TAMPA — The Bucs have four wins in their past five games. Only the Eagles can claim a better record in the league in that span. But Tampa Bay has done so despite consistent problems offensively on third down, converting just 24 percent of its opportunities in those five games.
As a result, the Bucs have dropped to 31st in the league in third-down conversion, down to 33.2 percent, ahead of only Jacksonville. And on Sunday, Tampa Bay will work to improve those numbers against a 49ers defense that ranks sixth in the league in third-down defense, allowing just 34.4 percent.
"When you have tough defenses, third down's where they really shine," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "That's the money down, and they've got the guys to do it. But we need to convert. … It's going to be huge Sunday. When you say, 'What are the keys?' third down's a huge key, for them and for us. … You're going to get it to third down and manageables. Can you convert, or not?"
The Bucs have faced a high number of third-and-long situations in the past five games. Of their 62 third downs in that span, 28 were third and 10 or longer, and of those 28, the Bucs have one conversion: a 38-yard touchdown pass from Mike Glennon to WR Vincent Jackson on a third-and-14 play against Buffalo on Sunday. What it means is an average of just three third-down conversions a game over a five-game span.
"A negative play on first down usually amounts to an 8-plus third down," Schiano said. "There's been some longer downs in these last couple weeks. The third and 8s can't be a longer down. You have to find a way to get 8 yards. That's something we have to do better. Third and 13s, there's a reason the conversion rate's pretty low across the league on third and 13s, third and 14s."
As with nearly any facet of the team's offense, things get worse in the second half. The Bucs are converting third downs at just 16 percent in the second half of the past five games, and two of those conversions were on third-and-1 plays. When facing third and 5 yards or longer in the second half, the Bucs are 0-for-21 in their past five games.
BACK IN: After practicing without two starting offensive linemen battling shoulder injuries Wednesday, the team got back C Jeremy Zuttah and G Davin Joseph on Thursday.
Zuttah was limited but took an encouraging step toward playing Sunday.
Jackson was limited in practice by a lingering hamstring injury, but Schiano said he was a little bit better. He didn't practice until Friday last week but was able to play against the Bills, catching three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.
DE Da'Quan Bowers was limited as he works through a knee injury.
SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY: CB Darrelle Revis acknowledges it would be "special" if the Bucs can beat the defending NFC champion 49ers Sunday, adding a signature win to their streak.
Because of Tampa Bay's 4-1 run to 4-9 overall, Revis believes things are starting to click, and that makes for a promising future.
"We've been growing as a team," he said. "I feel the past four or five games, we've really grown, and I think we know how to win together. Guys know how guys play and the communication of where a guy is supposed to be. I think we feel very confident. We do. We've been on a roll, and we've got to continue to do that. That's just us sticking together like we've always been, even though it's been rocky, but we can build. We can build off this and look forward to the future."