December football is in full swing, raising the stakes. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will make a cross-country trip in Week 14 for a showdown against the San Francisco 49ers. The clash will feature two division leaders battling for standings in the NFC, heralding playoff implications for both franchises. While the 8-4 Niners try to distance themselves from the Seahawks in the NFC West, the Buccaneers will aim to snap their five-game win streak. At 6-6, Tampa Bay will aim for cushion in the NFC South as the trailing Falcons head into their bye week.
Both teams are entering the clash confident. The Bucs have won three of their last four outings, including two fourth-quarter sensational comebacks, first against the Rams in Week Nine and then another stunning upset versus the Saints in Week 13 on Monday night. Meanwhile, San Francisco has secured five consecutive victories, with an impressive 33-17 win over the surging Dolphins with the inexperienced Brock Purdy at the helm for most of the game.
Purdy was in the game against Miami because Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a broken foot in the first quarter, bringing an abrupt end to what had been a revitalization year for him. At the outset of the offseason, it was presumed he would be traded away to create a path for first-rounder Trey Lance; instead, Garoppolo worked out a deal to stay as Lance's backup in 2022. He then became the starting signal-caller when Lance suffered an ankle injury in Week Two, resulting in a quarterback carousal for San Francisco now that Purdy is replacing Garoppolo.
As fortune would have it, the 49ers have a wealth of talent at Purdy's disposal, with hybrid receiver/running back Deebo Samuel, multi-faceted tight end George Kittle, former Panthers' Swiss Army knife Christian McCaffrey and big-play perfomer Brandon Aiyuk headlining the show. Kyle Shanahan's offense and personnel are predicated on the run game. The Niners utilize zone schemes to press downhill with one-cut movements, benefiting the skillset of both Samuel and McCaffrey. Whether a jet sweep, outside zone, or screen - paved by the second-level blocking of left tackle Trent Williams, tight end George Kittle or fullback Kyle Juszcyk - the goal is to not allow opposing defenses to set the edge by stressing C-gap assignments and driving them past the numbers. San Francisco's bread and butter is generating yards-after-catch through mismatches, complementing the open-field prowess of their star-studded cast.
On the opposite side of the football, the 49ers have created a formidable force, spearheaded by sack producer-extraordinaire Nick Bosa (14.5) and arguably the best middle linebacker in the league in Fred Warner. Defensive Coordinator DeMeco Ryans maximizes the strengths of his players and puts them in prime position to have success. The Niners are a single-gap club, which allows linemen to aggressively penetrate off the ball. The defensive line attacks, while the linebackers patiently wait, flow and fill the open holes. The 49ers are hard to block and create an imposing unit with speed and ferocity. When Bosa is added to the front as a fifth, manufactured rusher, the opposing O-Line is forced into disadvantageous one-on-one blocks, and the 49ers' exploit by utilizing twists/stunts on the edges and along the interior to essentially free a path to the quarterback. Additionally, the secondary has improved in 2022 with the addition of former Chiefs' star Charvarius Ward and the second-year leap of safety, Talanoa Hufanga.
On Sunday in Santa Clara, the 49ers will strive to entrench their role as conference contenders, while the Buccaneers will look to slow down one of the league's prepotent teams on their home turf.
On this week's rundown of the all-star squad, many could have joined the 49ers' difference-makers compilation, but these five Pro Bowlers stand out. This group could help swing the game in favor of San Francisco on Sunday in Week 14:
DE Nick Bosa
Nick Bosa is the tone-setter of the 49ers' defense, spearheading a unit that sits atop the league pecking order. He leads San Francisco with 14.5 sacks in 2022, including three against the Dolphins in Week 13. Additionally, Bosa has accumulated 36 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 34 quarterback hits this season. Bosa has turned the 49ers' defense into a force with relentless effort and speed off the edge. With powerful hands and an arsenal of pass rush moves at his disposal, Bosa consistently gains leverage. His lethal shoulder dip and rip maneuver allows him to swat away blockers' hands. Bosa can start-and-stop effortlessly, has a natural feel for quarterbacks and is skilled at shedding blocks. As a run defender, Bosa is great in pursuit and chases down backs outside of his gap. As a pass rusher, he fires off the snap with an excellent get-off and utilizes his agility to get an angle to the signal-caller. Bosa has game-wrecking potential, and the Buccaneers will have to account for him on every play, coming from both sides of San Francisco's defensive front.
LT Trent Williams
Trent Williams has established himself as one of the best tackles in the NFL, fortifying his mark in the modern era. The nine-time Pro Bowl veteran and 2021 first-team All-Pro is adept at both anchoring in the pass game and getting off the ball in the run game. Williams is equally balanced against both speed and power moves, making him a nightmare for ends around the league. He is a highlight reel at the second level – a rarity for an offensive lineman. Williams' ability to redirect and close in the open field makes him an anomaly at the position. With his athleticism and lateral agility, the 49ers' occasionally employ Williams as a tight end motioning across in sub packages to free up lanes for rushers by utilizing him as a human wrecking ball. With short-range explosion, consistent footwork and blitz/stunt awareness, Williams solidifies San Francisco's offensive line. On Sunday, the Bucs' will have to be stout at the point of attack in contending with one of the NFL's best.
TE George Kittle
The 49ers' offense is headlined by tight end George Kittle. Kittle has cemented his legacy in the NFL as one of the top-tier producers at his position for both his dominance as a blocker and his pass-catching skills. He takes pride in his blocking ability – burying his assignment through the whistle - not just in chipping but sustaining blocks with stout hand placement. If he is able to get his hands inside, Kittle can pancake a 300-plus pound defensive lineman with solid pad level, striking with leverage. With the ball in his hands, Kittle morphs into a running back with his ability to gain yards after contact. He flashes vertical speed to work the seam and can challenge at all three levels as a pass-catcher. Kittle is averaging 12.4 yards per reception in 2022 for 472 total yards on 38 catches, boosting the 49ers' aerial attack.
