The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers will face off on Sunday at Candlestick Park in the only game on the NFL's Week Five schedule that pits two teams with at least three wins each. That wouldn't be the case, however, if San Francisco hadn't impressively rallied from 17 points down in Philadelphia to win 24-23 last Sunday.
It was considered an upset, even though San Francisco had the better record coming in, but it was perhaps more noteworthy in the manner that it occurred. The 49ers' third win of the season fit right into what is becoming known as the Year of the Comeback in the NFL, something the Bucs helped get started in Week Two with a stunning rally in Minnesota. The win surely did wonders for the confidence of Jim Harbaugh's group in San Francisco, but it also emphasized a lesson that his Buccaneers counterpart, Raheem Morris, hopes his team remembers as it takes the field on Sunday.
"It helps coaches reiterate the fact that you've got to play 60 minutes, like those guys did last week," said Morris of the 49ers' rally. "They did a nice job of coming back. They're a reflection of their head coach. They play tough, they play hard, they play physical and we've got to go out there and match their intensity."
Last year, the Buccaneers came to California and got their first win in San Francisco since 1980, winning 21-0 for their first road shutout in seven years. Obviously, the traveling Tampa Bay squad would love a similar outcome on Sunday in its return to Candlestick, but such blowouts are not commonplace. The Bucs have won 15 of their last 23 games, and nine of those have been decided by a touchdown or less. Seven of those nine have been decided by a field goal or less.
All three of Tampa Bay's victories this season have had final margins of seven or fewer points, and in two of them the Bucs have rallied from double-digit deficits with dominant second halves. The 2011 Bucs have shown an impressive ability to finish games, but when they're facing another team that fights for 60 minutes and has shown a comeback ability of its own, it becomes even more important that they start better.
Slow starts have been an issue for the Bucs this year, occasionally on both offense and defense, but there's not much more that Morris can tell his players to correct the issue. There is no magic stratagem to correct the problem, only a commitment to proper execution from the opening snap. Even the Bucs' stellar 23-year-old quarterback, Josh Freeman, he of the fourth-quarter magic, has been erratic in the first quarter at times.
"You've just to go out and execute," said Morris. "The things we've been doing in the second half, coming out and trusting our preparation and doing a better job. [Freeman] has got to start playing that way, and today hopefully he does so."
It won't be an easy task against a defense that ranks seventh in the league in points allowed. The 49ers will be without starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, but they still have a very talented defense led by perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis. The Bucs have a very strong respect for the 49ers defense, and even feel as if last year's game was more of a battle than the final score indicated.
"We played them last year out here and they played us hard, played us tough," said Morris. "Dealing with guys like Justin Smith year-in and year-out, he's tough to deal with. But you've got to go out there and play the game and we embrace the opportunity."
The 49ers are particularly good against the run (fourth in the league with just 74 yards allowed per game) and that's an issue for the Buccaneers, who believe their offense is at its best when running back LeGarrette Blount becomes the focal point. It's no coincidence that Blount has had three very productive outings in four games this year, and the Bucs won all three.
"The thing about LeGarrette is, he's the engine for us," said Morris. "If he gets going, we have a nice little feel about things and we can get things going the right way. LeGarrette is kind of the engine for us and we have to get started with him. Our offense kind of works off of him."
The 49ers also like to get things started on the ground and have one of the league's most proven backfield producers in Frank Gore. Gore scored the game-winning touchdown in Philly last weekend, one of his two trips to the end zone, and needed just 15 carries to rack up 127 yards…the exact same ground total, coincidentally, as Blount put up in Week Four.
The Buccaneers' defensive game plan always starts with containing the run, in an effort to put the pass rush in a more aggressive position, but the 49ers have more weapons to worry about than just Gore. Beleaguered QB Alex Smith is sporting a 97.7 passer rating so far this year, Vernon Davis is one of the league's most feared tight ends and the young receiving duo of Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan is developing nicely.
"You've got to go out there and contain Frank Gore," said Morris. "Obviously he's a great runner and a really good football player. But they have a couple good players on that team – they have Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree. Josh Morgan – this kid's really coming on and doing a great job for them. Their young offensive line is really tough, hard-nosed and ready to deal – [Mike] Iupati and [Anthony] Davis. We've got to go out there and compete with these guys."
And they will have to do so without the help of starting strongside LB Quincy Black, who will miss his second straight game due to an ankle injury. Second-year man Dekoda Watson will once again start in his place. Black is one of six Bucs who are unavailable against the 49ers due to injury; the others are WR Sammie Stroughter (foot), S Devin Holland (back), LB Zac Diles (hamstring), T James Lee (knee) and TE Luke Stocker (knee).
The Bucs expected to be without Stocker, the rookie tight end who has played extensively through the first four weeks, so they've had time to devise contingency plans with a pair of fellow rookies, Zack Pianalto and Collin Franklin. Pianalto and Stocker have each played one NFL game to this point, but both are considered adept pass-catchers.
In addition to the six injured players, the Bucs also deactivated guard Derek Hardman.
The 49ers have some injury issues as well. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is out due to an infection and will be replaced in the starting lineup by Ricky Jean Francois. Also, FB Moran Norris is out, which will push Bruce Miller, a rookie out of Central Florida, into the starting offensive lineup.
The 49ers' seven inactives are Sopoaga, Norris, QB Scott Tolzien, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Tramaine Brock, G Daniel Kilgore and G Mike Person. Edwards and Brock are also out due to injury.
The Bucs and 49ers kick off at 4:05 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.