In January of 2007, mere days after he had accepted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' position of defensive backs coach and returned to the team after one year as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State, Raheem Morris accompanied the Buccaneers' staff to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
There, Morris coached such future NFL players as Leon Hall, Aaron Rouse and Eric Weddle, members of the South roster. Though he didn't tutor them directly, Morris also got a close look at Ohio State's Troy Smith, a quarterback for the South, and Mississippi's Patrick Willis, a linebacker for the North.
Three months later, Smith would be drafted in the fifth round by Baltimore and Willis would go 11th overall to the San Francisco 49ers, who not coincidentally had coached the North team in that '07 Senior Bowl.
Morris remembers those two players quite well, and recalls being quite impressed by both. He is thrilled that Smith and Willis are now playing very well at the NFL level; he's maybe a little less than thrilled that his Buccaneers have to face both players this Sunday at Candlestick Park.
Willis has been a star since the moment he arrived in San Francisco, matching his Pro Bowl trips to his number of seasons. Smith, meanwhile, had an up-and-down three seasons in Baltimore before landing as a backup with the 49ers, where a recent injury to starter Alex Smith created an opportunity.
Now Willis and Smith might be the two players the Buccaneers most need to contain on Sunday if they are to improve their record to 7-3 and keep up with the breakneck pace of the competitive NFC South. Willis leads an underrated defense that stops the run well and is stingy on third downs; Smith has, in two starts, unlocked the potential of an attack that includes big-play makers in TE Vernon Davis, RB Frank Gore and WR Michael Crabtree. The 49ers are 2-0 in Smith's two starts and are starting to look like the team that was favored by many to win the NFC West.
As Morris put it: "That's a very talented football team."
Willis' presence makes the 49ers difficult to run on; they rank 10th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game and eighth in yards allowed per rush. His sideline-to-sideline range makes him a threat in coverage, as well.
"He was in that Senior Bowl on the other side, and he was impressive," said Morris. "We saw him in the game hit people and run and be exciting. Then we went up there a couple years ago and played them – he was a rookie – and he made some dynamic plays then. He's fast, he's explosive, he's one of the better Mikes in the game and we've got a lot of respect for him. But we've got to go out and treat him like any other opponent. We've got to present our best selves and make him work for everything he gets."
Smith's emergence is more sudden. He's already matched his total of starts in three seasons with the Ravens and the 49ers have averaged 380 yards of offense in those two outings. Smith has been especially good on the deep ball, as evidenced by his robust 11.74 yards per pass attempt. Smith's instant success might be a surprise to some but not to Morris, who has been close to the former Buckeye since that Senior Bowl meeting.
"He has the "It" factor," said Morris. "He can stand there and deliver the football and he's always been that way. Everybody's enamored by measurables. Everybody's enamored of size, strength, arm power, those things. He just has some of those things you can't account for. He may be shorter than some quarterbacks in this league, but he's certainly not afraid to stand in there. He delivers the ball with timing and precision and he's able to lead a football team. He commands respect from other people and I think that's what he's brought to the San Francisco 49ers and I think that's why they've taken to him."
Morris would obviously like to see Smith continue his success in San Francisco…just not this week. Can the Buccaneers slow down the suddenly potent 49er attack, and at the same time find a way around Willis on defense? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Bucs got center Jeff Faine back last week and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) may not be far behind. The Bucs are also hoping for a return from fullback Earnest Graham but started the week without linebacker Quincy Black or defensive end Kyle Moore practicing.
San Francisco: The 49ers will play Sunday's game without star left tackle Joe Staley, who suffered a fractured fibula in the team's win over St. Louis. Kicker Joe Nedney (knee) and cornerback William James (concussion) are also out.
- Josh Freeman, QB, Buccaneers. Don't look now, but Freeman's passer rating, on a steady climb since he took over the starting job midway through his rookie season, has now climbed over 90. In that category, he's now ranked right between Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco, and the arrow is moving upward. In his last three games, Freeman has completed 66.2% of his passes and thrown five touchdowns, leading the Bucs to two wins and one near-miss in Atlanta.
- Aqib Talib, CB, Buccaneers. Talib has gone two straight games without an interception, so why call him "hot" now? As Talib has been proving in recent weeks, becoming a star cornerback in the NFL is about more than picking off passes (though he is tied for second in the NFL in that category). The third year player has begun to emerge as an extremely strong run support player, as evidenced by his 22 tackles over the past three games. He's also broken up five passes in that span.
+Troy Smith, QB, 49er. Alex Smith may have trouble getting his job back. Injured in his seventh start of the season against Carolina, Smith had compiled a 75.0 passer rating while the 49ers started 1-6. Former Raven Troy Smith has started the last two games, both San Francisco wins, and been a revelation, completing 29 of 47 passes (61.7%) for 552 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 116.7 passer rating.
