Tampa Bay Buccaneers The Bucs had back to the Bay area for the second season in a row, this time hoping to start a second-half run against a 49ers team that boasts a wide array of offensive options and an overloaded defensive front Scott Smith
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers snapped a four-game losing streak with a 20-6 win over Tennessee in Week 10 and now face an opportunity to both get back to .500 and reclaim a share of the lead in the NFC South race. Standing in the way, however, is San Francisco 49ers team that just ended its own three-game skid and looked to be back in peak form during a 34-3 drubbing of the Jaguars in Jacksonville.
At 4-5, the Buccaneers are a half-game behind New Orleans in the division standings and a half-game ahead of Atlanta, and both of those teams will be idle in Week 11 so, barring a tie in San Francisco, the Buccaneers will be tied with one of them by the end of the weekend. If they're even with the Saints, they will also hold a tiebreaker edge thanks to their victory in New Orleans in Week Four.
The 49ers present a significant challenge to a Buccaneers team trying to start a second-half run, as they rank fourth in points scored per game (28.0) and second in points allowed per game (15.9), giving them the best points differential in the entire NFL. They added to that in Week 10 with their blowout in Jacksonville following a bye week, with Brock Purdy throwing three touchdown passes, including a 66-yarder to tight end George Kittle, and no interceptions. San Francisco's defense also intercepted Trevor Lawrence twice, once by All-Pro off-ball linebacker Fred Warner.
San Francisco had slid into its bye week on an unexpected three-game losing streak following a 5-0 start to the season. The Seahawks used that dip to close the gap and the two teams are now tied atop the NFC West at 6-3 each. The bye week came at a good time for the 49ers, whose offense had been playing without two key figures in left tackle Trent Williams and do-it-all offensive weapon Deebo Samuel. Both returned to action against Jacksonville and made an immediate impact, including Samuel's 23-yard touchdown run.
The 49ers offense also had some extra time to integrate trade-deadline pickup Chase Young into their already loaded defensive front. Young, who had 5.0 sacks for Washington before he was traded, fits into a defensive front that already boasts the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Nick Bosa plus one of the most significant offseason acquisitions in the league in defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. Bosa and Hargrave each had a sack and a half in Jacksonville and are tied for the team lead with 4.5 each this season.
The Buccaneers will be trying to prove that their recent gains on offense are going to stick against San Francisco's fifth-ranked defense. After a 37-point explosion in a narrow loss to the Texans, the Buccaneers played an efficient and mostly mistake-free game in its win over Tennessee, with Baker Mayfield throwing a pair of touchdown passes. Tampa Bay's defense also had a strong outing against the Titans, allowing just 209 yards of offense and delivering four sacks and 13 quarterback hits on Will Levis. The Buccaneers' defense continued to thrive in the red zone and now leads the NFL with a touchdown-allowed percentage of 32.14% on such drives. However, the 49ers can counter with the sixth-ranked red zone offense, not to mention one of the NFL's most explosive weapons in running back Christian McCaffrey (1,086 yards from scrimmage, 13 touchdowns).
The Buccaneers are well aware of what McCaffrey can do from years of facing him in divisional play before the Panthers traded him to San Francisco. They also felt the sting of his two touchdowns in last year's meeting in San Francisco, not to mention Purdy's stunning debut and scores by both Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk in a lopsided 35-7 affair. The Buccaneers hope to avenge that loss with another trip to the West Coast, and possibly return home with a piece of first place.
CMC-ing a Problem - After pulling almost all of their offensive starters late in their demolition of the Jaguars last Sunday, the 49ers left Christian McCaffrey on the field and gave him four cracks at scoring inside the 10. None of them worked and thus McCaffrey's NFL-record streak of 17 straight games (postseason included) with at least one touchdown came to an end. Still, he contributed 142 yards from scrimmage to the 49ers' 437-yard day and needed just nine games to top 1,000 on the season. He has scored nine times on the ground and four more times through the air, and he pulled off the run-catch TD combo against the Buccaneers last year. Tampa Bay's run defense has been one of the team's strengths this year, and after holding tank-like back Derrick Henry to 24 rushing yards last Sunday will now try to contain the shifty and elusive McCaffrey in an effort to avoid another 49ers scoring outburst. Defensive linemen Vita Vea and Calijah Kancey have paired up to very effectively clog the middle, and ageless linebacker Lavonte David has made tackles all over the field, including 11 times in the offensive backfield.
