No stopping the 'Niners
Get the feeling the San Francisco 49ers weren't stopped by anything in Tampa Bay on Sunday? They caught almost every pass. They caught every traffic light once their bus pulled away from Tampa Stadium. Then they caught an all-night flight home and left the red-eyes to the Bucs after lighting up the scoreboard in a 45-21 win.
The 49ers scored on seven of their first eight possessions - including six straight to start the game - until they mercifully pulled their starters in the fourth quarter. And there was one more thing. San Francisco receiver Jerry Rice found a place where he doesn't need a disguise to get open because the Bucs keep blowing his cover anyway.
Tampa Bay got four large helpings of Rice, who hooked up with quarterback Steve Young on eight receptions for 172 yards and four touchdowns. It was the second time in four games in which the Bucs have been beaten by a big-play receiver, single-handedly. Remember Sterling Sharpe's highlight reel of four TD catches in Green Bay's 37-14 win?
Rice's performance trumped it.
Rice beat man-to-man coverage. He beat zone coverage. He beat illegal coverage, as in the time Bucs cornerback Martin Mayhew grabbed a fistful of Rice's jersey as he pulled down a
tipped pass from Young and raced 51 yards for his third score. "The guy was phenomenal," Mayhew said. "I'm not going to make any excuses. Basically, I didn't have a good day and he did."
Basically, Mayhew was too polite to say he was hung out to dry by free safety Joe King on two of Rice's TDs. On Rice's final score - a 26-yarder from Young on a post pattern - defensive coordinator Floyd Peters gambled on a blitz and left Mayhew man-to-man. "The one that he caught that was tipped, you say he's just a great athlete and that's the way the cookie crumbles," Peters said. "Two times there should've been a free safety in the hole to help Martin Mayhew. Then on the fourth one, I blitzed them to try to stall the drive, and he beat us. There's no excuse for not helping the guy out when you've got a class receiver like that. You don't like to see two athletes in a row get four touchdowns each. That's got to stop."
There was no stopping Young, the former Bucs quarterback making his first start at Tampa Stadium with the 49ers. Young was 23-of-29 for 311 yards, four TDs to Rice and no
interceptions. Even when the 49ers offense was bad, it was good. San Francisco fumbled on consecutive plays near the goal line early in the second quarter, but guard Ralph Tamm scooped up the second one and rolled 1 yard into the end zone for a touchdown.
Meanwhile, the Bucs committed four turnovers - including two fumbles by running back Vince Workman. He lost the ball for the second time while going out of bounds after a short reception and the ball lay still inches from the sideline until safety Tim McDonald scooped it up and went 15 yards to set up a touchdown. "It was frustrating," safety Marty Carter said. "We were doing everything we could to get the offense the ball. We'd cause a fumble and it'd bounce right back to them. We drop one and it just sits on the sideline waiting for them to pick it up. It was that type of game."
Workman looked at it another way. "I guess you could have scored four touchdowns today," Workman said. "Two for us and two for San Francisco."
Wouldn't you know the Bucs defense wouldn't show up on a day when their offense decided to show off? The Bucs rolled up 322 yards of offense behind the passing of quarterback
Craig Erickson (17-of-27, 239 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT). He sandwiched touchdown passes to Gary Anderson and Workman around an onside kick and cut the 49ers lead to 17-14. But San Francisco needed just two plays - including Young's 51-yarder to Rice - to reach the end zone. "If we play some defense today and give the offense the ball as many times as we have before, heck, we may win it 45-44 or whatever," Bucs defensive backs coach Steve Shafer said. "We could've won a high-scoring game today if just at one point we could've held them to three downs and out. We just didn't hold our end of the bargain."
San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan said the 49ers had no trouble reading Tampa Bay's blitzes and said the Bucs mostly gambled with man-to-man coverage on third down. The 49ers converted nine of 14 third-down chances and seven of their first eight. "We went in here knowing we would have some pretty big plays if they played that defense," Rice said.
According to Mayhew, the Bucs fiddled around with other coverages in practice this week to try to stop Rice but scrapped the idea for their traditional scheme because they didn't like the way it was working. "If you start gambling too much on them, you're going to pay," Shafer said. "That's what they love to have you do. But we got to a point where we wanted to win the ballgame and so we took some shots and they got us on a couple of them."
Perhaps linebacker Hardy Nickerson summed it up best: "I don't think anyone could've stopped them today."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1993