+Justin Smith, DT, 49ers. It's all about the Smiths in San Fran. Justin, the 10th-year vet who has seamlessly transitioned from 4-3 end to 3-4 tackle, has been a big part of the 49ers' two-game winning streak, recording three sacks and 10 tackles in victories against Denver and St. Louis. Smith has all five of his sacks in the last five weeks and has now reached that mark for the ninth time in his 10 NFL seasons.
- Cadillac Williams, RB, Buccaneers. Williams' hottest moment was his most recent, a 45-yard game-clinching touchdown run at the end of the Bucs' win over Carolina. This wasn't a single isolated good play, however. In addition to his always stellar pass protection, Williams has begun to emerge as a very real threat as a third-down back. He has two 80-yard performances in his last five outings, plus both of his touchdowns in that span, and he's clearly poised to wring even more out of his new role.
- Gerald McCoy, DE, Buccaneers. Like Talib, McCoy has come on strong in the last three weeks in areas that don't light up the stat pages in the highest-profile category – in this case, sacks. Tampa Bay coaches have raved about McCoy's improved production over the past three games, in which he has recorded 13 tackles, six QB pressures, three tackles for loss, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. All of which adds up to this: The sacks won't be far behind.
- Taylor Mays, S, 49ers. The 49ers grabbed the former USC star in the second round of the 2010 draft, thinking his size (6-3, 230) and outstanding speed could make their secondary instantly more physical. It took four games for Mays to crack the starting lineup, but he turned in 11 tackles in his first NFL start. Mays is still looking for his first NFL interception or forced fumble, but the 49ers believe the big plays will come.
- Ted Ginn, WR, 49ers. Ginn hasn't become a big part of the 49ers' passing attack since coming over in a trade with Miami in April, catching just five passes so far. However, the former first-round pick has handled most of San Francisco's kickoff and punt return duties, with strong 24.3 and 8.6-yard averages, respectively. It may be just a matter of time until the speedster breaks a long one for a TD, as he did twice in 2009 on kickoff returns and once in 2007 on a punt return.
- Thanks to the sometimes inventive playmaking of Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay's offense has recently become much better at converting long third downs. Over the last two weeks, the Bucs have faced 14 third downs of seven or more yards and converted exactly half of them. Six of those 14 third downs were actually from 11 or more yards away, and Freeman, with help from Cadillac Williams, moved the sticks on three of those.
- When the Buccaneers stopped Carolina QB Jimmy Clausen on two sneak attempts from the one-yard line at the end of last Sunday's game, it ended an unfortunate trend that had stretched back to Week Three of the season. The stop on Clausen, which came after the Panthers got a first down at the five, stopped a streak of 10 straight first-and-goal drives that had ended in touchdowns for Tampa Bay's opponents.
- Since Troy Smith took over the reins in Week Eight, San Francisco's offense has significantly picked up its big-play potential. Despite playing only two games over the last three weeks, the 49ers are tied for third in the NFL in that span in passing plays of 25 or more yards, with nine (the Bucs, by the way, are next with eight). Under Smith, the 49ers have averaged a robust 11.74 yards per pass attempt.
- Amazingly, San Francisco won its game against St. Louis last week despite not converting a single one of 11 third-down tries on offense. The 49ers have struggled on third downs this year, with a 33.3% success rate that ranks 28th in the NFL, though it appeared they were making improvements at midseason. After converting 50.0% of their tries from Weeks 4-6, the 49ers have been good on just 24.3% in the three games since.
Johnnie Lynn, the 49ers' secondary coach and special assistant to the head coach, has toiled in the NFL for the past 17 years, including the last five seasons in San Francisco. That NFL journey actually began in Tampa in 1994, when Lynn made the jump from the college ranks at the University of Arizona and joined Head Coach Sam Wyche's staff as the defensive backs coach. Lynn spent two seasons in that capacity for the Buccaneers, tutoring such secondary standouts as John Lynch and Martin Mayhew. Lynn actually went to San Francisco for one season after leaving the Bucs but then spent the next nine years with the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens.
ONE TO WATCH
It might surprise some Bucs fans to learn that John Gilmore has started as many games this season (six) as his fellow Buccaneer tight end, Kellen Winslow. Gilmore hasn't replaced Winslow; rather, he often starts in two-TE sets and he plays a high percentage of the team's snaps because of his outstanding blocking ability. Winslow is obviously known as a premier receiving threat, but that often draws defensive attention in his direction. When the Bucs are operating out of a two-TE formation, Winslow's reputation can mean clean releases from the line for Gilmore, who caught three passes for 52 yards last week.