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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (6-3) at San Francisco (3-6)
By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the league's biggest disappointments this season. However, they'll be going for a third straight win and will try to stay in the playoff hunt when they face a surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers team Sunday at Candlestick Park.
A preseason darling, the 49ers stumbled out of the gates, losing their first five games for the first time in franchise history. However, wins in three of their last four contests has San Francisco just two games back in the underwhelming NFC West.
The good feelings in San Francisco at the moment can be traced back to one person, and that is new starting quarterback Troy Smith, who was signed just six days before the 49ers' season opener.
After the former Heisman Trophy winner sparked a come-from-behind win in London against the Denver Broncos on Halloween, Smith had a career day in his second straight start last Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, as he threw for 356 yards in San Francisco's 23-20 overtime win.
More importantly, Smith has yet to turn the ball over and will get another start this week, despite the fact that former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith has been cleared to play.
"He's had a big part in us winning these last two games, and you want to keep that going and see how much is there," said Niners head coach Mike Singletary of Troy Smith. "Our team understands that I'm going to go with the guy that is winning right now, the guy that has the hot hand and has made the difference in the past two weeks."
As good as Troy Smith has been, it is still running back Frank Gore who drives the 49ers' offense. Gore has averaged 114.0 rushing yards in San Francisco's last four games, three of which have been wins.
"It is no secret that he wants to run power with Frank Gore and come downhill and run powerful plays down right at you and make you tackle," Tampa head coach Raheem Morris said of his counterpart Singletary.
While the 49ers have for the most part disappointed, there has not been much not to like about this year's Buccaneers. Following an awful three-win campaign in 2009, Tampa Bay has been one of the real feel-good stories in the NFL this season, as it has already doubled its win total from a year ago.
A favorable schedule has also played a part in the Bucs' improvement, as all six of their wins have come against opponents currently at .500 or below. Tampa has also had a knack at winning on the road, where they are 3-1 this season.
Tampa Bay hasn't won four road games in a season since going 5-3 in 2005.
The biggest difference in Tampa, though, has been the progression of second- year pro Josh Freeman, who has Buccaneers fans thinking they can reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. The young quarterback spearheaded an offensive outburst in last week's 31-16 win over Carolina that saw the Bucs rack up 21 first downs and 421 total yards of offense.
"When we took over this program (following the 2008 season), me and (general manager) Mark Dominik sat down together and said we know it's a lot easier to win with a quarterback," Morris said of the decision to draft Freeman.
With last week's triumph, the Bucs became the first team since the 2002 Dallas Cowboys to start seven rookies and win. As the league's youngest team, the Bucs 53-man roster contains 24 players with less than two years of NFL experience and nine players in their third year. The roster averages 25 years and 288 days.
Despite not getting a ton of respect league-wide, Tampa Bay is right in the thick of the NFC South at 6-3 and is tied for second place with the New Orleans Saints, one game back of the division-leading Atlanta Falcons.
"We're not really worried about what people are saying," Freeman said. "We just have to go out and try to find a way to execute."
San Francisco holds a 15-3 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with Tampa Bay, with the losses coming in the 1980, 1997, and 2004 seasons. The Niners were 21-19 home winners when the teams last met, back in Week 16 of the 2007 season, and also defeated the Buccaneers at Candlestick Park in 2005. Tampa Bay has lost eight straight games in San Francisco and is 1-11 lifetime in San Francisco, with its only victory there coming by a 24-23 count in 1980.
Tampa Bay did win the only postseason meeting between the clubs, a 31-6 home rout in a 2002 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Both Morris and Singletary will be facing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
The Buccaneers haven't exactly been a juggernaut offensively, as they are 22nd in the league in yards per game (327.9). However, Freeman (1,963 passing yards, 12 TD, 5 INT) is emerging as a potential star in this league and has completed 60.7 percent of his passes. The former first-round pick has won eight of his last 12 starts, and six have been fourth quarter comebacks. His 134.2 passer rating last week was a career high, and the Bucs are 8-1 when he has an 80-plus rating. Rookie running back LeGarrette Blount (359 rushing yards, 5 TD) has made it easy for Freeman since wrestling the starting job away from Carnell Williams ,as the former Oregon Duck has gone over 90 yards in two of the last three weeks. Williams also has big-play ability, as evidenced by his 45-yard scoring scamper a week ago. Rookie wide receiver Mike Williams (40 receptions, 627 yards, 5 TD) has given the passing attack a dangerous field-stretching presence and has become a favorite target of Freeman. The 49ers will also need to pay attention to tight end Kellen Winslow (39 receptions), who had six catches for 65 yards and a touchdown in the win last week.
