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Tight end Jerramy Stevens, left, celebrates with quarterback Jeff Garcia after they connected for a 24-yard touchdown that helped the Bucs take a 13-7 lead late in the second quarter.
SAN FRANCISCO - Star receiver Joey Galloway spent much of the game resting on the sideline. Up-and-coming receiver Maurice Stovall left in the first half with a broken arm.
So, whom did that leave as targets in the Bucs passing game?
In the most productive game of the season for Bucs tight ends, Alex Smith and Jerramy Stevens combined for 10 catches for 152 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 21-19 loss to the 49ers.
Smith had six catches for a career-high 79 yards, including a 32-yarder his third of the season of more than 30 yards. Stevens had four catches for 73 yards, including two scores of 24 yards each. It was the first two-touchdown game of his career.
"It was more due to injury at receiver than anything else," said Smith, whose previous high was 75 yards against Atlanta in December 2005. "We had to rely more on the tight ends since some of our main guys were down or not playing. We have a lot of talent at the tight end position on this team, and we were able to show that."
Just in time.
With the offense needing playmakers, the Bucs tight ends exploited the 49ers' 3-4 defensive scheme, which uses big linebackers better suited to rushing the passer and stopping the run than covering deep pass routes one-on-one.
The Bucs' first touchdown came on a one-on-one matchup with Stevens against linebacker Parys Haralson, too slow to keep up with Stevens. Quarterback Jeff Garcia lofted a pass over Haralson to Stevens in the end zone.
"He knew he was in trouble, too," Stevens said. "I think they were expecting us to run out of the two tight-end set. To get him matched up in that much space is not to his advantage."
The second touchdown, with 1:20 left, was completely different. Backup quarterback Luke McCown scrambled to keep the play alive and hit Stevens at the 3-yard line.
"We have very talented (tight ends), and I guess our biggest thing we've faced this year is trying to get everybody on the field," Smith said. "We have a lot of weapons, and it's hard to utilize all of them."
But Smith made a mistake that changed the course of the game.
With the Bucs driving for a potential go-ahead score, trailing 14-13 early in the fourth quarter, Smith let a pass slip through his hands. The ball was intercepted by cornerback Nate Clements, who returned it 62 yards to the Bucs 23. On the next play, 49ers running back Frank Gore scored to help make it 21-13.
"No excuse. I wish I could have it back," Smith said of the drop that led to the turnover. "That's a play I make nine times out of 10. For whatever reason, it just slipped through there. Lack of concentration, I don't know. That's a play I have to make."
Still, the contributions of the tight ends are a positive sign for the Bucs heading into the playoffs. Anthony Becht, who did not catch a pass in the first 10 games nor against the 49ers, had four catches and two touchdowns in the three games coming into Sunday.
"We have a lot of weapons on this offense, and I think we're all coming together at the right time," Stevens said.