“I told you! I told you we could do this to them!” the defensive end said.
The 49ers’ line deserved Ahanotu’s praise after humbling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ vaunted defense in a 24-7 victory Sunday that just might have saved Dennis Erickson’s first season as San Francisco’s coach.
So just what insight did Ahanotu, who spent eight seasons with the Buccaneers, share with his new teammates?
“I told them, ‘Man, keep running right at them,”’ said Ahanotu, Tampa Bay’s former franchise player. “Run it down their throat. They want to dance. They want to look pretty. When you run it right at them, you really get into their psyche and take them out of everything they want to do.”
The Niners (3-4) used a relentless rushing game to flatten the Bucs: Garrison Hearst ran for 117 yards and a touchdown, while Kevan Barlow gained 75 more. Their prowess was even more impressive in the absence of starting offensive linemen Derrick Deese and Eric Heitmann, who are out with ankle injuries.
And don’t forget the defense, which held the Bucs to 326 total yards and one touchdown on a broken play. Almost everything about the afternoon was a pleasant surprise for the Niners, whose team morale and belief were flagging after a terrible start.
“We can play with anybody, and I’ve always felt we can,” said Erickson, who called it the biggest win of his five NFL seasons with Seattle and San Francisco. “The line was the key to everything today. We’ve been so close in so many games, but to finally win one is real good—for about three more hours.”
It was a one-sided rematch of Tampa Bay’s first win in last season’s playoffs. The Bucs hounded Garcia throughout the 49ers’ 31-6 loss last January, and coach Steve Mariucci was fired three days later.
But after scoring more than 30 points in each of their past three games, the Bucs (3-3) were miserable on offense. Brad Johnson threw three interceptions, and Thomas Jones’ fumble cut short a strong drive in the third quarter.
The Bucs are struggling through a series of injuries, and they lost cornerback Brian Kelly to a strained chest muscle in the first half. But not even injuries could explain the San Francisco offensive line’s dominance against Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Co.
“It’s the reality of it,” Sapp said. “None of it is (injuries). We’ve got 11 healthy bodies when we line up. Let’s play ball. We just weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing.”
The Buccaneers also scored on a 75-yard pass when the 49ers lost track of Keenan McCardell late in the first quarter, but that play accounted for nearly half of their yards in the first half as they fell behind 21-7.
Not everything was perfect for San Francisco. Owens, who had six catches for 152 yards, dropped two potential touchdown passes in the second half.
Owens has provided far more sound bytes than highlights this season, criticizing his teammates and coaches during San Francisco’s slow start. But in one spectacular broken-field run, he reminded everyone why he’s an All-Pro.
Midway through the second quarter, Owens caught a short pass near the 49ers’ sideline, where he quickly slipped around two tacklers.
“The guy had an angle on him and was pursuing him, and I thought I had an angle and missed a tackle,” linebacker Ryan Nece said. “He gave me a little stutter and he’s gone, like the wind. It was amazing how he got away.”
Owens then sprinted past two more Bucs—and with one final shimmy, he shook two more potential tacklers and outran Brian Kelly to the end zone, where he celebrated in a comical collision with the goalpost.
“That was old-school T.O.,” Garcia said. “That was the T.O. that everybody has been waiting to see this year.”
But Owens, who dropped three passes last week against Seattle, let a 21-yard throw bounce off his hands in the third quarter and somehow flubbed a perfect18-yard pass early in the fourth.
Ahanotu had one parting shot for Sapp: “He should have some pom-poms. That’s all he is, is a cheerleader. He’s just dancing back there. (Antonio McFarland) is better. They should just get rid of Sapp. He’s a fading star just trying to hold on.” … Niners kicker Owen Pochman missed two field goals and had another blocked by Sapp before making a 27-yarder. … Tampa Bay’s final chance at a comeback ended when All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks roughedNiners punter Bill LaFleur with 4:18 left.