If the Bucs are going to move the ball on Sunday, they may have to ride the capable right arm of Freeman, as San Francisco has been effective against the run and enters the game with the NFL's 10th-ranked rush defense (100.7 ypg). Linebacker Patrick Willis headlines the defensive unit (78 tackles, 2 sack) and has had 24 tackles in the past three games. Willis had two sacks and had a part in 20 tackles the last time he faced the Bucs. Lineman Justin Smith (42 tackles, 5 sacks) has three sacks in his last two games. The 49ers have been vulnerable to the pass, however, surrendering 230.8 yards through the air. Cornerback Nate Clements (49 tackles, 2 INT) appears to be fully recovered from a quadriceps injury, while strong safety Reggie Smith will start in place of struggling rookie Taylor Mays. Clements returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown the last time he faced the Bucs. San Francisco is 18th in the NFL with an average of 22.0 points allowed per game.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
As effective as Troy Smith was last week, there is no secret as to what the 49ers are going to try and do this week, and that is force-feed the ball to Gore, who has averaged 146.8 yards from scrimmage over the last four weeks. The Niners, though, have managed just 98.8 yards per game on the ground, the 21st-ranked rushing attack in the league. Not making anything easier this week is the fact that San Francisco will be without left tackle Joe Staley, who will miss the next four-to-six weeks after breaking his leg last Sunday against the Rams. Smith has been incredible in his two starts, completing 29- of-47 passes for 552 yards with a pair of scores and most importantly, no interceptions. His favorite targets have been tight end Vernon Davis, who has a touchdown in four of his last six games, and second year wideout Michael Crabtree, who had four catches for 61 yards and a score last week against the Rams. Smith will be shooting for his fourth straight win as a starter.
Gore could be in for a big day on Sunday, as the Buccaneers enter the contest with the 31st-ranked rush defense (143.8 ypg). The Buccaneers do have a pair of quality linebackers in middle man Barrett Ruud (70 tackles, 1 sack) and weakside starter Geno Hayes (43 tackles, 1 INT) on the roster, but a young and undersized front line has too often been pushed around at the point of attack. The team has been much tougher against the pass, ranking eighth in the league against the pass at 210 yards per game. As good as Ruud has been, it has been the emergence of playmaking cornerback Aqib Talib (32 tackles, 5 INT, 7 PD) that has propelled the secondary to 16 interceptions. Talib has managed 22 tackles over the past five weeks, including a single-game career-high nine last Sunday versus the Panthers. Veteran Ronde Barber (53 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PD) is a savvy and accomplished coverman on the opposite side of Talib, while rookie free safety Cody Grimm (46 tackles, 2 INT) has shown flashes of being an impact player since being inserted as a starter in Week 3. The elusive Troy Smith could have plenty of time, however, as the Buccaneers have racked up a league-low eight sacks, two of which came last week against the Panthers.
Freeman has been up-and-down from a fantasy standpoint, so it's probably best to hold off on inserting him into the starting lineup, especially with the bye weeks no longer being a factor. Chances are if Freeman has a big day, then Mike Williams will have one as well, and the rookie has done enough anyway to probably warrant a start. Although Blount has started to get the lion's share of carries, Carnell Williams' presence still makes him a risky start. Winslow is coming off his first touchdown of the season and could be a good start this week. He might not be as fleet of foot as Michael Vick, but Troy Smith can make plays with his legs. It remains to be seen if he'll have as prolific a day through the air as he did last week, however, and owners may want to see another big effort from him before putting him in lineups. Crabtree could be a starter in deeper leagues, while Gore and Davis are absolute must-starts, especially this week. San Francisco will also have a new kicker this week, as Shane Andrus was signed to take the place of the injured Joe Nedney.
There always seems to be a team that comes from nowhere in the second half to make the playoffs. I think the San Francisco 49ers could be that team this year. Thanks to Troy Smith, the offense seems to be firing on all cylinders at the moment. Given the state of the NFC West, why can't the 49ers win that division? As good of a story as Freeman and the Bucs seem to be, they have struggled against good teams and traditionally have had problems in San Francisco. And despite their 3-6 mark, the 49ers are showing signs that they are a good team. The Bucs have had trouble against the run all season, and I have a feeling that trend will continue this week. I think Tampa is coming on, but I have yet to be impressed by them this season. Keep in mind that the Bucs are just one of four teams with a winning record but a negative point differential this season. They've scored 188 points while giving up 206. This really isn't as big of an upset as it might seem.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: San Francisco 27, Tampa Bay 13
11/18 19:16:45 ET