Having won nine of their previous 11 away games and their last three trials in the Pacific Time Zone, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to San Francisco in Week Five hoping to continue on their road back to the playoffs.
Instead, they hit what they hope was a minor detour.
Tampa Bay's 48-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on Sunday was, in terms of scoring margin, the team's worst defeat since another memorable trip to the West Coast a dozen years earlier. In 1999, the Bucs lost 45-0 at Oakland in Week 15 but then won their next three games to advance all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
Obviously, the Buccaneers would like to rebound from Sunday's loss as rapidly and thoroughly, and they won't have to wait long for a golden opportunity. Tampa Bay returns home in Week Six for a date with the New Orleans Saints that could help them recapture a share of first place in the rugged NFC South. The Bucs fell to 3-2 with the loss at San Francisco while the Saints improved to 4-1 with a narrow win at Carolina earlier in the day.
That the outcome only cost the Bucs one game in the standings is about the only comfort the visiting team could take from the afternoon. San Francisco took control of the action early and was superior in all three phases of the game in tying for the sixth most points ever scored against a Tampa Bay team. QB Alex Smith continued his strong play in 2011 with an 11-of-19 passing performance for 170 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 127.2. With Frank Gore picking up 125 of the 49ers' 213 rushing yards, the home team finished with an overall yardage edge of 418 to 272.
San Francisco, which improved to 4-1 with the win in its first year under Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, also won the turnover battle, 3-1, and prevailed in the field-position war on the strength of Ted Ginn's three punt returns for 51 yards. The Bucs surrendered three sacks on the day and did not record a QB takedown on special teams.
Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman matched a season-high with two interceptions, the first of which was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by CB Carlos Rogers. CB Chris Culliver set up Gore's two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter with the second pick off Freeman, and 49er defenders batted down or stole a total of nine of his passes. Freeman completed 17 of 33 passes for 187 yards and no touchdowns.
RB LeGarrette Blount looked strong early but finished with just 10 runs for 34 yards, due mostly to the increasing difference on the scoreboard. Four different backs helped the Bucs rush for 86 yards on 23 carries.
DT Gerald McCoy sustained an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return. S Sean Jones led the Buccaneers with eight solo tackles and a pass defensed. LB Dekoda Watson, playing in place of the injured Quincy Black, added seven tackles, one for a loss.
The 49ers deferred after winning the toss and made the strategy work with a three-and-out followed by a four-play touchdown drive. The Bucs hurt themselves on the opening drive with a motion penalty, then drew an encroachment foul to help San Francisco get its first touchdown. Ginn's 22-yard punt return had allowed San Francisco to start at midfield, and four plays later Smith threw a pretty spiral between several defenders to hit TE Delanie Walker for a 26-yard touchdown.
The Bucs answered with a long drive of their own but stalled inside the 10. WR Arrelious Benn got it started with a nifty 33-yard gain on a little screen pass to the left, and Parker caught a 13-yard pass to put the Bucs into the red zone. However, Freeman's third-down pass attempt to Mike Williams at the front of the end zone was incomplete and the Bucs had to settle for Barth's 24-yard field goal.
A swap of turnovers ended up hurting the Bucs after San Francisco had driven deep into Tampa Bay territory again. Gore fumbled at the Tampa Bay 11, with LB Mason Foster recovering, but two plays later, on the first snap of the second quarter, Rogers read an intermediate seam pass to Winslow and came off his man to intercept Freeman's pass and return it 31 yards for another 49ers touchdown.
Freeman threw another pick minutes later, ending what had been a promising drive keyed by consecutive big gains by Winslow and Benn. Freeman looked to WR Micheal Spurlock on third-and-nine from the San Francisco 38, but Culliver had tight coverage and he came away with the ball after a brief struggle with Spurlock. That turnover also led to a score as a pass-interference call on LB Dekoda Watson put the ball at the one and Gore scored on a two-yard carry two plays later.
The 49ers tacked on a 37-yard David Akers field goal late in the second quarter following a rare short punt by Koenen and a 21-yard run by Gore. The Bucs tried to get their offense in gear before halftime but gained no more than 20 yards on any of their last three possessions.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Friday night's game.)
