If you wrote off Tampa Bay after their 0-8 start, perhaps it’s time you reconsider that stance. No, the 4-9 Buccaneers aren’t going to make the playoffs and they’re already looking forward to their top-12 draft pick, but this isn’t a team as bad as their record states, nor is it a team that has rolled over and given up on 2013 quite yet.
Football Outsiders’ advanced stats have Tampa Bay ranked as the NFL's 19th best this season, and their weighted rankings, which strive to describe how a team is playing at the moment, have them all the way up at No. 15, led by a very good defense.
That defense is ranked 12th in the league in yards allowed per game and actually has a stingier defense against the run than San Francisco this season. Add in the fact that the game is scheduled for a noon ET start—which historically works against West Coast teams—and is positioned between an emotional battle against Seattle and the last home game in Candlestick Park next week, and you have the recipe for a potential letdown game, if you believe in such things.
That’s not to say San Francisco shouldn’t be favored, and they are. It's just to say that the game might be trickier than the respective records indicate.
The name most people recognize on Tampa's defense is Darrelle Revis, who is now fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered last year and is returning to his shutdown ways as the best cornerback in football.
Since Week 8, the top receiver for Tampa’s opponents has averaged only 51 yards per game and a 53 percent catch rate. This coincided with Revis' recovery, as he regained the stamina and strength to play press-man coverage.
“When you’re not all the way there, you’ve got to change your game up,” Revis told Roy Cummings of The Tampa Tribune in November.
The excessive amounts of zone coverage he played during the Bucs’ 0-8 start backs that idea. Revis still isn’t 100 percent healthy, having suffered groin injuries in Week 13 and shoulder and chest injuries last week, but he’s healthy enough for Revis Island to come back into play.
That will be a challenge for Anquan Boldin, the most likely target for Revis’ brand of one-on-one coverage. Boldin has had room to work over the past month, with Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree coming back and providing a semblance of a threat at the second- and third-receiver slots.
Throughout those four games, Boldin averaged six receptions per game for 85 yards and a touchdown, and he hasn’t been held to fewer than five receptions in any given game. It’s his hottest stretch of the year, and it just about matches his statistics in the playoffs last season, when he helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory.
His success has gone a long way to salvaging the 49ers' pass offense, which has looked downright professional over the past month, despite still being ranked last in the NFL in net passing yards. The 49ers have been 22nd in the league in total passing yardage over the past month, which still isn’t great, but it's leaps and bounds beyond where they started the season.
Will Boldin be able to keep his hot streaks alive and find holes around Revis? It’s certainly possible.
Two times this season, Revis has come out lacking in his coverage matchups—against the Lions in Week 12, and versus the Panthers in Week 13. Against Calvin Johnson, Revis was targeted four times, allowing three receptions for 44 yards. The next week in Carolina was worse—he allowed three receptions on five targets for 54 yards and a touchdown, including being burned by ex-49er Ted Ginn so badly, he was barely on the screen as Ginn burst into the end zone.
There is a stat floating out there about Boldin’s success in the past against Revis.
In 2010, Boldin had a seven-reception, 110-yard day against the Jets, but a closer look at the statistical log from that game revealed that most of those came when Boldin was matched up against Kyle Wilson in the slot. That strategy—putting Crabtree or Manningham up against Revis, thus letting Boldin work against Leonard Johnson instead—might be worth using in this game. Johnson allows a 61.1 percent completion rate against him, for an average of 13 yards per reception.
If not Boldin, then perhaps Vernon Davis can take advantage of the weaknesses in the slot. The Buccaneers have been good against tight ends, however, ranking seventh in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
If Revis and company are able to lock down Boldin and Davis, that doesn’t necessarily mean an upset will happen, but if an upset is going to happen, it probably would involve clamping the 49ers' pass offense down to nothing.
Of course, the other way Tampa Bay has been good against the pass this year is with their pass rush, primarily in the form of Gerald McCoy. McCoy has seven sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 48 hurries to his name this season and has not had a bad game yet.
The interior of the line will have to keep McCoy from getting to Colin Kaepernick, and that means all the pressure will be on Jonathan Goodwin and either the returning Mike Iupati or his replacement, Adam Snyder. Either way, the 49ers will likely need to commit both men to slow down McCoy, meaning the right side of the line needs to be all right with no help against Akeem Spence and Daniel Te’o-Nehseim. This isn’t an insurmountable task, but every team has known about McCoy’s ability to disrupt the passer, yet no one’s been able to take him out of the game schematically.
Defensively, the Buccaneers have a player at each level who can create plus matchups for them, with McCoy, Revis and linebacker Lavonte David. They are very good building blocks, and if all three can play at a high level against San Francisco, there could be an upset in the works. Of course, that’s only one side of the ball—the 49ers defense should have relatively few problems handling the Buccaneers' offense.
At the end of the day, the 49ers are just too talented and too motivated to lose this particular matchup, but it will be a closer one than the records indicate.
To win the game, Tampa Bay will have to play a near-perfect offensive game, which I don’t think they’re capable of, and their defense cannot slip up and allow someone like Davis or Frank Gore to have a big day. It’s a tall task to ask of a team: While they may see the steps needed to get there, having everything fall into place seems unlikely.
San Francisco should come out with their 10th win of the season, assuming they don’t get caught looking past what has been an under-the-radar defense this season.