The Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers - a once great franchise that has fallen into disrepair the past ten weeks. But those 49ers are currently 3-1, as are the Buccaneers, and they are leading their division. Jim Harbaugh seems to have infused this team with renewed energy, and has them playing some good football on both sides of the ball.
The 49er front seven is especially dominant. Justin Smith is the unsung hero on the defensive line, while Patrick Willis is widely recognized as the best inside linebacker in football. Second-year player NaVorro Bowman has also been playing excellent football, but the 49er back seven has struggled a little while still being solid. With the league's best run defense and tenth-ranked pass defense by Football Outsiders' numbers, this is a defense to be reckoned with.
And that will be the Bucs' biggest challenge. Can they run the ball on a defense that has stifled every ground game it has faced? That would be a formidable task with TE Luke Stocker, who has been a valuable blocker in the run game, but without him it may be impossible.
And if the Bucs can't, will they commit to the pass, and how well will Josh Freeman do? The third-year quarterback has looked a little off this season. He has not looked comfortable in the pocket and has been throwing too many off-balance passes, leading to inaccurate throws. That's not even the fault of the offensive line, which has done a good job of keeping pass rushers off the big quarterback.
Josh Freeman did look significantly better against the Indianapolis Colts, although his receivers did not help him out in that game. Penalties and drops plagued the receivers, which led to another unimpressive day through the air. Can the Bucs put together a complete passing game against the San Francisco 49ers?The good news there is that the 49ers have struggled to contain #1 receivers and slot receivers which means we could see a big day for Mike Williams and Preston Parker, especially with slot cornerback Shawntae Spencer's injury.
On defense the Bucs are likely to have a lot more success, however. The 49ers' offensive line has looked horrendous through four games, failing to open up up any holes for star running back Frank Gore and allowing a whopping 14 sacks of quarterback Alex Smith. The Bucs defensive line, meanwhile, has kept the last two running games its faced to less than 100 yards - combined. As if that wasn't good enough, the team also sacked opposing quarterbacks four times in both previous games. Facing another weak offensive line, this front four could have a field day.
Pass coverage has been a weakness for the Bucs this season, however. But this doesn't really need to a problem against the 49ers. The Bucs have mostly struggled to contain wide receivers, but have done a good job of stopping tight ends. And the strength of the 49er passing game is its tight ends, namely Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. If the Bucs can contain those players, they shouldn't have much trouble with quarterback Alex Smith.
I'm predicting this game to be another win for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 17-10. The Bucs' offense will struggle a little after a short week and a long trip, but the defensive line will have another big day and shut down a 49er offense that has not been overly impressive. Michael Bennett could have another very big day going against second-year tackle Anthony Davis, while Mike Williams should have his first 100-yard game.
Who do you think will shine on either side of the ball, and what do you think the final score will be?