The 49ers' offense picked right back up to start the second half, with Gore getting around right end for a gain of 14. However, Gore's next run was good for only four and Watson made a fine sideline tackle on TE Vernon Davis on second down. After a holding call erased a scrambling completion by Smith to Davis on the sideline, Crabtree converted a third-and-14 with a quick slant and a slip past two tacklers at the end. Morgan turned a bubble-screen on the left side into a 24-yard ramble to the Bucs' 23, and Davis carried two tacklers with him into the end zone for a touchdown and a 31-3 lead on the next play.
After another touchback, the Bucs' next drive began with Winslow's 10-yard catch over the middle but Head Coach Raheem Morris drew a 15-yard flag from the sideline to push the ball back to the 17. Freeman found Winslow again with a precise 13-yard pass to the left sideline, then drew two tacklers to him with a second-down scramble before flipping it to Blount for a 29-yard gain. Three plays later, on third-and-two, Freeman tried a back-shoulder throw to Williams but it was broken up by Culliver. The Bucs went for it on fourth-and-two and another attempt to Williams was incomplete.
From his own 33, Gore took off on a 19-yard jaunt around right tackle, though a false start moved the Niners back five yards before the next play. CB Aqib Talib nearly picked off Smith's next throw, but Gore found a huge seam up the middle on the next play to run all the way to the Bucs' 35. A defensive holding call and a 14-yard run by Kendall Hunter took the ball down to the Bucs' 16. The Bucs bottled up Hunter's next two runs but S Sean Jones delivered a late hit after the second one and that made it first-and-goal at the six. An incompletion and a hustling tackle by LB Geno Hayes on an unusual handoff to Davis made it third-and-goal again, and Smith's next pass went right though Mack's hands. The 49ers brought out Akers to give them three more points on a 27-yard field goal.
The Bucs' ensuing drive lasted only three plays as, on the second of two straight catches by Williams, the receiver was hit hard by S Dashon Goldson and forced to fumble. The Niners recovered at Tampa Bay's 36 but soon faced a fourth-and-two at the 29. After switching sides to start the fourth quarter, San Francisco lined up for a 46-yard field goal and Akers banged his third field goal home to give the home team a 37-3 lead. Or, at least it did for a few moments, until LB Dekoda Watson was flagged for "leverage" on the field goal attempt, giving the 49ers a first down at the 14. Davis' second touchdown on a 14-yard catch came one play later to make it 41-3.
The Bucs had to start over at their own eight after S Colin Jones tackled Parker inside the 10 on the following kickoff. They got the ball to the 38 on a Winslow catch followed by a personal foul against Goldson, then faced a third-and-five at the 43. Williams ran a sharp route from the sideline across the field and Freeman found him for a gain of 13. Two runs by rookie RB Allen Bradford made it third-and-six at the San Francisco 40, and Freeman was sacked by Justin Smith after stepping up in the pocket and looking downfield. The resulting punt was fair caught at the San Fran 11.
Hunter flipped the field position quickly with a 44-yard run around left end, and rookie QB Colin Kaepernick, relieving Smith, fired an 11-yard completion to Walker. After two Hunter runs picked up another first down, the Niners faced a third-and-eight at the Bucs' 25 and Kaepernick tried to move the chains with a quick out to Morgan. The play came up three yards short but the Niners elected to keep the offense on the field and another catch by Morgan took the ball down to the one-yard line. Two plays later, RB Anthony Dixon got San Francisco's sixth touchdown on a one-yard run.
Josh Johnson came in to direct the Bucs' last drive and did get the ball to midfield, but the Bucs eventually punted and the Niners ran out the clock with a pair of kneel-downs.
Game Notes: San Francisco now leads the all-time series with Tampa Bay 16-4, including a record of 12-2 at home. … Rookies CB Anthony Gaitor and RB Allen Bradford each played their first career regular-season games on Sunday. Bradford got his first two carries in the fourth quarter, gaining four yards, and Gaitor recorded his first career tackle in the fourth quarter. … TE Kellen Winslow turned in five catches for 54 yards on the day, running his streak to consecutive games played with at least one reception to 81.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, S Devin Holland, LB Zac Diles, LB Quincy Black, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee and TE Luke Stocker. Stroughter, Holland, Diles, Black, Lee and Stocker were out due to injury.
The 49ers declared these seven inactives: QB Scott Tolzien, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Tramaine Brock, FB Moran Norris, G Daniel Kilgore, G Mike Person and DT Isaac Sopoaga. Edwards, Brock, Norris and Sopoaga were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Gerald McCoy sustained an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return.
For the 49ers, WR Josh Morgan suffered an apparent ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.