QB Chris Simms will face a tough pass rush Sunday in San Francisco
A few weeks ago, it appeared as if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game at San Francisco on October 30 would feature offenses led by Brian Griese and Tim Rattay.
How quickly – and thoroughly – things have changed.
The quarterback matchup might now be the most interesting thing about this contest in California, but it's not likely to feature either Griese or Rattay.
Griese, of course, will definitely not play. The Buccaneers' starter for the first six games, he is now on injured reserve due to a knee sprain sustained against Miami. As such, third-year man Chris Simms will get his first start of the season and the third of his career.
Rattay will definitely not play for the 49ers. He's a Buccaneer now, having swapped Bay areas last Tuesday as a direct result of Griese's injury. Rattay, in fact, is likely to be the inactive third quarterback for the Bucs in San Francisco, which means there is very little chance he'll see any action in his old home.
But it doesn't end there. The 49ers traded Rattay in part to clear the way for Alex Smith, the first overall pick in the 2005 draft and the team's starter since Game Five. Rattay had held Smith off in training camp and opened the season as the starter, but the 1-5 Niners, 1-3 at the time of the switch, chose to accelerate the arrival of the franchise's future.
However, Smith is currently limping around on his own knee injury, sustained last Sunday at Washington. Official injury reports won't drop until Wednesday, but there is some concern in San Francisco that Smith will not be able to play Sunday against the Buccaneers. The 49ers' backups are Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett, who have a combined seven starts, all belonging to Dorsey last year. Don't feel bad for the 49ers, though; of all the quarterbacks likely to be dressed by the two teams, Dorsey has the most career NFL starts.
So is this Bucs-49ers game situated at the beginning of new eras for both teams? Well, the Bucs are optimistic that Griese will be returned to full health for 2006 and the veteran will certainly be looking to reclaim his job. Still, there is no denying that this is a golden opportunity for Simms to prove his worth as a starting NFL quarterback. The answer is clearer for the 49ers. Smith is undoubtedly the man they want leading the team for years; the only issue is how quickly he proves he can do it.
If Smith can play, he'll face a tough challenge against the Buccaneers' top-ranked defense, which is allowing only 233.3 yards per game this season and is notoriously hard on inexperienced passers. In his two starts, Smith has completed 23 of 50 passes for 200 yards, no touchdowns and five interceptions, and he has been sacked 12 times. The biggest potential problem for Smith is actually Tampa Bay's number-one rushing defense. If Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore can't move the ball on the ground, the Bucs' pass-rushers will "pin their ears back" and go after Smith (or Dorsey) rapaciously.
Simms, too, will face a good pass rush. Thanks to rejuvenated veteran Bryant Young (six sacks in six games) and do-everything linebacker Julian Peterson (2.5 sacks), the 49ers have dropped opposing quarterbacks 16 times already. That's one more sack than the Bucs' defense has managed. The 49ers, while ranking 32nd in pass defense and 32nd in overall defense, also have some veteran defenders in the secondary – Tony Parrish, Ahmed Plummer – who could make Simms pay if the rush forces him into poor decisions.
Of course, the Bucs are hardly concerned about "new eras" at this point. At 5-1, they have the NFC's best record, but they need another win just to hold onto first place in their own division. With its win on Monday night over the Jets, Atlanta moved to 5-2, right on Tampa Bay's tail. To stay alone at the top, the Bucs will need to win a regular-season game in California for the first time since 1996.
It won't be easy, regardless of the 49ers' offensive and defensive rankings. No win in the NFL ever is, especially on the road. And, as the dramatic changes in both teams' quarterback stables shows, it is best to expect the unexpected.