Stopping Sapp key vs. No. 1 defense

The last time the 49ers played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a young defensive tackle named Warren Sapp knocked out Pro Bowl quarterback Steve Young from the game and All-Pro receiver Jerry Rice for the season. And a star was born, along with the top defense of this NFL era. For the Niners to be successful against that defense and its top tackle in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff, it must start up front, where San Francisco had plenty of success in last week's wild-card win over the New York Giants.

The Niners will have to keep watch on Sapp, who may create more havoc than any other NFL tackle for a defense ranked No. 1 in the league in seven defensive categories, including total defense.

Sapp will line up over Niners Pro Bowl right guard Ron Stone at the start of the game, but the Buccaneers will be sure to move him around so that he sees time against rookie left guard Eric Heitmann, too.

"They're going to get lots of that, my friend. Both guards will see plenty of me," said Sapp, who began a run of six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl after his season-opening 1997 performance against the 49ers, when his hard hits led to a concussion for Young and torn knee ligaments for Rice.

The Niners also will see plenty of NFC sack leader Simeon Rice, NFL MVP Derrick Brooks and the rest of Tampa Bay's star-studded defense. But Sapp is the player San Francisco will have to be most wary of at the point of impact.

"He changes how games are played and how you prepare for a defensive tackle," Niners right tackle Scott Gragg said. "Certainly, we are keeping an eye on him."

Said Niners coach Steve Mariucci, "It's going to require some double-teams on occasion, but you can't do it all the time. You can also help with backs or tight ends on defensive linemen, but you can't make a steady habit of it."

The Niners are likely to rely on their line to neutralize Sapp and keep him away from quarterback Jeff Garcia. That line did an excellent job against a quality defensive line last week, when Garcia wasn't sacked despite attempting 44 passes against the Giants.

"It's something I'm going to allow my offensive line to control and take care of," Garcia said. "I can't consume myself with worrying about Warren Sapp in front of me, even as much as he's going to try to make me think about him."

 


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