It should come as no surprise that the Buccaneers are not expected to leave San Francisco on Sunday with a win. The 49ers are obvious Super Bowl contenders, boasting the NFL’s best scoring defense and one of its most efficient offenses, averaging 6.4 yards per play.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has allowed the fifth-most yardage defensively, owns the league’s worst rushing offense and is top-five in penalties. The roster and arguably the coaching do not stack up well against a team well-prepared for a deep playoff run like the 49ers.
Nevertheless, no game is decided before it starts, so the Bucs still have a path to victory, narrow though it may be. The defense proved last week that it can still smother opponents with Todd Bowles’ blitzes, and the offense continues to progress as it finds new avenues to move the ball, particularly in the absence of a viable run game.
Here are three keys to a Bucs victory over San Francisco this Sunday:
Pass the ball to Rachaad White
The Bucs’ 2023 run game is dead. The epitaph should read, “we should have thrown Rachaad White the ball more.”
As a between-the-tackles running back, White is serviceable but not a difference-maker. That would not be a huge problem if Tampa Bay’s offensive line was not the worst run-blocking unit in the NFL.
As a receiver, however, White is pure electricity. He is second only to Christian McCaffrey in receiving yards (326) and has forced 17 missed tackles in 35 receptions according to Pro Football Focus. For context, White has just 23 missed tackles forced on 132 rush attempts.
White is averaging 8.8 yards per target, which is nearly triple the Bucs’ average rush yards per attempt. Quite simply, White is a far more productive receiver than he is a rusher.
The 49ers are a juggernaut offensively and defensively. With league’s best scoring defense and a top-five offense, San Francisco is not a team where inefficiency can be tolerated.
Running for gains of one to three yards is a key ingredient for a major loss on Sunday. Instead, the Bucs have to dial up a plan to get the ball to White as a receiver, where his talent is most likely to express itself with big plays and big gains.
Keep Devin White on Brock Purdy
Five years into Devin White’s career, it is clear what he is and what he isn’t on the football field. As a blitzer, there are few linebackers who can match his ferocity and productivity. He is also a supreme athlete with rare speed.
In most other aspects, White is a replacement-level linebacker. He is frequently out of position and rarely adds big plays either in run support or pass coverage.
Given his strengths and weaknesses, White’s most optimal role is to contain 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy in whatever capacity he operates from down-to-down. Purdy has proven himself to be a capable NFL quarterback but is susceptible when the pocket breaks down, completing less than 50% of his passes when pressured.
White proved last week against the Titans that he is still as good a pass rusher as any off-ball linebacker in the league. Spamming blitzes is going to be his most efficient usage.
Purdy has also been a threat to run, gaining 10 first downs this season with his feet. White is obviously a superior athlete to Purdy, so a spy role could also help get the Bucs defense off the field against a potent San Francisco offense.
No more penalties
The Bucs have been among the worst teams in the NFL when it comes to penalties this season. Tampa Bay has the fifth-most accepted penalties with 66 and currently leads the league with the most offensive holding calls at 17.
A significant driver of these penalties is the offensive line, which leads the team with 21 penalties, including nine holding calls and 11 false starts. Right tackle Luke Goedeke has been particularly egregious, drawing four holding calls and four false starts.
These penalties have put the Bucs offense in a hole week after week. Paired with the league’s worst run game, Tampa Bay cannot stay on schedule offensively while they consistently move backward and often lose major gains due to penalties.
Against an uber-talented and well-coached team like the 49ers, the Bucs stand no chance if they don’t minimize the penalties. Tampa Bay’s chances of winning are already razor-thin. Self-inflicted wounds would surely close the window entirely.