WR Deebo Samuel
Deebo Samuel is the 49ers' do-it-all phenom, with a rare versatile skillset that has changed the perception around the league. Historically, "versatile" was a term tacked on by scouts with a negative connotation, meaning said player did not excel in one specific area. Enter Samuel. He is a threat to take it to the house on a slant, a jet sweep, or an outside zone run out of the backfield. Samuel plays with relentless tenacity and vison, emboldening Kyle Shanahan's offense. In 2021, Samuel defied position parameters and eclipsed 1,500 receiving yards and 500 rushing yards over the team's 20-game season (including postseason), becoming the only player in NFL history to accomplish both feats. In 2022, Samuel's 768 yards after the catch were second only to Cooper Kupp's 846, however, he accomplished the accolade in nearly half the receptions. Defenses have to account for Samuel in a variety of ways on any given play. Samuel has the ability to line up on the outside or in the slot with elite acceleration and nuanced route-running. His quick feet juke defenders and Samuel will be a player the Bucs have circled in the game plan for Week 14. Samuel creates favorable mismatches for the 49ers and will be a key focal point for Tampa Bay's defense come Sunday.
LB Fred Warner
Fred Warner sealed the 49ers victory over the Dolphins in Week 13 with a late interception. The defensive catalyst has racked up 84 total tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and 10 pass breakups in 2022. The instinctive MIKE linebacker covers ground and helps mitigate opponents from exploiting the intermediate area of the field. Warner's sideline-to-sideline range combined with his football IQ sets him apart. His ability to get east and west is rare. Not many linebackers in the NFL can line up at the line of scrimmage to blitz and check out of it to outpace a rusher to the sideline, however, Warner has accomplished that feat regularly. Defensive Coordinator DeMeco Ryans weaponizes Warner's coverage ability, nullifying passing windows. San Francisco's blitz packages featuring Warner as the fifth rusher are lethal, devastating offenses around the league. Warner is quick to diagnose and close downhill, which culminates in timely tackles for loss. He sets the standard of excellence at the position in the NFL and the Bucs' offense will have to be aware of his whereabouts every play pre-snap.
Here are some ways in which the 49ers have excelled in 2022:
- The 49ers lead the NFL in points and yards allowed on defense this season. San Francisco has surrendered just 75.6 rush yards per game this season (fewest in the NFL).
- The 49ers have a quarterback-friendly offense, leading the NFL by having 58.6 percentage of their pass yards after the catch. San Francisco has two of the league's top four players in yards after catch over expected per Next Gen Stats with Christian McCaffrey at plus-175 (1st) and Deebo Samuel at plus-136 (fourth).
Negative factors hindering the outcome of games for San Francisco in 2022, most notable:
- The 49ers are 0-4 when the team loses the turnover margin in 2022. Conversely, San Francisco is 8-0 when tying or or winning the turnover margin this season.
- Quarterback Brock Purdy is 19-31 for 217 yards, 0 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 55.4 passer rating when targeting receivers/tight ends in 2022. When targeting running backs, Purdy is 10-14 for 59 yards, two touchdowns and a 118.8 passer rating per Next Gen Stats.
New Faces in 2022
Blockbuster trades are rare in the middle of the NFL season, but the 49ers pulled one off for former Panthers' star Christian McCaffery. San Francisco gave up their second, third, and fourth-round draft picks in the league's 2023 NFL Draft, in addition to a fifth-rounder the following year. McCaffrey returned to the Bay area, where he dazzled as a collegiate star at Stanford. He is a threat to break off for a big run on every touch with vison, suddenness and elusiveness to dodge tacklers.
San Francisco's coaching staff was poached at the conclusion of the 2021 year– an indication of the team's success. The Miami Dolphins acquired the 49ers' offensive coordinator, Mike McDaniel, to be their new head coach. McDaniel has thrived with the Dolphins and is one of the favorites for Coach of the Year honors in 2022, but the 49ers received two third-round draft picks as compensation for his departure under the NFL's new diversity development and hiring incentive program. Subsequently, San Francisco promoted Bobby Slowik to offensive passing game coordinator and added run game coordinator to the title of Offensive Line Coach Chris Foerster.
The Niners underwent several changes at the quarterback position, initially trying to trade Jimmy Garoppolo in order to develop Trey Lance, who they traded several first-round picks to move up and take third overall in the 2021 draft. However, shoulder surgery for Garoppolo in March and the ensuing recovery process made San Francisco change course. The sides eventually agreed on a mutually beneficial reworked contract to keep Garoppolo around as Lance's backup in 2022. Subsequently, Lance sustained a season-ending ankle injury in Week Two, thrusting Garoppolo back into action. Garoppolo led the 49ers to an 8-4 record and first place in the NFC West, before suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 13 against Miami on the opening offensive drive. Now, the 49ers have turned to rookie Brock Purdy, the last player selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, or as that pick is widely known each year, "Mr. Irrelevant."
The 49ers have undergone changes to the offensive line in 2022. Alex Mack, a seven-time Pro Bowl center, retired this offseason after 13 NFL seasons. San Francisco gave the role to Jake Brendel, who had been a reserve for the team in 2021 after starting 21 games over three seasons in Miami. Starting left guard Laken Tomlinson departed after making the Pro Bowl in 2021, leaving for the Jets during free agency. Aaron Banks, a second-round draft pick in 2021, has assumed that vacancy for the 49ers.