, DT Ryan Sims and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Black, Moore and Sims were out due to injury.
The 49ers deactivated these eight players: K Joe Nedney, CB Tramaine Brock, CB William James, LB Keaton Kristick, LB Thaddeus Gibson, T Joe Staley, T Alex Boone and designated third quarterback David Carr. Nedney, James and Staley were out due to injury.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.
For the 49ers, WR Josh Morgan sustained a shoulder injury in the third quarter but was able to return to the game. TE Vernon Davis suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.