Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. This week, Plummer hits on some of the key aspects to Sunday's game against the Bucs.
Jeff Garcia is definitely going to be the most mobile and active quarterback the 49ers have faced all season long. What makes it so difficult for defenses is that you're told your entire career to keep the quarterback in the pocket so you can understand rush lanes, but there's usually a launch point you can count on somewhere behind the center and the guards. But with Garcia, you never know where the launch point is going to be. He can take off at any point. He is probably running less now than earlier in his career, but he still does scramble because that's where he is comfortable. The problem is he knows where he is going and you have no idea on defense.
Those receivers from Tampa Bay have learned to never give up on a route because with Garcia, a play that would normally take seven seconds could take ten or twelve seconds. That's extremely difficult for a coverage guy to stay glued to his man in man to man coverage for that length of time. You learn to recognize angles of routes, but once the play breaks down there are no more rules for the defensive back to follow. He can't say he has seen that route before, because it can be anything now. In zone coverage, it's just as difficult because what you are looking for is even spacing in the zone, whether it's the underneath or deep coverage. You are looking for guys to defend an area while players are keeping their head on a swivel trying to recognize routes or to see if the quarterback has already planted his back foot to throw. All of that gets thrown out once the quarterback starts scrambling.
The general rule is that you move in the direction of the quarterback scramble, but guys recognize that scramble at different times, which creates holes or windows in those zones. That's truly where Garcia is most effective. He's very good at the quick stuff, recognizing quick slants, dropping the ball off to the running back, and hitting the tight end on the out routes typical of west coast offenses. Not only do the 49ers have to contain him on the outside, but also when he steps up in the pocket, because that's where he makes a lot of his big plays, when he is running towards the line of scrimmage making it look like he is going to run and then dropping the ball off. So rush lanes are extremely important this week. What Jeff is truly a master at is creating plays with his feet.
Garcia's entire career was about proving people wrong. Garcia said all the right things in his press conference by saying the 49ers were the team that gave him a chance, but he still has an axe to grind. He will come out extra motivated and fired up. He was raised in Gilroy and was a 49ers fan growing up and was living out his dream with the team, and was then cut in a salary cap issue. I'm sure he would like to prove it was a bad move. Guys always try to down play playing against former teams, but it means a lot.
Joey Galloway is Garcia's explosive, big play guy. He has six touchdowns on the year to go with a 17.6 yard per catch average. He is only 15 yards away from having 1,000 yards on the year. The 49ers will have to work on not getting beat deep by him. He's in amazing shape. He's a total wide receiver, because not only does he run the deep routes, but also the shallow crossing routes that stretch the field horizontally. He's a threat every time he catches the ball with his yards after the catch ability. There are some guys like him who are just speed guys that won't go across the middle, but not him. He's a tough guy. He won't hesitate to catch the ball in traffic. He will be one of the better wide receivers the 49ers will face this year. Even though he is on the older size and may not be as physically gifted as he used to be, he is that much more wiser, which makes him just as dangerous.
Earnest Graham is a bowling ball running back at 5'9" and 225 pounds. A lot of people think that the west coast offense is synonymous with finesse, but even with the 49ers, that was not true. They have a lot of misdirection plays, power plays, traps, and sweeps. Tampa doesn't run very many sweeps with Graham because he doesn't have that top end speed. His longest run all year is 28 yards. Most of his runs are three, four, and five yard runs. He's just a battering ram that even if there isn't a hole, he's just going to keep his legs moving and stay low, which for him at 5'9", isn't hard. He's not a guy who will dance around in the backfield looking for the home run, which makes it easy for that offensive line to block for him because they know if they just get a push, he's going to be good for them. He has, which is very common in the west coast offense, 42 catches on the year, which is a high number but he's averaging 6.5 yards a catch with a long of 21. So Garcia will look down the field at his first and second option, and then go to dump it off to Graham and those are just as good as running plays in that offense. He has scored nine times through 13 games and has had a stretch of five straight games with a touchdown, so he is good in short yardage situations as well.
Michael Pittman saw his first action last Sunday in over a month after missing time due to an ankle injury. He is averaging 4.5 yards a carry and is more of a change up back, where Graham is a pound it up inside kind of guy. They will use Pittman more on the outside runs since he is a little faster than Graham. You will also see Pittman as their 3rd down back and in protection packages since he is a better blocker than Graham. Now that Pittman is back, they will definitely look to use him more as is evidenced by his 13 carries the previous week. It will just give them a chance to give Graham a rest and provide a change of pace back.
Defensively, the Bucs are the second ranked scoring defense in the league, only giving up 16.5 points a game. They have one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the game in Monte Kiffin. They've had a lot of player turnover in recent years, but it is still the same system. They are ranked in the middle of the league in terms of sacks, but almost all of those sacks are coming from their front four, so they aren't going to do a lot blitzing. They get a ton of penetration from the front four and that is something the 49ers will have to be aware of because that has hurt us all season long. You get a lot of guys trying to shoot the gap creating havoc in the backfield with that front four.
This game will definitely be the toughest challenge for Shaun Hill. First and foremost, this defense is number two in the NFL in pass defense. Last week Hill went against one of the last ranked pass defenses in Cincinnati, so that's a huge difference. They won't just run the Tampa 2 anymore. There are about five different versions of the cover 2 defense they will run to give Hill different looks. One of the things their defense was designed to do was to stop the west coast offense, so it will be much more difficult for Hill and the 49ers in the short passing game.
Their two corners, Phillip Buchanon and Ronde Barber, are two of the better corners in the league. They are a patient defense that won't blitz a lot. They want to force you to make the mistake, which they have done well all year long with that Tampa cover 2 defense
The Bucs do have an undersized front and the 49ers should exploit that by running the football. They have very smart players at linebacker with Cato June and Derrick Brooks, both of whom are Pro Bowlers. They also have great speed at that position. One way to attack that is to, since they are undersized, play smash mouth football and trap those guys up front who are trying to split the gaps. Once you can do that, with their undersized linebackers, you can make something happen.
The big difference from last week is that the Buccaneers will bring in their corners on blitzes. When the 49ers are in three receiver sets, Barber will move from his normal corner position to the slot position and can act like a strong safety in there and come on a blitz. Not only is Barber a very good corner, but he is also very good at run support, so I wouldn't expect the 49ers to line up a slot receiver very close to the box, unless they run a play action pass.
Delanie Walker has really played well the last six quarters with Shaun Hill in as quarterback, because they worked together on the scout team all season long and developed a little bit of a chemistry. As far as Vernon Davis, it seems like the 49ers are using more principles. Some of the easiest and highest percentage throws in football are to the tight ends. To Shaun Hill's credit, he is recognizing that and executing. There hasn't been a huge shift in philosophy, just playing to the strength of Shaun Hill.
One of the things that Shaun has done better than either Alex Smith or Trent Dilfer is leading the receiver and getting more yards after the catch. Jeff Garcia is a great example of that. One of the principles of the west coast offense is getting the ball in the hands of your receivers as quickly as possible and letting them produce the yards after the catch. Jeff Garcia and the Buccaneers do a great job of that. The biggest difference in Shaun Hill and what we had seen from Alex or Trent, is that he has done a great job of that in terms of getting the ball in players' hands in position to make yards after the catch.
Hopefully the 49ers find a way to play another solid game in all facets and pull out another team victory like they did against the Bengals.