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Thin secondary hurts 49ers

Tampa Bay shreds a defense playing without its starting cornerbacks for most of the first half.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

TAMPA -- After watching the Bucs set a team record for points in a playoff game, 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora was more reserved than one might expect.

He had a look of acceptance, not disgust.

"Do not discount the fact we've been decimated (by injuries) all year," Mora said.

Sunday was a microcosm of San Francisco's season.

The 49ers began the game without one starting defensive back (cornerback Jason Webster) and ended it with two others (cornerback Ahmed Plummer and safety Zack Bronson) on the shelf.

The Bucs took full advantage, passing for 208 yards and two touchdowns as receivers had little trouble getting open. They finished with 329 total yards (217 in the first half), and team playoff records for first downs (21) and margin of victory (25).

"When three of your four secondary guys are out, it's hard to win," Mora said. "That's not an excuse, but a fact. But I would never take anything away from what (Tampa Bay) did as a team. They played great."

Mora and head coach Steve Mariucci said they were pleased with the 49ers' play early. On Tampa Bay's first possession, Brad Johnson was intercepted by Rashad Holman at the 49ers 47.

But San Francisco's success was short-lived.

On Tampa Bay's next series, Plummer dislocated his right shoulder tackling Joe Jurevicius. He went into the locker room for X-rays and did not return to the game. His shoulder later was popped back into place.

"It felt so much better after that," Plummer said while wearing a sling. "The pain was very bad."

Said Mora: "We did well, until Ahmed got hurt, just playing two deep. Brad Johnson was erratic and gave us a pick. We felt good. But we had the injury and got out of synch."

Plummer was replaced by Holman, but the Bucs scored their first of four first-half touchdowns nine plays after Plummer left. Three of the next four Tampa Bay drives ended with touchdowns.

"They beat us in every aspect of the game," said 49ers rookie cornerback Mike Rumph, who replaced Webster. "They came out with a do-or-die attitude and made the plays we didn't. They're a really good team. We were not clicking like we should have been clicking."

Because the secondary was so depleted, Mora had few options.

"They started to pick us apart," he said. "We had to change our game plan and go to more pressure."

During the first half, little worked for the 49ers. And the fact San Francisco's offense gave the Bucs a short field didn't help. Tampa Bay's first two scoring drives started at its 26 and 23, respectively. But the third began at the Tampa Bay 48 and fourth at the San Francisco 26, both after turnovers.

"It felt like (the Bucs) were getting all the plays," 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson said. "They made the plays they had to. They executed plays better than we did."

The Bucs scored touchdowns every time they reached the San Francisco 20 during the first half.

"We messed up on a few plays, and that makes the difference," Peterson said. "It's the playoffs. There is no time to mess up."

Not helping San Francisco's depleted secondary was the fact the defensive line sacked Johnson only once and Tampa Bay rushed for 121 yards.

"The offensive line was awesome," Johnson said. "They gave me a lot of protection back there. It was a lot of fun out there."

The 49ers' injury situation worsened during the third quarter, when Bronson re-injured a sore foot. For most of the second half, San Francisco played with one starting defensive back. But that was when it played its best.

The Bucs' only second-half points, a 19-yard Martin Gramatica field goal, came on Tampa Bay's first third-quarter series. The defensive improvement meant little but gave hope to Mariucci and Mora.

"I thought the defense played pretty darn well in the second half," Mariucci said. "That stopped the bleeding."

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