Tampa Bay Begins Preparing For San Francisco

January 6 – After a three-day hiatus, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned to practice with its sights set on the San Francisco 49ers. The Bucs and 49ers will clash Sunday at 1:00 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium. The winner will advance to the NFC Championship Game and the loser will go home.

Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden rewarded his players for earning a bye week for the first round of the playoffs by giving them last Friday, Saturday and Sunday off.

The Buccaneers returned to One Buccaneer Place for practice on Monday and unlike last week, the Pewter Pirates had it sights set on one opponent – the San Francisco 49ers.

"They're lively," Gruden said of the players after Monday's practice. "They're excited about the upcoming game. They know they've got a great responsibility to prepare hard this week and be at their best.

"(Facing the 49ers) will be a great challenge. We're excited about this opportunity. We realize that they're a very talented team and it's going to take a great effort by us, that's for sure."

Of course, when the 49ers trailed the Giants by 24 points in the third quarter of last Sunday's playoff game, Tampa Bay couldn't help but think they'd be playing New York in the second-round of the playoffs, but the 49ers foiled those plans when they erased the Giants' lead and came back to miraculously win last Sunday's contest, 39-38.

"Well, when the score was a bit lopsided early, we all felt that the Giants would probably be the team coming here," said Gruden. "But if you watched the game earlier in the day, you knew anything was possible. Certainly, when (quarterback) Jeff Garcia gets hot and you've got (wide receiver) Terrell Owens running around out there, anything can happen."

Tampa Bay hasn't faced San Francisco since 1997, when the Buccaneers downed the 49ers in Tampa, 13-6. In fact, this will be the 49ers' first game in Raymond James Stadium. But while the Bucs and 49ers haven't met in four seasons, Gruden is somewhat familiar with San Francisco from his coaching days in Oakland.

"Well, maybe I have a little familiarity with them," Gruden said of the 49ers. "We played them in the regular season a couple years ago (in Oakland), we played them in the preseason, but I'm not playing in this game. So we're going to do the best we can to brief ourselves on the 49ers and put together a good game plan."

In fact, both Gruden and San Francisco head coach Steve Mariucci run their own versions of the West Coast offense, which Tampa Bay's head coach said could help the Bucs' defense better prepare for the 49ers' potent offensive attack.

"There's going to be a lot of things (our defense) has seen before," Gruden said. But, again, that guarantees us nothing. But I think they will be familiar with some of the sets. Some of the basic fundamental routes that we have, I'm sure they've seen before."

San Francisco's 8th ranked (356.3 yards per game) offense will face Tampa Bay's No. 1 ranked defense. The 49ers have an abundance of weapons on offense, including Pro Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens, who hauled in 100 passes for 1,300 yards and scored 13 touchdowns during the regular season. Owens caught nine passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants last Sunday. Tampa Bay has the No. 1 ranked pass defense in the league, but Gruden said Owens will be tough to contain.

"He's a great player," Gruden said of Owens. "He's as good a receiver as I've seen. He looks like Shaquille O'Neal out there. He's the biggest guy I've ever seen and he runs like a rocket is attached to him. I mean, he is an explosive human being, and a clutch playmaker. He's such an acrobatic football player, a great competitor and we're going to really zoom in on No. 81. He is a fabulous player."

Speaking of offense, Bucs starting quarterback Brad Johnson took all of the snaps on Monday and all signs suggest his back injury is a thing of the past.

"I feel very, very fresh right now," Brad Johnson said after Monday's practice. "I feel about as sharp as I've been all season long. Obviously, taking the couple weeks off…I'd have liked to have been playing, but at this time of the season I don't think there's a more fresh quarterback in the league than myself right now. My legs feel good, my arm's got a lot of zip on the ball right now. Last week, I had a couple days of preparation going into this week, so I feel about as sharp as I can going into a game."

Johnson, who completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 3,049 yards and tossed a franchise single-season record 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions during the regular season, returns to the Bucs' lineup just in time to face the 22nd ranked pass defense in the league, which allowed Giants QB Kerry Collins to complete 67.4 percent of his passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns last Sunday. Although the Bucs went 1-1 in Johnson's latest absence, the offense scored just one touchdown in its last two contests of the regular season. Needless to say, Tampa Bay's offense has missed its offensive MVP.

"Well, obviously, we've been a little bit more productive," Gruden said of Brad Johnson when he's healthy. "Any time you take your starting quarterback out of your lineup in Week 15 or Week 16, you can expect things to change a little bit. There can be some drop off. But I thought Rob Johnson and Shaun King did everything they could. We were able to win two out of three games in his absence. But to get your starting quarterback back is a plus. That's why we call him the starter."

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