Bucs at 49ers: Five things to watch on Sunday
The Bucs make the second of three long trips out west, hoping they'll fare better than in their 40-7 loss at Arizona in Week 2. They opened as a road favorite, no common feat for Tampa Bay, and here are five things to watch for as the Bucs take on the 49ers in Santa Clara on Sunday:
1. Can Jacquizz Rodgers exploit the NFL's worst run defense in 31 years? San Francisco is giving up 174 yards per game on the ground, worst in the NFL by 27 yards and on pace to be the NFL's worst run defense since the 1985 Houston Oilers. They gave up 312 rushing yards in last week's loss to Buffalo -- the most against a 49ers team since 1958, five years before Chip Kelly was born -- and they've given up a 100-yard rusher five weeks in a row.
Granted, that's included some really good backs, like Buffalo's LeSean McCoy, Arizona's David Johnson and Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott. One of the players who could see more snaps as the 49ers try to fix their run defense is LB Shayne Skov, who was cut from the Bucs' practice squad in 2014.
Can Rodgers match or even somehow improve on his 101 yards on 30 carries in the win against Carolina? Expect the Bucs to run early and often to find out.
2. Is that Chip Kelly offense really all that different? When Kelly was in Philadelphia, the talk was uptempo, lots of plays -- the Eagles led the NFL in offensive plays in 2014, were second last year. But in San Francisco? The 49ers rank 14th in plays per game -- the Bucs, with all those pass-happy comeback attempts, are second and average 6.6 more plays per game.
Between the scheme and general struggles, San Francisco ranks 30th in the NFL in time of possession -- 26:09 out of 60 minutes -- and the Bucs will try to make that more glaring with a heavy dose of their running game.
Where the 49ers won't help you: Flags. They're the least penalized team in the NFL, both in penalties and yards, totaling 27 for 213 yards in their six games.
3. Can Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith celebrate some personal revenge? In 2012, the Falcons were 10 yards away from the Super Bowl at the end of the NFC title game, with Smith as head coach and Koetter as offensive coordinator, facing the 49ers.
But from the 10-yard line, Matt Ryan threw incomplete twice and San Francisco won 28-24, going on to the Super Bowl and a loss to the Ravens.
"Man, to be that close to the Super Bowl and not make it," Koetter said Thursday. "Coaches always remember losses more than wins, and that's one. ... It was hard to watch them play in the Super Bowl, but they did have a really good football team."
Atlanta nearly got some consolation the next year, but again, fell 10 yards short. The Falcons, down 3, drove to the 49ers' 10, only to see Ryan throw a pass returned 89 yards for a touchdown in a 34-24 49ers win.
4. Can the Bucs defense continue without a tight end touchdown? When you last saw the Bucs, they were allowing Carolina's Greg Olsen to get wide-open -- again -- on the way to nine catches for 181 yards. That stood out, because in the Bucs' first four games, opposing tight ends combined for just 115 yards on 12 catches.
The Bucs are one of only five NFL teams not to allow a touchdown to a tight end -- Carolina, for instance, has allowed six, and Detroit seven. 49ers TE Vance McDonald has a 75-yard touchdown this year, but just eight catches for 43 yards aside from that. Garrett Celek catches a ton of short passes -- 20 for 135 yards -- but neither is a huge threat to end the Bucs' streak.
5. Who steps up at receiver to help Mike Evans? With Vincent Jackson on injured reserve, that's six targets a game that will be divvied up among several options. That could be any of several receivers -- slot receiver Adam Humphries, newly healthy Cecil Shorts, newly signed Donteea Dye or special-teams ace Russell Shepard.
Another option: Bucs TE Cameron Brate. Tight ends have had a field day on the 49ers -- Olsen went for 122 yards and a touchdown with Carolina, Jimmy Graham had six catches for 100 and a touchdown with Seattle, Jason Witten led the Cowboys with seven for 47 and Charles Clay led the Bills with five for 52.
You don't see a lot of second and third receivers beating the 49ers defense, but you see a lot of tight ends getting open and getting in the end zone. Toward that end, keep an eye out for Brandon Myers, who spent his first four NFL seasons in the Bay area with the Raiders. In the low red zone -- inside the 10 -- the Bucs like their tight ends, and don't forget Luke Stocker, who returns after missing four weeks with an ankle injury.