Keys to the game: 49ers/Buccaneers

The 49ers will be looking to stretch their winning streak to three games when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in a showdown of 3-1 first-place teams at Candlestick Park. NinersDigest identifies the keys to the game and what the Niners need to do to beat the Buccaneers and match their best start to a season since 2002.

Pound LeGarrette Blount, and not vice versa
The Buccaneers are making no secret about their intent to come right at the 49ers with their 247-pound battering ram, just like they do against every other opponent. That ostensibly would be playing right into the hands of the 49ers, whose interior run defense is the strength of the team. Blount is 12th in the NFL with 247 yards rushing and is coming of his best game of the season Monday night against Indianapolis. The 49ers counter with the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing defense that has shut down every opponent so far on the ground and has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 26 consecutive games. Blount helped the Bucs control the football while gaining 82 yards rushing against the 49ers last year in Tampa Bay's 21-0 win in San Francisco. He pounded the 49ers in that game, and this year the Niners need to be the ones who control the pounding.

Throw to Vernon Davis over the middle
The 49ers haven't had a lot of opportunities to throw to their star tight end up the gut because opponents have put so much emphasis on taking Davis away over the middle in the passing game. But there will be open spaces this week in Tampa Bay's zone defense, and the 49ers should look for chances to send Davis deep and split the safeties. If Davis gets a clean release off the line, he will be open before the Bucs can react. If the Buccaneers are forced to cover San Francisco's leading receiver with cornerbacks, top CB Ronde Barber in particular, it will only open up other areas in Tampa Bay's secondary for the 49ers to exploit. Barber has drawn coverage assignments such as top-shelf tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark in recent games.

Attack the edges of Tampa's defensive front with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter
The Tampa Bay defense has been solid against the run this year, but the Buccaneers can be exploited by running right at defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett, who like to speed-rush the quarterback from around the edge, which can leave big running lanes open on the corners of the line. The 49ers finally got their ground game going last week while introducing a new one-two punch with Gore's slashing power and Hunter's quick explosiveness. The 49ers went nowhere on the ground against Tampa Bay in last year's game – when Gore finished with just 23 yards rushing – but there is opportunity here if they attack the soft edges of Tampa Bay's defensive front.

Pressure Josh Freeman and force him into mistakes
Freeman is a steady, efficient quarterback who can make plays in the pocket and also keep them alive with his mobility and strength to shed rushers. But Freeman has been more mistake-prone this year than he was during his breakout 2010 season, when he finished with 25 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. This year, Freeman already has thrown four interceptions and three of them have been in the red zone. Freeman has a 61.6 passer rating in the red zone, and it would be worse if the Colts hadn't dropped an interception in the end zone last week. Freeman also likes to pull down the ball and head upfield with it – he's the Bucs' second-leading rusher with 104 yards on the ground and two TD runs – so the 49ers figure to get some shots at him outside the pocket and in the open field.

Ricky Jean Francois holds the line of scrimmage
Isaac Sopoaga has done an excellent job this season of stacking blockers and winning the battle at the point of attack along the line of scrimmage. But the 330-pound nose tackle is doubtful to play this week because of a staph infection, which means the responsibility of playing this key role in San Francisco's defense will fall on the 310-pound Francois, who had mixed results last year when given backup opportunities at nose tackle behind departed starter Aubrayo Franklin. Francois will make his first career start against veteran Bucs center Jeff Faine, a nine-year pro with more than 100 starts. Francois doesn't have to be Sopoaga, but he needs to hold his own at the point of attack against Faine and prevent the center from getting to the second level to engage tackle-machine linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman.

Win the turnover battle
This has been a formula for success for the 49ers, who are tied for the NFL lead with a plus-8 turnover margin. San Francisco has built its 3-1 record by protecting the football on offense and being opportunistic on defense, and those elements will be crucial again today against a ball-control Tampa Bay team that has forced six fumbles but has only one interception. The 49ers must protect the football, keep the ball out of the Buccaneers' hands and also take it out of their hands a few times. "We harp on turnovers," Niners free safety Dashon Goldson said this week. "We're doing a good job right now, first in the league in turnovers, and we've got to keep that up."

Attack and exploit weak spots of Tampa defense
The Buccaneers rank 21st in the league against the pass, and they have a conspicuous hole on the back end of their defense, where they are rotating Corey Lynch and Larry Asante after losing safety Cody Grimm after he tore knee ligaments against Atlanta in September. The Tampa secondary also is missing safety Tanard Jackson, who started 46 games over the past four seasons for the Bucs, but has yet to be reinstated by the NFL after being suspended last year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The Bucs will be attempting to mask this deficient area – placing extra burden on strong safety Sean Jones to change roles and play free safety in some situations – and the 49ers must attack with their passing game. Tampa Bay is strong on the edges with cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib, but there will be openings in the middle. If Colts backup Curtis Painter, in his first career start, could throw for 281 yards and two touchdowns against the Buccaneers last week, Alex Smith and Co. should be able to find ways to do some similar kind of damage.

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