SANTA CLARA – Sorry, did you say the 49ers are hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then playing four days later at the Seattle Seahawks for NFC West supremacy?
Is this that 2022 playoff push all over again?
Not that the 49ers are complaining, but, gosh, the NFL scheduling czar sure doesn’t win points for originality, other than to use this Sunday’s 49ers-Bucs game as the launching point for a gauntlet that should dictate the 49ers’ playoff direction.
Last year, the 49ers beat the Bucs 35-7 in Brock Purdy’s starting debut, then extended their win streak in Seattle with a NFC West-clinching win on a Thursday night in Seattle, on Dec. 15.
Title talk is premature at just past this season’s halfway mark, with the 49ers (6-3) tied atop the division with Seattle. A week ago, the 49ers were coming off a bye and fuming over a three-game losing streak. They took out their frustrations last Sunday in a 34-3 rout at the Jacksonville Jaguars, who entered on an NFL-best five-game win streak.
Naturally, 49ers players were bombarded with questions this past week about complacency, as in: “You guys are winning again, so will you get snookered like you did after your 5-0 start led to a three-game nap?”
“After you start 5-0 it’s kind of hard to imagine losing three in a row, right? But this game has a way of humbling anybody, and I think we got our slice of humble pie,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “That’s not taking anything away from any of those teams. They beat us fair and square.”
The 49ers weren’t the only ones to find an elixir last Sunday against an AFC South foe. The Bucs (4-5) ended a four-game skid by winning 20-6 at home against the Tennessee Titans.
Here are Sunday’s five keys to winning at Levi’s Stadium, which the Niners did 11 straight games before a 31-17 humbling by the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 29:
COVER MIKE EVANS
If the 49ers pile up points as they’re prone to do, the Bucs will have to play catch up through the air, where they’ll target high-altitude, high-performing veteran Mike Evans, all due respect to Chris Godwin and shiftier options in the slot. Evans is on pace for his 10th straight 1,000-yard season.
“You try to sit here and you press him, he’s going to muscle you at the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “You play off, very deceptive speed, he’s going to run by you.”
Evans is coming off a big game (143 yards, one touchdown; one drop in the end zone). Rather than have Charvarius Ward shadow him everywhere, the 49ers should disguise their coverages and lean safety help Evans’ way.
“We’ve got to mix things up, from a standpoint of man-zone, getting our hands on these receivers and just try really trying to be physical,” said Wilks, whose move to the sideline last game added a spark.
Ward drew two penalties last game for 10 this season, and while half are debatable calls, he isn’t going to change his physical, aggressive approach at this point of his career. Wilks is emphasizing better footwork to curb potential hand-grabbing penalties.
Evans likely will try exploiting the 49ers’ younger cornerbacks, whether it’s Ambry Thomas or Deommodore Lenoir at right cornerback, or whoever is covering the slot, be it Lenoir or a bigger-body matchup offered by Isaiah Oliver.
RUN AWAY FROM VITA
The 49ers caught a break last meeting when Bucs nose tackle Vita Vea, a Milpitas High product, left four snaps into the action with a calf injury. Vea will cause fits inside for center Jake Brendel and guards Jon Feliciano and Spencer Burford, but Vea also can come from the edge.
“You don’t know where Vita’s going to be on third down,” coach Kyle Shanahan said, “but when he is pushing the center inside, it is a problem; whoever he’s pushing is a problem.”
If Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel can find running lanes early, that will take pressure off Brock Purdy’s passing attack against a blitz-heavy defensive.
Injuries have impacted more 49ers offensive linemen than at any point this season. Offensive tackles Trent Williams (ankle) and Colton McKivitz (ankle, knee) are expected to play, but left guard Aaron Banks (toe) remains out.
Vea, by the way, wasn’t the only key starter the Bucs lacked in that December 2022 visit. They also did not have starting safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edward, as well as offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs.
For the third straight game, Purdy’s counterpart is a No. 1 overall draft pick, with Baker Mayfield next in line after Joe Burrow’s Bengals won and Trevor Lawrence’s Jaguars lost.
Mayfield is four years removed from getting pummeled by college rival Nick Bosa in a Browns’ loss at Levi’s Stadium, and Mayfield is playing some of the best football in what’s become a journeyman career. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns and 5 interceptions while averaging 238 yards per game.
In last year’s 35-7 win, the 49ers twice intercepted Tom Brady, who obliged to Dre Greenlaw’s postgame request to autograph the footballs snagged by him and Tashaun Gipson Sr.
Coming after Mayfield will be a deeper defensive front that, honest to goodness, was simply fun to watch with the 49ers’ different configurations last game, thanks in large part to the infusion of Chase Young. Do they come out again in a five-man front? Do Bosa and Young line up inside and threaten to twist out of there?
“When you have a deep D-line and everybody is fresh, that’s a pretty good situation,” Young said.
Added Bosa: “Being fresh, everybody can play pretty elite, and it makes all the snaps we get pretty effective.”
Bosa is not the only one coming off his best outing of the season. So is Javon Hargrave, to say nothing of Arik Armstead’s recent surge next to him on the interior.
“They’ve got a lot of stars over there,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “The pressures are probably more important than the sacks, because you’re not looking down field. As long as they’re getting pressures, which they are, and getting the ball out, I’m pretty sure they’re happy, because they have guys in the back that can fly around and make plays.”
PURDY’S ENCORE ACT
As great as Purdy’s three touchdown passes were last Sunday to help the 49ers snap a three-game skid, it was vital he shake a turnover trend, and he did just that.
Last time he was at Levi’s Stadium, however, the Bengals pressured him into three turnovers, including a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions.
Tampa Bay has forced 16 turnovers, third-most in the NFL, with an even split of eight interceptions and eight fumble recoveries.
The 49ers need to not only keep Vea (4 ½ sacks) out of the pocket but Shaq Barrett, who has four sacks and figures to test McKivitz most.
Winfield might be the biggest X-factor for turnover prowess: three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, an interception, two sacks, four quarterback hits and seven passes defensed. Safe to say he’s reclaimed his 2021 Pro Bowl form.
SPECIAL TEAMS BOOST
The 49ers are overdue to make an electric play on special teams, aside from downing punts inside the 5-yard line or seeing rookie Jake Moody flirt with the right upright (14-of-17 field-goal tries, 30-of-30 point-after kicks).
Cue up Future’s “Tony Montana,” which became an anthem for the 49ers’ special teams units in their 2011-12. Actually, the 49ers indeed blared that song as they began Friday’s practice.
The 49ers have not returned a punt for a touchdown since the 2011 opener, a span covering 407 returns. Could this be the game to end that skid? The Bucs are allowing 12.6 yards per return, the fourth-most in the NFL. Ray-Ray McCloud’s longest punt return this season reached 19 yards, and his 9.7-yard average ranks 11th.
Maybe special teams also deserve consideration because, in four days, the 49ers head to Seattle, where, in 2021, they allowed a fake punt to go for an early touchdown.