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Bucs prepare for challenge

The league's best defense is anxious to see how it will match up against San Francisco's high-powered offense.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2003

TAMPA -- With each crafty completion 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia made while conducting the second-best comeback in playoffs history Sunday, you could feel more pressure being applied to the defense.

In Tampa Bay.

Forget about what the New York Giants experienced in their 24-point collapse in the NFC wild-card game. Their season is as empty as their lockers.

Garcia managed to transfer that stress to the Buccaneers, whose top-ranked defense was experiencing its own two-minute warning for Sunday's divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium.

"I had my gameplan for the Giants and scrapped that at the end," safety John Lynch said. "Now I'm trying to get familiar with a team I haven't faced for awhile.

"That was a gutty, gritty performance. The guy is a real gamer. He really is. He's been producing like that for a long time, and I think (Sunday) was his most impressive performance."

The Bucs have plenty of experience with mobile quarterbacks like Garcia, especially playing in the NFC South, where they get to see the likes of the Falcons' Michael Vick and the Saints' Aaron Brooks twice a year.

But neither of those players is as adept as Garcia at locating second and third options while scrambling out of the pocket. Nor do they have a target like flamboyant Niners receiver Terrell Owens.

"It's a big challenge for us," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "What Garcia did the other day was classic Joe Montana. I'm just telling you. Joe Montana couldn't have done any better. He's got a quick, five-step drop. He is great at finding the second and third receiver. That's who this guy is.

"He stays alive and he sees the field. He's not as fast as Vick, but he's pretty fast and he'll run the ball."

While the wild-card games have been high-scoring affairs, Sunday's NFC divisional game is a classic matchup between the prolific West Coast offense of the 49ers against the sturdy Bucs defense.

Tampa Bay is the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the NFL in total defense (252.8), fewest points allowed (12.3 per game) and interceptions (31). It also was best in opponent passer rating (48.4), fewest yards per play (4.2) and first downs (236).

But the 49ers led the NFL in third-down conversion rate at 52.3 percent, and Garcia was sacked only 22 times. And if you think they are a pass-happy offense, consider the 49ers ranked sixth in the league in rushing after finishing first a year ago.

"It seems like we always get a couple of these at playoff time," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It's always our D vs. some powerful offense coming in here. But the West Coast offense, I think we've seen it so much and we're used to it so much that it's almost -- I don't want to say routine -- but we've got a feel for it. The only variable in this deal is we've never played them before. We've never seen their quarterback, obviously. On the film, we know what they're about. But we don't know what they're about on the field."

"I saw (Owens) in the superstar competition a few years ago and I was thoroughly impressed with the guy. His intensity, just in that little competition. I can't imagine how it translates on Sunday. I've never had a chance to play against him."

Owens, who had nine catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants, is always a threat to open a Sharpie against you. At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, he will have a considerable size advantage over the Bucs cornerbacks. And he has the speed to be a gamebreaker, as evidenced by his 76-yard touchdown against the Giants.

"He presents the big-receiver problems, but he also presents the guy-after-the-catch problems," defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's the unique ability that he has. He's a big guy, he can be physical with you, he can muscle you, but he also can run away from you when he gets the ball.

"He's good enough that if you give him the same look every time, he's going to beat you. You've got to spin the dial, flip the script and give him different looks and be competitive."

Garcia also has a knack for locating his receivers when the play breaks down and successfully rerouting pass plays.

"They don't always go deep and they don't always come forward. They mix it up," Barber said. "He's talented at getting the ball out of his hands when he gets out of the pocket. He's looking to throw. Some of the other guys you kind of expect to get out and run with it and try to make plays that way. This guy is looking for T.O. and guys like that down the field.

"I'm excited to see what happens. We've been here before where teams are putting up record numbers and we just sit back and do our thing and play Buc ball. Fortunately, we have an offense now that we feel can put up some points. However it turns out, you just want to advance. That's the important thing."

As good as the Bucs defense has been, one of just five teams in NFL history to allow fewer than 200 points in a 16-game season, it won't mean much if Garcia and Owens are at it again Sunday, applying more pressure than they feel on one of those frantic two-minute drills.

"We've got to finish the story, and so far the story looks good," Tomlin said. "We've done things we set out to do this season, we're pleased with where we are, but we're far from finished. We've got very little road left to travel."

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