The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are catching a San Francisco 49ers team that has a noticeably different look than it had just a month ago. Perhaps it's the 49ers most preseason analysts expected to make a serious playoff run in 2010.
The 49ers stumbled out of the gate, beginning the season 1-6 and struggling to mount a consistent offense behind former first-round pick QB Alex Smith. With Troy Smith at the helm, however, the 49ers have won consecutive games against Denver and St. Louis, and with the NFC West still wide open, are certainly still eyeing the playoffs.
In other words, it's another difficult road challenge for the Buccaneers, who are 3-1 away from home this year but will have to be at their best on Sunday at Candlestick Park to go to 4-1.
"We see a very talented football team with a bunch of first-round picks and high draft choices, plus some big-time free agents," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris. "They've put that all together on a football team that was ready to win this year. They had some unfortunate breaks at the beginning of the season and now they're starting to put things together, right in time for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So here we go. We have another tough battle and we hope to come out of this thing victorious."
The Buccaneers need the win in order to keep pace in their own top-heavy division, where the Atlanta Falcons came into the weekend with the NFC's best record at 7-3 and the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints are tied with the Bucs at 6-3. To do so, they'll have to slow down a San Francisco offense that has averaged 370 yards over its last two outings. Smith has unlocked a big-play element in that attack, spreading the ball around to such proven talents as Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree.
"They have a bunch of weapons," said Morris. "Everybody knows about Mike Crabtree, but they also have this guy Josh Morgan. They have Ted Ginn, another guy who was a first-round pick. They have Brian Westbrook, who's been in this league for a while, and Anthony Dixon who just got into the league and is a pretty good football player. That gives Frank Gore some help. Vernon Davis you can't say enough about, and you definitely can't say enough about Delanie Walker; those two tight ends can stretch the field. They do a lot of things that cause problems for the defense. We've got to be ready to deal with all these different weapons they have. These guys are a very good football team, they're polished and they're ready to play today."
Of course, the Bucs' own offense has begun to emerge in the same way, with franchise quarterback Josh Freeman getting support from such emerging stars as Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount. Unlike most Bucs teams of recent vintage, this one appears to have the firepower to hang in a shootout…if that happens to be what is necessary on this afternoon. However the game unfolds, the Bucs believe they have what it takes to win.
"It's nice to see, especially in Tampa, the offense develop and the guys play together as a team," said Morris. "Whatever we need to do each week, we're starting to do. We got a big lift from our special teams a couple weeks ago; this past week we got a big lift from our offense, and we've had a big lift from our defense at times in the second half this year. We're doing what needs to be done to win football games, and that's the most important things.
"This is a young football team. We're still growing and learning the details of what to do in certain situations, and that's what we're doing every day. That's what has helped us and that's what we thrive on."
The Bucs' offense will get back a few weapons that have been shelved for the last several weeks: WR Sammie Stroughter and fullback Earnest Graham. Stroughter is one of the team's most reliable third-down weapons, operating out of the slot, and Graham brings a versatile threat to the backfield as the starting fullback.
However, Tampa Bay's defense will be missing two starters in strongside LB Quincy Black (ankle) and left defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder). Adam Hayward will get the start in Black's place though he will likely share time with rookie LB Dekoda Watson; that same approach worked well in last week's win over Carolina. Tim Crowder will once again start in place of Moore.
"We've been fortunate," said Morris. "When we've lost a guy, the next man has to go in and play like a starter. They've been stepping in and playing big for us. We'll be missing Quincy Black and a couple of defensive linemen in Ryan Sims and Kyle Moore, but the guys who have been stepping in for us – the Dekoda Watsons, Adam Haywards and Tim Crowders – have been doing a great job. They've been playing at a high level and that's what they've got to continue to do."
In addition to Black and Moore, the Buccaneers have deactivated FB Erik Lorig, T Will Barker, T Derek Hardman, WR Preston Parker, DT Ryan Sims and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Black, Moore and Sims are out due to injury. Jeremy Trueblood, who has missed time with a knee injury, will be active for Sunday's game but will not start as James Lee will remain at right tackle.
The 49ers deactivated these eight players: K Joe Nedney, CB Tramaine Brock, CB William James, LB Keaton Kristick, LB Thaddeus Gibson, T Joe Staley, T Alex Boone and designated third quarterback David Carr. Nedney, James and Staley were out due to injury.
With Nedney unable to play due to a knee injury, the 49ers have signed Shane Andrus, who was briefly a Buccaneer last season. Also, with Staley out, veteran Barry Sims will get the start at left tackle.
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.