Giving Baker Time to Cook - Though they generated just a single field goal in San Francisco last December, the Bucs did not allow the 49ers' vaunted pass rush to get to Tom Brady, who was not sacked in that contest. Of course, Tampa Bay's offense has undergone a transformation since then, with Brady now retired and quarterback Baker Mayfield and Offensive Coordinator Dave Canales new in town. The Bucs' offensive line has continued to excel in pass blocking, but it's within the structure of an offense that isn't always getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand in 2.5 seconds. Mayfield has often chosen to hang in the pocket or move around to buy time so he can get some more downfield shots, and it has worked quite a bit, as he has some of the best passing numbers in the NFL when under pressure. Still, the Bucs would prefer that he has a clean pocket and time to find such weapons as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, so they'll rely on their O-Line to stand up against a murderer's row of former first-round draft picks and big-time free agency acquisitions. As noted earlier, that includes Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave and new arrival Chase Young, but it is rounded out by Javon Kinlaw, Arik Armstead, Clelin Ferrell and Randy Gregory. The 49ers have thrown massive resources at their defensive front, and while it hasn't been quite as oppressive as last year (18.0 sacks, 22nd in sack rate), it has the potential to explode at any time.
Taking Advantage of TO Chances - The Buccaneers failed to hold onto four potential interceptions against Tennessee in Week 10 before Antoine Winfield Jr. finally corralled a high pop-up caused by a hit on the quarterback. That didn't end up being a problem in their two-touchdown win but the Buccaneers, who are 11-point underdogs this week, probably can't afford to let turnover opportunities go to waste in San Francisco. There's no guarantee those opportunities will arise - the 49ers have only committed nine turnovers so far, sixth-fewest in the NFL - but if the Bucs' defense can take the ball away more frequently than it has been lately that would significantly improve their chances of an upset. Mayfield and Tampa Bay's offense has done a very good job protecting the football, committing one fewer turnover than the 49ers, so there's a chance to win that ratio battle if the defense can add to Purdy's total of five interceptions or fall on some loose balls. The Bucs have only scored 10 points off turnovers over their last four games combined. Fortunately, they've allowed none in that same span.
Fleshing Out the Offense - Mike Evans remains the Bucs' most dangerous offensive weapon as he closes in on a 10th straight 1,000-yard season, and Chris Godwin is one of the most QB-friendly receivers in the league. In recent weeks, however, the Buccaneers have started to find some new and reliable ways to move the football even when the opposing defense is making a concerted effort to bottle up those two starting receivers. That was Houston's approach for a good portion of their win in Week Nine, but Mayfield was able to get the ball to running back Rachaad White and Cade Otton for a total of four touchdowns. Rookie wide receiver Trey Palmer, who has emerged as a playmaker in three-receiver sets, had several key downfield catches on what looked like it was going to be the game-winning drive in Houston. Evans reminded everyone of what can happen when he isn't bracketed by multiple defenders all day last Sunday when he racked up 143 yards and a touchdown on six catches, frequently getting behind the defense downfield. Godwin has been a bit more quite of late but has had more than 50 yards in seven of the Bucs' nine games so far and had an eight-catch, 114-yard outing in the team's last road win at New Orleans. With White emerging as one of the most productive pass-catching backs in the league and Mayfield proving that he can distribute the ball to all of these players without putting it at risk of a turnover, the Bucs' offense under Canales is starting to find more and more ways to stress opposing defenses. If they can continue that trend against a very stingy 49ers' defense, it will be a very good sign for the stretch run of the season.
