Sunday Review: California Love

Tampa Bay's defense feasted early on the 49ers on Sunday
Tampa Bay's defense feasted early on the 49ers on Sunday /

Memo to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Thanksgiving is Thursday, but thanks for giving Bucs fans some much to be thankful for on Sunday.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into San Francisco looking for a win to pad their already impressive record; and win they did. Not only did they win, not only did they pitch a no hitter, they went into Candlestick Park and destroyed, dismantled and pulverized the 49ers. It was the very definition of a one sided game, even though the offensive statistics were low, the defense came through in a big way and made a statement that was long overdue and delicious for Bucs fans to hear.

Memo to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I hope you still have room for Thanksgiving dinner after that feast on the San Francisco 49ers.

I said in the preview that this week it was the defense that was going to need to step up and show itself as a force, perhaps I should ask for a million dollars next week. To say this defense showed itself as a force is an understatement. The Bucs D pounded the 49ers into submission forcing a fumble, an interception, sacked Troy Smith 6 times and allowed and insanely low 189 yards. Top 10 NFL rusher Frank Gore was held to a season low 23 yards on the ground, one of many statistical notches on the club of this defense. Gore hadn’t been held under 35 the entire year.

Rookie Gerald McCoy made some noise Sunday getting himself a sack and racking up a tackle and two assists. Every single defensive member of the Buccaneers had either a tackle or an assist Sunday and Stylez White had the highest sack total finishing the day with 1.5 while Ronde Barber added to his career interception total grabbing his 40th today in the fourth quarter that quickly ended the 49ers ninth drive of the game. The Bucs have the 8th best passing secondary in the NFL but played like the best today holding Troy Smith to his season low in total passing yards giving up only 148 yards through the air which is also a season best for the Buccaneers. Oh and does somebody want to call Vernon Davis and tell him there was a game on Sunday? The true star of the Bucs defense on Sunday was a name that hasn’t been called on much in terms of statistical performances. Cody Grimm was all over the place chalking up 5 tackles and two assists, numbers that top the stat sheet. A name that is often called also had a big game as well, as Barrett Ruud racked up 4 tackles adding to his team leading 70. It’s difficult to find words to describe just how amazingly the Bucs played on defense because the stats couldn’t be any more punctual. The 49ers aren’t the best team in the league by any means, but they are far from the worst and anytime a defense throws a shutout it doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when it’s done by a defense as young as the Buccaneers. There’s a word for young defenses that do that: scary.

Despite a subpar day, Josh Freeman hooked up with Mike Williams yet again
Despite a subpar day, Josh Freeman hooked up with Mike Williams yet again /

The fact that the defense stole the show is probably the best thing that could have happened for Josh Freeman. He needed to have a good game and he really didn’t. Freeman barely saved what would have otherwise been an atrocious day statistically by throwing two touchdowns. Besides that he threw 13 for 20 for an embarrassing 136 yards.  Freeman is still a young quarterback who is only in his second year and his first full year as a starter so it’s hard to get too critical of his hot/cold gameplay. It would have been too wishful to think Freeman would continue to play like he was, no young quarterback does. Even Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, two quarterbacks that led their teams deep into the playoffs their first full seasons, had bad and inconsistent games. This doesn’t mean much more than Freeman had a subpar game, they happen, move on. The problem with these numbers is this: San Francisco isn’t that great of a defense. Freeman’s next three games are against secondaries that have given quarterback headaches all year long. The only wild card is Washington but even seeing that secondary is unsettling. Freeman can’t put up numbers like this again and especially not against teams like the 49ers. Sunday’s game was nothing short of spectacular, but the margin of victory could have honestly been a lot wider than 21. The pluses for Freeman are few but they do exist. He didn’t throw an interception making him 5-1 in games this season he goes without throwing one and he did throw for two touchdowns, hooking up once with an obviously favorite target of his, big boy wideout Mike Williams. If there was anything positive about his performance to take away from this game it would be that and the fact that despite his low stats, he did post a 117.9 quarterback rating making it two straight games in which he has posted a rating over 100.

