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Five Things: 49ers vs. Bucs

Posted Oct 7, 2011

The 49ers haven’t been 4-1 since 2002; a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday would put the 49ers in that position. It’ll be a tough test, facing a Bucs team that shut the 49ers out a season ago at Candlestick Park. Both teams enter this pivotal NFC meeting coming off impressive fourth-quarterback comeback wins. Here are five storylines to follow when the teams meet on Sunday.

1. Forces Collide

At 247 pounds, LeGarrette Blount has become one of the most physically imposing rushers in the NFL. The second-year runner carried 25 times for 127 yards last week on “Monday Night Football,” including nine carries for 72 yards in the fourth quarter alone. The Bucs make no bones about it, Blount is a featured component of their offensive attack, which ranks 11th in the NFL averaging 117.0 yards per game. Blount, however, is not utilized as an every down back. When Tampa Bay goes to shotgun and spread formations, backup Earnest Graham replaces him in the backfield. Still, the 49ers know they’ll be in for a quality confrontation against the Bucs. This week, starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga has been sidelined with an infection and is yet to practice.Third-year defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois will likely make his first NFL start on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t expect a drop-off in production. With defensive tackle Will Tukuafu being placed on Injured Reserve this week, undrafted rookies Ian Williams and Demarcus Dobbs could make their NFL debuts. However, the 49ers rely on all 11 defensive players to swarm to the ball carrier and will need a big performance to maintain their status as the league’s 4th-best rush defense, one that allows 74.0 yards per game. San Francisco also leads the NFL in red zone defense, allowing only four touchdowns in opponents’ 14 trips inside the 49ers’ 20-yard line. Defensive captain Patrick Willis is ready for another challenge, the fifth in a 16-week regular season. “Each week you’re going to face a good running back, or else they wouldn’t be starting in the National Football League,” the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker said. “(Blount) had some good runs against us last year, but it’s a new year, a new football team and a new defense. Let’s see what happens Sunday.”

2. The Smiths

Alex Smith, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith all made significant contributions to the 49ers comeback win a week ago. And all three will be counted on once more for big performances. Alex Smith enters Sunday ranking 8th in passer rating (97.7) and 4th in completion percentage (67.3), two signs of Smith’s emergence in the 49ers offense. Smith has been solid all year and will get his chance to continue his steady play against Tampa Bay. Aldon Smith, the team’s first-round pick (No. 7 overall), has continued his development throughout the season. Used primarily as a defensive end in the team’s nickel defense at first, Smith has been given more opportunities to rush the passer as an outside linebacker. Last week, he recorded 1.5 sacks against Michael Vick, the most elusive quarterback in the NFL. The third Smith in focus, defensive tackle Justin Smith, put the 49ers in prime position for victory last week with a signature hustle play in the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound lineman chased down speedy Eagles wideout Jeremy Maclin from behind to punch out the ball out, nearly 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage. The 49ers recovered the fumble, and then ran for two first downs to clinch an impressive road win. Smith’s hustle play will be remembered for some time. Fangio called it the defensive equivalent to “The Catch.” Head coach Jim Harbaugh applauded the play, too. “I can’t say enough great things about him,” Harbaugh said of Justin Smith. “He is a John Wayne kind of guy around our building here.” Smith will have a tough test this week facing Bucs Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn, who has done well this season against the likes of Dwight Freeney (Colts), Jared Allen (Vikings) and John Abraham (Falcons). Penn will mostly block linebackers like Parys Haralson and Aldon Smith, but he’ll be on the same side as Justin Smith.

3. Tampa’s Talented Four

Through four games, the Bucs have 10 sacks, including eight sacks in the past two contests. It’s a talented group across the board, as six of those eight sacks came from defensive linemen. Defensive end Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle Brian Price and rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn have all caught the attention of the 49ers offensive linemen. “They have a good front seven, young guys, who have good instincts,” right guard Adam Snyder said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us, a big game, and we’re excited.” The linemen not only excel in rushing the passer, but have been stiff against the run, too. They’ve allowed 101.0 yards per game, making them the league’s 11th-best rush defense. Last week, they held the Colts to 62 rushing yards on 18 carries. Because of Tampa’s emerging defensive line play, the back end of Tampa Bay’s defense has played more man-to-man coverage than in recent years. “It’ll be a challenge,” said right tackle Anthony Davis on facing the Bucs. “That’s what we like.”

4. Wildcat QBs

Last week, both backup quarterbacks for the 49ers and Bucs saw action for their respective teams. 49ers rookie Colin Kaepernick saw his first NFL snap, where he handed off on a third-and-long play in the first quarter. Tampa Bay’s backup, Josh Johnson, carried the ball out of a Wildcat formation for an 8-yard gain to pick up a first down. The 49ers have teased the idea of using Kaepernick in a similar role; perhaps this week will be an opportunity to show Tampa Bay a different look. Asked early in the week if Kaepernick would be featured more in the coming weeks, Harbaugh said, “That’s all very possible and something that we’ve been building and practicing.” Regardless of the roles of each backup, it’ll be interesting to see which one is more involved in their respective team’s game plan. Harbaugh is especially aware of Johnson’s talents, having coached him in college at the University of San Diego.

5.  Turnover Battle

The 49ers are 3-1, and have won the turnover battle in each victory. That’s really no coincidence. If you maintain possessions and turn the opponent over, you’ll certainly enjoy success in the NFL. The 49ers are currently tied with the Detroit Lions for the league’s best turnover differential at plus-8. The team is also undefeated when not throwing an interception. Defensively, the 49ers have forced 11 takeaways, while committing three turnovers on offense. It’s not known how often each team will throw the ball, as both sides have shown a commitment to running the football. Said Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris earlier this week, “We love physical challenges and this is going to be one for us.” The 49ers recovered two fumbles last week, and will be looking to force more against Blount and the Bucs. Offensively, Tampa Bay has a lot of respect for the 49ers defense. “Their front seven is the best we’re going to see all year,” Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman said. “All around, they’re studs.” The 49ers secondary is making strides, too. Cornerback Carlos Rogers has interceptions in back-to-back games. The unit as a whole has totaled 31 pass breakups, the most in the NFL, according to gamebook statistics.

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