1. 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk vs. Buccaneers CB Jamel Dean
Speaking of a deep and varied arsenal of weapons, few teams in the NFL can boast one with more ways to chew up yardage than the 49ers. One of those is fourth-year wideout Brandon Aiyuk, who had a breakout 1,015-yard, eight-touchdown campaign in 2022 and is currently the team's leading receiver with 35 catches for 620 yards. He is averaging a robust 17.7 yards per catch this season and is the most likely of the team's wide array of pass-catchers at various positions to get down the field quickly. Through the first seven weeks of the season, Aiyuk was averaging 14.0 air yards per target, which was the seventh most in the NFL and a big jump up from his average of 9.9 last season. Aiyuk gets up to speed quickly, as his average of 12.8 miles per hour at the time the pass arrives in his hands was fifth-highest in the league through seven weeks, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Fortunately, the Buccaneers have a cornerback who can match that kind of speed in Jamel Dean, who can also accelerate on a dime. Aiyuk has lined up a little bit more often on the left side of the 49ers' formation, which means he should see a lot of Dean this Sunday. Dean is coming off a fantastic outing in Week 10 in which he and Zyon McCollum combined to hold prolific Titans receiver DeAndre Hopkins to 27 yards on three catches. Dean has the size to match up with the 6-0, 200-pound Aiyuk and has been particularly effective at limiting big plays downfield.
2. Buccaneers G Aaron Stinnie vs. 49ers Javon Hargrave
Aaron Stinnie has started the Buccaneers' last three games at left guard in the absence of the injured Matt Feiler and has drawn repeated praise from the coaching staff for his efforts. Stinnie plays with strength and has done a good job of pushing downfield for second-level blocks. This is not the first time an injury has opened the door for Stinnie to step in and shine; he memorably started the last three games of the Bucs' 2020 Super Bowl run after an injury to Alex Cappa and turned in three straight strong performances. With Feiler still returning from a knee injury, Stinnie could get a fourth straight start, though Head Coach Todd Bowles has so far declined to indicate who would play the left guard position when Feiler is fully healthy again. Assuming Stinnie is on the field Sunday, he will have his hands full with Javon Hargrave, whom the 49ers pried away from the Eagles in free agency with a four-year $84-million deal. So far, Hargrave has been worth every penny. After he generated a 14.1% pressure rate across the 2021-22 seasons for Philly, the best in the NFL among defensive tackles, he brought the same impact to San Francisco, now sitting at 16.1%, fourth-best among qualifying DTs. He has more frequently lined up to the right of the center on the 49ers' front, putting him in Stinnie's vicinity. With so much attention required to the likes of Bosa and Young on the edge, it may be critical for Stinnie to keep Hargrave at bay as much as possible.
3. 49ers T Trent Williams vs. Buccaneers OLB Yaya Diaby
The 49ers were thrilled to get Trent Williams back in action following their bye week after he had missed two games with an ankle injury. Williams is 35 but more dominant than ever in the back half of his career, as he was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection for the first two times in 2021 and 2022. He has been selected to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. According to Pro Football Focus, he has yet to be responsible for allowing a sack this season, and when the 49ers played the Cowboys earlier in the season he did not surrender a QB pressure to all-world edge rusher Micah Parsons. Rookie Yaya Diaby is an ascending player for the Buccaneers and his coaches are starting to put him on the field more and more often. Last week against Tennessee he logged the second-most snaps of the team's six outside linebackers, in part because the team wanted his strong run-stopping skills on the field against Derrick Henry. Diaby made a big impact, not only in slowing down Henry but also with his second career sack plus two QB hits and two tackles for loss. Diaby has rushed from both ends of the line this season so he should have some encounters with Williams on Sunday. Against the Titans, Diaby rushed the passer 17 times and recorded four quarterback pressures for a 23.5% pressure rate that was easily his best performance so far this season.
4. Buccaneers RB Rachaad White vs. 49ers LB Fred Warner
Warner is one of the NFL's preeminent middle-of-the-field menaces, routinely shutting down opposing team's pass attempts in that area. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has allowed -27.5 receptions over expected since he was drafted in 2018, the best mark in the NFL regardless of position. From 2018-22, the 49ers' defense allowed fewer completions to the intermediate middle of the field than any other team in the league, largely because of Warner. In addition to his team-leading 78 tackles, Warner already has three interceptions and six passes defensed this season. All of these pass-stopping statistics are particularly important for the Buccaneers this week because getting the ball to running back Rachaad White in space has become one of their most effective ways of picking up yards and moving the chains. White ranks second only to Christian McCaffrey in receiving yards by a running back this season and just last weekend broke off a dazzling 43-yard touchdown scamper on a screen pass. White is excellent at making the first defender in his path miss and he has shown a knack for playing off his downfield blocks when he gets on the move.