Perhaps the reason the passing game was so dull was the fact that it played second cousin to the run game. LaGarrette Blount carried the ball an unprecedented 26 times. The sour note in that was he only amassed 81 yards. This is another example of the offense under performing. However regardless of the yardage totaled, it has become clear that Raheem Morris and this Buccaneer coaching staff isn’t afraid to run the ball and run the ball hard. Cadillac Williams got in on the action scoring the first touchdown of the game which capped off a 14 play 80 yard drive in the 2nd quarter. Five different players recorded rushing stats for the Bucs further proving the run heavy mentality blended nicely with the creative play calling aspect of this team. Josh Freeman, and Ernest Graham each saw carries as did the always fun Josh Johnson. The lack of yardage in the run game can’t be blamed solely on the runners themselves; the 49ers do have some pretty big monsters on defense that can shut you down. Patrick Willis made sure the Bucs knew he was at the game getting 9 tackles and sacking Freeman twice. Takeo Spikes made an appearance stopping the run making 8 tackles and something called Dashon Goldson had managed to stack up 5 tackles. Where the passing game failed miserably against this defense, the Bucs running game actually put up solid numbers. The Niner’s had a top 10 rushing defense and Tampa Bay managed to total 162 rushing yards between all rushers involved, a feat accomplished by only four other teams against the 49ers this season. To shine even more positive light on the run game, last week the Niners gave up 81 yards to Steven Jackson who ranks 9th in the NFL in rushing; LaGarrette Blount pounded out the exact same amount this week. Not only does this show the run game is very solid in Tampa, it shows the Blount is rising quickly as an identifiably explosive runner that the Bucs will be able to lean on for solid yardage and a heavy amount of carries.

It seems as though up to this point I’ve really been playing Devil’s advocate and although I do want to point out the Bucs hands down won the game on Sunday, even in a 21-0 pounding there is obvious room for improvement. Conor Barth missed another field goal dropping his total percentage to 75%. The troubling part of that is he missed wide left from 41 yards, a distance range in which he is an abysmal 40% shooter from. Should Tampa make the playoffs, which it is looking more and more likely as the weeks pass, this 40-49 range is huge spot for kickers that time of year. To have a kicker hit only2 out of 5 from that distance puts a lot of pressure on an offense to move the ball and thats when mistakes happen. Barth needs to improve his accuracy because at this point I am not comfortable putting him in that spot with the game on the line in the playoffs. Thats not to say he can’t do it, he did hit a 49 yarder week one, it’s just at this point he is too inconsistent and a 40% accuracy mark doesn’t do wonders for a guy’s confidence.

Head Coach Raheem Morris isn't afrad to get creative with the playbook
Head Coach Raheem Morris isn't afrad to get creative with the playbook /

Enough already with this Devil’s advocate analysis, the final note is a positive one I promise. One shining highlight so far this season is the fearlessness of the coaching staff and their total confidence in the team they put together. Raheem Morris and his staff have put together some very creative play calls these past few weeks. The most obvious of which is the inclusion of Josh Johnson in the offense and the Wildcat formation. Personally I’m not a fan of the Wildcat but I do like Johnson. He hasn’t had a quarterback rating under 60 in his appearances and granted he doesn’t throw much but when given the opportunity to he connects; in five appearances Johnson is 11 of 13 for 95 yards.  Further proof Morris’ grand swagger was a 4th and 1 play in the first quarter in which Michael Spurlock got a direct snap and threw a pass to Ernest Graham. The pass was incomplete but just the fact that Morris showed he wasn’t afraid to dial the numbers of two players who haven’t gotten too many calls this year, and dial them in a big 4th and 1 spot, was worth the incomplete pass. Oh and somebody tell Refrigerator Perry to move over, Donald Penn scores touchdowns now too. It definitely wets the appetite and peeks the curiosity as to what Morris will do next.

Albeit there were many negatives and positives about Sunday’s game in California, bottom line is the Bucs went on the road, beatdown and shut out an NFC opponent. The defense needed to step up and boy did they ever. When just about every defensive starter on your team gets a tackle, it’s safe to say you had a big game. When your team keeps the other team out of the endzone and away from the goal posts, it’s safe to say you had an amazing game. When your team does both of these things and is a young unit growing together it’s safe to say you have something special. The past two weeks were confidence builders for the offense and defense, preparing them for the next ‘real’ game they play which is next week in Baltimore. If Tampa can combine the previous two games and go into Baltimore and win then we know everything is working excellently and the Bucs will officially have liftoff. As for now, a 21-0 shut out on the road is going to have to hold everyone over, and holy cow will it ever.