Where Bucs can be beaten

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need no introduction. They are the defending Super Bowl champions for a reason - several of them, actually. Their defense is the best of this NFL era. And their improved offense is ranked second in the NFL this week. But there is an area where the Buccaneers have been vulnerable, and the Niners need to exploit it to bring down the Bucs on Sunday.

Tampa Bay has struggled mightily on its special-teams kick coverage. This is good news for the Niners, a team that definitely is due to break a few returns.

Jimmy Williams in particular.

The NFL's leading punt returner last year, Williams figures he's the spark that could ignite the Niners this week after watching his team narrowly lose three of its past five games by a combined total of five points.

Since resuming his role as San Francisco's top kick returner in Week 2, Williams has yet to break a punt return longer than 16 yards or a kickoff return longer than 21 yards.

"I'm about to kill myself back there itching to break one," Williams said Thursday. "I'm anxious and itching."

So are the Niners. The lack of production in the special-teams battle for field position has hurt San Francisco, which has struggled to consistently move the ball offensively and score points.

It doesn't figure to get any easier this week with the mighty Tampa Bay defense coming to town.

That's where Williams thinks he can make a difference. Tampa Bay ranks second in the NFL in total offense and fourth in total defense. But the Buccaneers' kick coverage units aren't playing anywhere close to those standards. Tampa Bay is 26th in the NFL covering kickoffs and 32nd - dead last - in the league covering punts.

Returning punts is Williams' specialty. He led the league last year with a 16.8 average. But he currently ranks just 11th in the NFC with a 7.1 average.

"I'm always thinking that I can make a difference," Williams said. "If we can just get an edge, get an extra 10 yards here, 20 yards there, we're setting the offense up and putting ourselves in position to do things. Hopefully, we can have that kind of outcome this weekend."

Niners coach Dennis Erickson also is looking for more from his return game. But he said Williams is not one of the reasons San Francisco has been weak in that area.

"Our problem is not the guy returning it," Erickson said. "We have some other issues, blocking, that are creating the problems. We've been pretty darn good on special teams, but that's one area where we've struggled. If you're getting hit when you start, it's pretty hard. I don't care who you are.

"In a game like this, for us to win, we have to make plays on special teams. When you play a defense that is that good, you have to make plays when you have the opportunities in all areas."

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