ReFo: 49ers @ Buccaneers, Week 15
The 49ers were able to avoid a letdown game but some solid play from Tampa's defensive line made it challenging. Ben Stockwell breaks down the game.
ReFo: 49ers @ Buccaneers, Week 15
Having got their all important win over the Seahawks last week in San Francisco the last thing the 49ers needed, or could afford, was a letdown performance in Tampa Bay seven days later. The 49ers evaded that fate with a solid display, gradually building a lead through the first three quarters before grinding out the fourth with a ten minute drive and taking advantage of some misguided adventure on special teams to take any sting out of the game with four minutes remaining.
For the Bucs this was another performance with grit and competitiveness and plenty of disruption against the 49ers’ ground game, though it rarely stopped that ground game in its tracks. San Francisco brought plenty of movement (lateral and vertical) to their ground game and Tampa Bay responded with plenty of lateral movement of their own, stunting on run plays to try and throw off the 49ers’ assignments on their power plays. It worked in terms of disrupting a lot of runs but all too often Frank Gore was able to find his way out he back door or the 49ers were able to re-adjust to find space to keep the running game moving forward. The Bucs’ own ground game was uninspiring, failing to gain traction against the 49ers’ physical defensive front, but for a busted coverage to bring the game back within a score the entire Tampa Bay offense came up a little short yesterday. Are performances like this enough to keep Greg Schiano in this job for another off-season?
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Aldon serves another reminder
This has been a troubled season for Aldon Smith on a personal level but since his return to the field he has slowly grown back towards his best form of the last two seasons and served an all-round reminder of his abilities against Donald Penn and the Bucs yesterday. Earning a positive grade in run defense and as a pass rusher for the third time in the last four weeks, Smith notched a season high nine pressures (2 Sk,1 Ht, 6 Hu), his most since his 10 pressure performance against the Steelers in Week 15 of his rookie season. He took some time to grow into his matchup against Penn, notching just a hurry and a tackle for loss in the first 25 minutes of the game, but in the final five minutes of the first half he added a further hit and two hurries building further in the second half. Smith has taken on a gradually fuller role in recent weeks and he saw Dan Skuta limited to just three snaps this week. A fully healthy and fully firing Smith takes this 49er defense to another level that they will need to hit to clinch and make the most of their playoff spot.
Tough sledding and hard yards for Gore
The 49ers’ ground game at its best is a sublime mix of efficient execution of assignments which allows the brutal physicality of the ground game to shine through. Up against a defense similarly bent on imposing its physical will on the opposing ground attack there was always likely to be a lot of splintered running plays. How those broken plays spun out was likely to be key in determining which unit got the upper hand. The 49ers’ blockers did just enough and Frank Gore’s vision and toughness were key in keeping San Francisco moving consistently forward, even if not in big chunks, on the ground. His 3.9 yards per carry don’t look too impressive but he did snag nearly three yards per carry after first contact — finding creases and back doors as his linemen held blocks long enough to allow Gore to find a second option even if Tampa Bay defenders stood up the blocks to take away the first option. Gore matched a season high with four missed tackles forced last night, his most since the 49ers’ Week 4 victory in St Louis.
Bowman and Willis control the middle
Many people like to try and compare Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Is Bowman now better and more important than Willis? Fortunately for the 49ers they don’t have to make the choice, they get to play both of them and reap the benefits of two of the league’s best inside linebackers working in tandem at the heart of their defense. Both turned in among their highest graded performances of the season with their displays in coverage particularly strong. On five combined targets they surrendered three catches for 17 yards with Bowman notching his fourth pass defense of the season, his first since the 49ers’ Week 7 win in Tennessee. Each linebacker snagged four stops with Bowman grabbing three in the ground game and Willis three (including a sack at the end of the game) in the passing game. Willis and Bowman, like the rest of the San Francisco defense, have been solid and strong this year without hitting the heights of past seasons. This kind of performance shows that level of play is still in there. Is this defense about to turn in a streak of stingy performances just at the right time?
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
Gholston steals some of the limelight up front
All too often this season Gerald McCoy has been a lonely shining light on the defensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Once again McCoy was the Buccaneers’ highest graded (+3.3) defensive lineman and none of the other starters earned a positive grade (all -2.5 or worse in fact) but working off the bench McCoy was given able support by William Gholston (+2.9). Earning a positive grade in run defense (+1.4; two stops) and as a pass rusher (+2.3; 4 Hu, 2 BP) Gholston earned the highest grade of his rookie season to date, backing up a strong display against Buffalo last week with a better game on a heavier workload than seven days ago. Playing all over the Bucs’ defensive line Gholston is adding performance to his versatility and will be pushing for increased playing time to further illustrate his growth over the final fortnight of his rookie season.
Watson grasps his opportunity
Much like Kyle Wilber in Dallas, Tampa Bay linebacker Dekoda Watson is making the most of the opportunity to fill in for an injured strong side linebacker. With Jonathan Casillas now on injured reserve and facing off with a team that rarely goes to a three wide look Watson played a career high 64 snaps and relished the battle in the ground game. Working against receivers, tight ends, fullbacks and linemen Watson got busy disrupting runs and making more than his share of tackles and stops. His six stops almost matched his season output to date and with five of those coming against the run his 14.3 Run Stop Percentage is the third best mark in the league this week among 4-3 outside linebackers behind only Dont’a Hightower and J.T. Thomas. The cleanup work wasn’t always consistent and timely but Watson did a lot of good work with initial disruption and sliding off to finish his own plays in this physical battle on the ground. Headed to St. Louis next week expect to see Watson feature prominently against another team that likes to keep the ball on the ground before his playing time dwindles again in Week 17 as the Bucs finish the season against New Orleans.
Tackling woes return in spades
With two games to go the Buccaneers have already missed more tackles (129) this season than they missed all of last season (122). Dropping from 169 missed tackles to 122 from 2011 to 2012 was one of the big reasons behind their step forwards on defense last year, but some of those troubles have returned in bunches this season. Notching 15 missed tackles yesterday they hit double digits for the fifth time this season and only just fell short of their season high of 16 set in their agonizing defeat in Seattle back in Week 9. Six defenders missed multiple tackles with three of those players manning the secondary. In just this one game the Tampa Bay defense missed almost as many (17) as they missed in the last three weeks of the 2012 season which included a heavy 41-0 defeat in New Orleans.
-Returning to the offensive lineup for the first time since the 49ers played in Wembley back in Week 8 Garrett Celek notched a season high 34 snaps.
–Da’Quan Bowers just crept into double digits with ten snaps yesterday; Bowers hasn’t topped 20 snaps in a game since Week 8.
-When facing a base pass rush (24/35 dropbacks) Colin Kaepernick went 16/21 (1 sack, 2 scrambles) for 162 yards and two scores. Against the blitz (11/35 dropbacks) he went 3/8 (1 sack, 2 scrambles) for 41 yards and an NFL passer rating of 54.7.
PFF Game Ball
Positivity in the trenches for the Buccaneers has been hard to find away from Gerald McCoy. This strong all round display from William Gholston backing up a good game last week offers hope for a strong last month to offer promise for better times ahead in 2014.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.