This Sunday's playoff match-up between San Francisco and Tampa Bay should be an interesting one. After all, the strength of the 49ers' team is its offense, which is ranked 8th (356.3 yards per game) in the league, and the Bucs' strength, of course, is its defense, which is ranked No. 1 overall (252.8 yards per game).
Which unit will prevail? Well, if Tampa Bay's defense is going to stop San Francisco's potent offensive attack, it will all start with the 49ers' running game, which is ranked 6th (140.3 yards per game) in the league and is led by running backs Garrison Hearst (972 yards, 4.5 avg., 8 TDs) and Kevan Barlow (675 yards, 4.7 avg., 4 TDs).
"I think everyone looks at (quarterback) Jeff Garcia and (wide receiver) Terrell Owens and thinks of a tremendous passing team, which they are, but you have to realize they were the No. 1 rushing team last year, this year I think they were No. 6 in the league," said Bucs Pro Bowl strong safety John Lynch. "They do it in a number of ways, and they're a good running football team."
San Francisco's 14th ranked (216 yards per game) passing attack also deserves some attention.
Garcia completed 62.1 percent of his passes during the regular season for 3,334 yards and he tossed 21 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions. Garcia is also mobile. He has rushed 72 times for 353 yards (4.9 avg.) and he's scored three rushing touchdowns.
"I think Jeff (Garcia)'s ability to play within the confines of the system, like all the guys in this day and age that can run, that have that scrambling ability, they present a challenge," Lynch said of Garcia's mobility. "I think the toughest challenge Jeff presents is that he can run, but he moves around in the pocket looking to throw. He's got some great skilled athletes out there. He creates more indecision."
Bucs Pro Bowl defensive end Simeon Rice said the defense will have to contain and pressure Garcia in order to stop the 49ers' offense on Sunday.
"Basically we need to stop him," Rice said of Garcia. "We need to contain him, we need to rush together, and we need to account for each other on the field, in terms of what we are trying to do. But really we just need to put pressure on him, that's no secret. The Giants didn't do that and they got dismantled. We have to continue to put pressure on him and just play with a lot of enthusiasm. At this point that's what it's all about."
But mobile quarterbacks are nothing new to Tampa Bay's defense. They faced Atlanta QB Michael Vick, who is arguably the fastest player in the league, twice this season. The Bucs' defense shut Vick down both times, holding him to just 10 yards rushing in those two contests. The Bucs' defense feels its experience against mobile quarterbacks will benefit them this Sunday.
"Playing against Michael Vick twice this year will help us a lot," said Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith. "Because we can go into the game with the same mind-set up front that we did against a Michael Vick. I think playing against him, I wouldn't say gets us ready for a Jeff Garcia, but it shows us that we can play against a quarterback like that."
But the player that might present the biggest problem(s) for Tampa Bay's defense is Owens, who caught 100 passes for 1,300 yards and scored a total of 14 touchdowns during the regular season.
"He's definitely a premier receiver in the league," Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly said of Owens. "(Minnesota WR) Randy Moss gets a lot of credit as well, but this guy is big, physical and fast. He's definitely a top-notch receiver.
"They're a talented receiving corps, and they definitely have our respect."
The 6-foot-3, 226-pound Pro Bowl receiver is arguably the most physical receiver in the league and he makes defenders miss, which has definitely caught the attention of Tampa Bay's defenders.
"Just wrap him up and tackle him," Kelly said when asked how they could stop Owens. "Give a good pursuit and gang tackle him. We have so much team speed, and we proceed to the ball so well. One guy might miss him, the other guys come in and clean him up, so we just have to gang tackle him."
San Francisco's offense will make it difficult for Tampa Bay's defense to get off of the field. The 49ers have converted 52.3 percent of its third downs, but the Buccaneers' defense has only allowed opposing offenses to convert 33.6 percent of third downs this season.
"Anytime in the game, third down in big," Smith said. "It's a chance to get the defense off of the field and get our offense three or four more snaps. So it will be a challenge for us to get them off on third downs and also stopping Terrell Owens, who is their big third down guy. He tends to get open on third downs, so we need to stand up on our side and keep him from catching the ball. (Monte Kiffin) hasn't said that (stopping Owens on third down) is a key, but we know it is. Different times in the year we have put things on the linebackers, or the defensive line needs to step up, but this week it is our week to step up in the secondary. Hopefully we can do that."
BUCS HAVE REAPED BENEFITS OF BYE WEEK:
Just how important was Tampa Bay's first-round bye in the playoffs? Well, the team is healthier now than it was through most of its training camp last summer.
In fact, the only player listed on the Buccaneers' official injury report was wide receiver Charles Lee. He is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with a right foot strain.
Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson said the team didn't necessarily need the bye, but the Pewter Pirates were more than happy to receive it.
"I'm not going to say that we were a team that needed it, but we used it wisely," Johnson said of the bye week. "We are a team that was 6-2 at home and 6-2 on the road, so we feel like we played good football home and away. We did have a lot of guys that were tired and worn out toward the end of the season and I think that it was kind of fresh for us to get a little beat on, as far as game planning, for San Fran. We got an extra day of practice on Monday and I think we used it wisely. Hopefully, that will show on Sunday."
While they obviously benefited from the bye week, the Buccaneers are anxious to take the field for Sunday's game.
"We were all able to relax and recover," Rice said of the bye week. "And I think that was big for all of us, just to able to recover and really get prepped and ready. I think it also built our hunger, we are thirsty for this game."
HOME SWEET HOME:
How important is it for Tampa Bay to be hosting San Francisco in the second round of the playoffs?
Well, the Bucs are 3-1 at home in the playoffs, including 1-0 in Raymond James Stadium. But the Bucs have not been as successful on the road in post-season. The Pewter Pirates have produced a 0-6 record on the road in the playoffs and the team said playing at home in the playoffs isn't overrated.
"It's huge," Kelly said of playing San Francisco at home this Sunday. "It's definitely a great asset for us. We'd love to have all our games at home during the playoffs, but that's not going to be the case unless something happens for us. That crowd gets going, and we feed off that."
Since 1998, Tampa Bay has produced a 31-10 record in regular season and playoff contests played at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs are 6-2 at home this season. The 49ers are 5-3 on the road this season.
If Atlanta defeats Philadelphia on Saturday night and Tampa Bay downs San Francisco on Sunday afternoon, the Buccaneers would host the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 19.
COMING BACK TO TAMPA?:
Former Tampa Bay punter Mark Royals visited One Buccaneer Place after the Bucs' practice on Wednesday.
Royals, who punted for the Bucs from 1990-1991 and again from ‘99-2001, was released by Tampa Bay last March. Royals spent this season with Miami after signing a one-year contract with Dolphins, but his new team failed to make the playoffs, which essentially makes Royals, who averaged 40.2 yards per punt this season, a free agent.
Bucs punter Tom Tupa, who has averaged 42.8 yards per punt this season, is only under contract for one season with the Pewter Pirates. So, is there a chance Royals could return to Tampa next season?
"I'd do it in a heartbeat," Royals said when asked if he'd like to play for the Buccaneers again.
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