By Sam McPherson
Coming off a bye week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to Levi’s Stadium this weekend to take on a struggling San Francisco 49ers team, and unlike most years in the past, the 49ers and their fans certainly cannot expect this to be an automatic win for the San Francisco organization.
The 49ers hold a 17-5 all-time edge in this series against the Bucs, including one playoff matchup. The two teams have not played since 2013, and the last time Tampa Bay beat San Francisco was in 2010. However, the Buccaneers are an improved team on the rise, and they will have the added benefit of an extra week of preparation and rest for this game.
Coming off a blowout loss on the road to Buffalo, the 49ers will have to play a lot better at Levi’s Stadium in order to notch their second win of the season on Sunday.
Buccaneers Season Record: 2-3
Tampa Bay started off the season with a surprising road win over the Atlanta Falcons, but the Bucs turned around a week later and lost to Arizona on the road by 33 points. Tampa Bay then lost consecutive home games to the Los Angeles Rams and the Denver Broncos before pinning a surprising loss on the Carolina Panthers in Week 5.
In the road win over the Panthers, the Buccaneers played their first turnover-free game this season and the first since Week 14 last season. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay defense forced four turnovers in the Carolina win, although the Panthers were playing without quarterback Cam Newton at the time.
Buccaneers on Offense
Led by second-year QB Jameis Winston, the Tampa Bay offense has been inconsistent in 2016, mostly due to the lack of a consistent ground game. Running back Doug Martin has missed the last three games after injuring his hamstring in the Week 2 loss at Arizona. When Martin is healthy, he is one of the best RBs in the NFL.
In his absence, the Bucs have struggled to move the ball consistently, relying on less-talented RBs and forcing Winston into tough situations when the defense knows he has to throw downfield. Wide receiver Mike Evans has been the only real threat in the passing game, and Winston hasn’t been able to move the ball around as much as he would like with defenses being able to ignore the other potential Tampa Bay playmakers.
Buccaneers on Defense
Tampa Bay has given up at least 307 yards in every game this year, and it has only forced six turnovers in five games. Considering four came in the Carolina win and the other two came in a five-point loss to Los Angeles, the Bucs have played three games this year where the defense wasn’t able to force a turnover. That will have to change if Tampa Bay wants to win against the 49ers on Sunday.
The Bucs have registered nine QB sacks this year, while intercepting three passes. Linebacker Kwon Alexander has been the big defensive presence for Tampa Bay so far, with one INT return for a touchdown and two QB sacks (which leads the team). He also leads the Bucs with 37 solo tackles, so the 49ers offense will have to know where Alexander is on every play.
Players to Watch: RB Doug Martin and S Chris Conte
Martin really benefited from the bye week, and there is a good chance he could return to action against San Francisco on Sunday. When fully healthy, Martin has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his NFL career. When he’s been dinged up and not at 100 percent, that same number drops to 3.6 yards per attempt. That’s a huge difference, so even if the Tampa Bay star RB plays, the 49ers will have to be able to stop him and force Winston to throw.
Defensively, the Bucs have played some solid offensive teams and struggled for the most part. Due to injuries on the defensive line, too much pressure has been on Alexander and safety Chris Conte to make plays well past the the line of scrimmage. The 49ers will want to make sure this remains the case on Sunday, so watch Conte’s involvement: If he’s making a lot of plays for the Tampa Bay defense, the S.F. offense should be successful in gaining big chunks of yardage.
We know the 49ers have played much better at Levi’s Stadium than on the road since the new stadium opened in 2014. This is a game against an opponent that has the potential to be good, but just isn’t there yet due to injuries and depth issues. San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick has always been a polarizing figure, but his dynamic physical abilities should find success against a struggling Tampa Bay defense. Likewise, the 49ers defense can overcome its injury issues by feeding off the home-crowd energy. Toss in kick Phil Dawson’s reliability, and San Francisco will win this one with a late FG to move to 2-5 on the season.