The 49ers' defense came up big against Tampa Bay.
Crammed between a huge divisional game against Seattle and the emotional farewell to Candlestick Park, San Francisco's Week 15 matchup against Tampa Bay could have been a letdown game. Tampa Bay is feistier than your standard four-win team and had the 49ers let up for a moment, they could have found themselves on the losing end of that game.
They didn't let up for a moment.
The 49ers earned their fourth straight victory by triumphing over the Buccaneers, 33-14. They shut down Tampa Bay's offense in its entirety and performed well enough on offense and special teams to stay atop the matchup from wire to wire. The win, coupled with New Orleans' surprising loss, keeps San Francisco's slim divisional hopes alive, and it gives them control of their own fate for the top wild-card seed in the NFC.
It was an impressive win all around for the team, meaning finding three players to single out for having poor games was harder than normal in comparison to their other wins. Similarly, it was difficult to narrow it down to three players having a successful day.
Still, even in the biggest wins, there can be some room for improvement. Here are the players who contributed the most to San Francisco’s victory and the players who will want to go back into the film room after this one.
Is there a better pair of middle linebackers in the NFL?
Most teams in the NFL would love to have one inside linebacker on the level of NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis. The 49ers are living in the lap of luxury, being able to play both at the same time—and both had big days against Tampa Bay.
Both of them helped shut down the middle passing game—they were targeted a combined five times, allowing tight end Timothy Wright to come down with three receptions for 17 yards and otherwise keeping the middle of the field clear from short crossing routes and slants. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) also credited each player with four stops—solo tackles where the offense failed on the play.
Bowman was a beast against the run game, helping shut down the recently productive Bobby Rainey to only 27 yards on 11 carries—Bowman alone was credited with three tackles of Rainey, after gains of three, two, and minus-one yards. All in all, the Buccaneers only racked up 39 yards on the ground—that’s not going to beat the 49ers most days.
Willis had three of his stops in the passing game, stopping receivers short of first downs on four occasions, and adding in this sack of Mike Glennon on the Buccaneers’ final drive.
Willis and Bowman are both high in Pro Bowl voting and could realistically both start, especially with the new, unconferenced format. It’s been another great season for two great players.
Smith found his way to Mike Glennon multiple times.
Aldon Smith continues to be a quarterback’s worst nightmare since his return from rehab, and against the Buccaners, he had more quarterback hurries than in any other game this season.
Six times, he forced Mike Glennon to throw the ball before he was ready to—and that doesn’t count the two sacks or the other quarterback hit he was credited with over the course of the game. That’s nine significant pressures on only 28 pass rushes—that’s both half of San Francisco’s pass rush-production and a very efficient day.
The first sack saw him blow past Donald Penn on the inside to force 2nd-and-a mile, while the second saw him make a great second-effort move to catch Glennon and set up a 4th-and-26 on the last drive of the game. Both were incredibly valuable and helped him rack up the 12th multiple-sack game of his short NFL career.
Because of his absence in the middle of the season, it’d be hard to argue for Smith to make the Pro Bowl this season, but it’s equally hard to argue that many at any position have been more valuable in the games they’ve actually played than Smith has. He’s helping San Francisco’s defense peak as they enter the final push.
Colin Kaepernick has bounced back after his early-year struggles.
Through the first 10 weeks of the season, Colin Kaepernick was notably struggling, short of weapons in the receiving positions and seemingly unable to do anything else than scan his first read and then scramble.
Since that point, however, as Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree have started working their way back into the offense and opened up options in the pass game, Kaepernick's confidence seems to have returned, and his numbers have bounced up with them.
Kaepernick's passing numbers were decent once again against a tough Buccaneers pass defense. He ended up 19-of-29 passing for 203 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. That would be a solid, if unspectacular, day by itself, but that's not the only thing Kaepernick brings to the table—his ability to scramble and run was on display in this game.
Kaepernick scrambled four times for 42 yards, including this 17-yard scamper for a first down in the first quarter. It wasn’t just scrambles, though—Kaepernick’s movement allowed him to extend plays to turn incompletions or sacks into touchdowns and first downs.
The 49ers may not be confused with the "Greatest Show on Turf" anytime soon, but the pass offense is rounding into something resembling an NFL-quality pass game as the 49ers continue to come on down the stretch.
Brooks often found himself chasing the play in Tampa.
We mentioned on Aldon Smith’s slide how he accounted for half of San Francisco’s pressures on the day. That’s good for him, but it also indicates a very quiet day from the fourth member of San Francisco’s linebacking corps. Ahmad Brooks was almost held off the stat sheet entirely against Tampa, accounting for only two tackles and two hurries in the game.
Those numbers aren’t that bad, actually, but when everyone else is turning in a good game, you have to give credit where credit is due. Pro Football Focus charted Brooks’ battle with right tackle Demar Dotson; Dotson was one of only three Buccaneers offensive players to score positively in what was, on the whole, a dominating performance by San Francisco’s defense.
Perhaps the reason Brooks couldn’t get any pressure was that the other side of the line was collapsing so fast, there was no time for Brooks to reach the backfield.
Still, in 30 pass-rush attempts, you’d expect a bit more pressure than that from Brooks—this is the third game in a row he has not reached the quarterback, after performing superbly while Smith was out of action. You’d think Smith’s return would open up new opportunities for Brooks, but, instead, it’s seen him float back a bit toward the middle of the pack.
How could this guy have a bad day?
Vernon Davis, a bad day? That’s ridiculous, you might say. He had five receptions for 79 yards, including a beautiful touchdown reception on a deep pass from Kaepernick at the end of the first half. There’s no way that’s a bad day, right?
Well, remember—this was a pretty impressive win all around, so "bad" is relative—no one really qualified as too bad; it was a complete team effort. Therefore, you have to pick a few nits.
Take away the one remarkable highlight reception, and Davis would have had four receptions for 27 yards—not bad—but not nearly as good of a day as the stat line indicates—so valuable was that one particular play. He also had a chance at another deep bomb but underplayed the ball, costing the 49ers a touchdown.
It was his run blocking, though, that scored him a negative grade—by my count, the 49ers ran six times toward Davis' blocking and ended up with a whopping total of five yards. This didn’t matter particularly much in the grand scheme of things, as Gore found plenty of running room on carries elsewhere, but again, we’re picking nits here.
When someone with as remarkable of a catch as Davis had is one of your worst players on the day, you know you had a good game.
See, there’re not even three bad players here; that’s how good of a game it was.
This slot is reserved for Harbaugh—or, rather, whoever is in charge of time management and timeouts on the team. Week after week after week, the 49ers blow timeouts in bizarre circumstances—either they take too much time getting the play called in, they spend too much time getting to the line after a big game or they waste a timeout on a borderline challenge.
This week saw them lose a timeout on a challenge less than a minute into the game and use their second timeout of the first half before five minutes had elapsed in the first quarter. Those calls could be dreadful in a close game where seconds count, trying to score at the end of a half—these are valuable assets wasted.
They also used all three timeouts before the two-minute warning in the second half, which isn’t as big of a deal when you’re leading—but the fact that the first two happened on consecutive plays is a bit galling.
The second one, especially, felt bizarre at the time—they had just set up a 1st-and-goal, and while it’s important to get the right play call in, that certainly has to be something they’ve got to be ready for in the booth upstairs.
It’s not just a one game thin, either—remember, the 49ers wasted their timeouts in last year’s Super Bowl, and it’s been noted that game after game this year, they seem to have bizarre and meaningless timeouts as plays take too long to get from Greg Roman to the huddle. They can do better—and they’ve got to do better, if they want to make a run from a wild-card position.