A new, disciplinarian head coach straight out of college, a struggling quarterback, a conservative offense focused on the running game, a stingy run defense with some exceptional play along the defensive line, turnovers in the passing and some close games. Those elements produced two teams: the 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 2011 San Francisco 49ers. In fact, over the first three weeks of the season the similarities are striking.
Through the first three games of the 2011 season, the San Francisco 49ers went 2-1 by virtue of losing one close game and winning two close games. They did that almost entirely on the back of their stingy run defense, and a few turnovers. They didn't allow a single team to rush for more than 80 yards against them through those three weeks, produced a ridiculous 8 turnovers while giving away the ball just twice themselves.
Their pass defense wasn't as good, however, allowing Tarvaris Jackson and Andy Dalton to throw for over 200 yards, and giving up 472 yards to Tony Romo. Their offense was struggling as well, never moving past 85 yards rushing or 176 yards passing in a game. In terms of total offense, their best game came against the Cincinnati Bengals, producing just 226 passing yards.
Now, compare the 2012 Buccaneers. Their offense has struggled, with the running game consistently failing to move the chains. The Bucs produced 130 rushing yards against the Carolina Panthers, but haven't managed as much as 80 yards on the ground the past two games. Josh Freeman had a fairly productive game against the Giants, but has struggled in the other two games. Offensive turnovers haven't caused losses, but a lack of offensive production has kept games close.
On defense, the Bucs have had a ridiculous stingy run defense, allowing just 142 yards on the ground with opposing running backs rushing 2.3 yards per carry. Both marks top the league. The defense, like the 2011 49ers, has also produced 8 turnovers, but has failed to contain passers through the air. The biggest differences between the 2011 49ers and 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the number of wins so far.
As the 2011 season continued beyond week 3, the San Francisco 49ers continued to improve. They profited from a weak schedule, but at the end of the year they had a productive offense and arguably the best defense in the entire NFL. That combination led them to the NFC Championships, where they couldn't beat the New York Giants. The 49ers got that far by consistently winning close games, their only blowout win coming against the Bucs themselves in week 5.
The Buccaneers now hope to do the same, with the same formula. The running game took off for the 49ers starting in week 4, and the Bucs hope to do the same - though if they can do that remains to be seen. Doug Martin has to become more patient for that to happen. But the Bucs do have the pieces in place to make a strong run. They have a fairly weak schedule ahead of them, with teams like the Chiefs, Vikings, Raiders, Panthers, Saints (who are now weak) and Rams yet to come. They've been on the right side of the turnover battle in each of their games. They've been dominant in run defense, and have consistently produced turnovers in the passing game.
The problem, however, is that none of this is particularly sustainable in the long run. Turnovers regress to the mean, and any defense built on turnovers will go through long spells where it can't produce many - and then it all collapses. The weak schedule helps this year, but it won't help once the team gets to the playoffs. More importantly, perhaps, Josh Freeman needs to be better than he is right now and the offense as a whole needs to step up.
The 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers look suspiciously like the 2011 San Francisco 49ers, but that's not necessarily a positive. That team had to have a lot of things go the right way for them to get as far as they did, and it's not likely the Bucs can reproduce that any time soon.