When Dirk Koetter took over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he talked about changing the culture within the organization. So far it has a been a bit of a challenge for Koetter to really get that rolling this season as the Buccaneers are 2-3 coming off of their bye week. Tampa Bay last played at Carolina in Week 4 on “Monday Night Football” and knocked off the Panthers 20-17 with a late Roberto Aguayo field goal. This matchup with the 49ers will be a great test to see how much the culture has changed within the Buccaneers as they are the superior team personnel-wise. Consequently, it will be up to the veteran leadership on this team to be mature enough to go out west and take care of business.
San Francisco is coming off a 45-16 loss last Sunday to the Buffalo Bills. The inability to finish a game cost the 49ers, as they only trailed 24-16 with 14:48 left in the fourth quarter before Buffalo blew the game open. Colin Kaepernick made his first start of the season, and was very uneven throwing the football, completing just 13 of 29 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, the loss of linebacker NaVorro Bowman reared its ugly head again as the Bills gashed San Francisco for 313 rushing yards. At 1-5, the question remains, will 49ers owner Jed York eventually fire general manager Trent Baalke despite reports from Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole earlier this week saying otherwise? If you are a die-hard 49er fan this news has to be upsetting because Baalke’s incompetence in handling the roster is a big reason why this is one of the worst teams in football.
Tampa Bay at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 23 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Buccaneers -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jameis Winston and Mike Evans
Despite the 49ers’ inability to stop the run, it is going to be important for Winston to get rolling in the passing game early and get the ball to Evans, his No. 1 target. Evans has 32 receptions for 449 yards and four touchdowns and will be matched up against Tramaine Brock for San Francisco, who has been one of the few bright spots defensively this season. If Evans does not approach at least 10 targets on Sunday then the Buccaneers are going to have major problems and be at risk of falling to 2-4 very easily.
2. 49ers’ running game vs. Buccaneers’ defensive line
With running back Carlos Hyde out this week, it will be up to Shaun Draughn and Mike Davis to shoulder the load for San Francisco. For Tampa Bay, it will be critical for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to play if healthy, as he has been limited in practice this week. It also will be interesting to see if head coach Chip Kelly turns Colin Kaepernick loose again as he rushed for 66 yards on eight carries last week against the Bills. Look for defensive end William Gholston to try to step up and keep containment forcing Kaepernick to stay in the pocket throughout the contest. If Kaepernick can get out on the edge, he will cause headaches all afternoon long.
3. Buccaneers’ secondary vs. Torrey Smith
In order for Tampa Bay to truly be able to dominate this game the Buccaneers can ill afford to allow the 49ers to get rolling in the passing game. Brent Grimes is Tampa Bay’s best cover corner and he should get plenty of opportunities to cover Smith. The 6-foot, 205-pound, six-year veteran receiver is San Francisco’s best pass catcher and you can rest assured that Kaepernick will take his shots downfield with Smith as the target. If Grimes and the rest of the secondary can keep Smith in front of them and limit the explosive plays then the Bucs will be in great shape to leave Levi’s Stadium victorious.\
This is one of the more difficult games to predict in the NFL this week as it could go many different directions. Tampa Bay has to travel across three time zones and is in the rare position of a favorite in this game so it will be interesting to see how the Buccaneers handle that role. In addition, Levi’s Stadium will have more of a neutral site feel to it and that always tests a team’s ability to remain focused. San Francisco has been in a continuous free fall since destroying the Rams on opening night 28-0. Thus, if the 49ers fall behind early there is always the chance that they fold early and allow the Buccaneers to win going away by three or four scores. Look for this game to be competitive as Tampa Bay has not shown enough maturity yet to blow out anyone and the 49ers will make enough plays offensively to keep the game close. Jameis Winston will be the difference and make enough plays in the passing game to get the Bucs to .500 on the season.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, 49ers 23
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and also writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottWhittum.