By Jason Catania
Fox Sports Sponsored Post
Game: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) at San Francisco 49ers (3-1)
Date: Sunday, October 9
Time: 4:05 PM EST
Game of the Week Status
The Bucs took out the Indianapolis Colts, 24-17, on Monday night to win their third straight. QB Josh Freeman notched 2 TDs, one rushing and one passing, to lead Tampa back to a 17-17 tie at the end of three quarters before RB LeGarrette Blount capped off his season-high 127 yards by rumbling for 35 of them on the game-winning score with just over 3 minutes left.
Making the unenviable cross-country trip, especially going east from the West Coast, is never easy. But after a huge come-from-behind 24-23 win over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, the flight back home wasn’t nearly as bad for the Niners, who were led by a strong run game – RB Frank Gore had his best performance of the season by far, rushing for 127 yards and a TD – and an even stronger run defense, as they held the Eagles’ explosive RB LeSean McCoy to all of 18 yards on the ground.
What To Expect
The Bucs are trying to improve upon last season’s showing, when they fell just short of the postseason despite going 10-6, so maintaining their lead in the NFC South is key. The biggest obstacle at the moment for the Bucs is a secondary that can, at times, be exploited, much like it was last week when the Colts’ two touchdowns came on a pair of long scoring strikes through the air.
While the Niners don’t exactly have a scary passing attack, the Bucs need to limit the number of big plays they allow. On offense, it’s the Freeman and Blount show.
Since Blount took over the role of starting back midway through 2010, he’s become the workhorse that his 6’0”, 247-pound frame suggests, ranking No. 5 in the league in total carries while accruing 1,033 yards – good for second-most over that time.
But the big back has his work cut out for him this week, as he goes up against the 49ers’ fourth-ranked run defense (74.0 yards per game), and one of his key blockers, rookie TE Luke Stocker is out with a knee injury.
As for Freeman, the 23-year-old is in just his third year but already has shown a knack for winning close games, having gone 8-5 in contests decided by seven points or less the past two years, including the first three wins this season. That sort of savvy from such a young leader could come in handy Sunday because this game is likely to be a low-scoring affair.
On the 49ers side of things, first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh needs to keep his squad playing hard-nosed football, especially on defense. Their success so far has rested primarily on the shoulders of the defense, as the Niners are averaging just 270.8 yards per game on offense, fifth-worst in football.
The main problem is that the quarterback position has been unsettled for years because Smith, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, has proven to be an injury-prone bust, yet the team can’t seem to find a replacement.
Perhaps Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, is finally getting through and uncovering some of Smith’s skills, as the normally mistake-ridden 27-year-old is enjoying a solid start through four games, with a career-high 67.3 completion percentage and only one interception.
If the Niners are going to win this one, it will be because Smith avoids any blunders and their run defense – which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last 26 games, the longest active streak in the NFL – continues to dominate, thanks to LB Patrick Willis.
Having already opened up a two-game lead in the underwhelming NFC West, San Fran is in position to put a stranglehold on the division. If they can take advantage of the fact that the Bucs have to make the cross-country trek during a short week after playing the Monday nighter, the Niners could set themselves up nicely for the rest of the season.