The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started off the season with eight straight losses, but found the right combination of opponents, defense, and timely offense to put together four wins in their last five games.
But the only top-notch team they faced during the second half of the season, the Carolina Panthers, shut them down and dominated the football game. On Sunday, they’ll face a similar team with Super Bowl aspirations in the San Francisco 49ers. So how do they avoid the same result as their defeat to the Panthers?
Here are my keys to victory:
1. Start Off Strong
The 49ers are coming from the west coast to play an early afternoon game in the Eastern time zone. The Buccaneers can only take advantage of that by playing strong in the first half, and catching the Niners when they’re stuck in “10 AM mode.”
The Bucs are awful in the second half, and that will obviously be a concern on Sunday. But if they can’t get out to an advantage, they’ll be able to lean on their defense to hold the lead in the third and fourth quarters.
But if Tampa Bay can’t get out ahead during the first hour or two of the matchup, the Niners will “wake up” and assume their role as the better team.
2. Contain Colin Kaepernick
The Buccaneers have failed to completely contain mobile quarterbacks this season, and they’ll have another chance to redeem themselves against Colin Kaepernick.
The pass rush for the Buccaneers reappeared last Sunday against Buffalo, but the offensive line for San Francisco is quite a bit better. That means if Gerald McCoy and company do get into the backfield, their teammates must keep Kaepnernick under wraps and not allow big runs on broken plays.
And the Buccaneers must always be mindful of Kaepernick’s ability to hold onto the football on read-option plays, or to find a seam on designed QB runs. He’s just as good of an athlete as any member of the Tampa Bay defense, and can break away in space if given the opportunity.
3. Get Contributions from Every Defensive Back
The 49ers’ passing attack isn’t the best in the NFL, but it’s loaded with weapons and capable of torching an unprepared defense. With multiple receivers capable of getting separation from defensive backs and providing a big target for their quarterback, the Buccaneers will have to receive contributions from more defensive backs than just Darrelle Revis.
Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson will need to do their best to handle Vernon Davis, while Johnthan Banks and the other corners must remain consistent in their defense of the various receivers the 49ers will use.
4. Defend the Flats and Screens
The Buccaneers dodged a bullet when the Bills refused to attack them with screens and short passes to the flat last week. And when the Bills did get players in space, it was often successful, but usually negated by a penalty.
The 49ers will have a better design on offense, and better players executing the plays. There are multiple backs capable of hauling in a screen pass and making a big play, and Vernon Davis and the backs are all capable of sneaking out of the formation into the flat, where the Buccaneers often fail to defend.
If the Buccaneers continue to blitz, they’ll have to figure out some way to prevent these screens and flat passes from turning into game changers. Otherwise, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and his staff for the 49ers will tear the Buccaneers apart.