SANTA CLARA — The 49ers flew cross country Friday afternoon to face the best bad team in the NFL: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs’ record is 3-7. They’ve lost four games in a row and seven of their past eight. They languish in last place in the NFC South. They’ve allowed more points and committed more turnovers than any team in the league. They fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith on Oct. 15, might fire head coach Dirk Koetter at the end of the season, according to local reports, and can’t settle on a starting quarterback 12 weeks into the season.
Koetter has benched quarterback Jameis Winston once and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. Koetter goes back and forth between them because each throws interceptions. Winston has thrown 11. Fitzpatrick has thrown 12. In contrast, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown two.
Winston will start Sunday against the 49ers. If he struggles, Fitzpatrick could finish the game.
The Buccaneers seem like a typical bad team.
But they’re not. They’re three-point favorites this Sunday and pose one monster challenge.
“Their offense has as much firepower as anyone in this league,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday. “A lot of people have firepower in this league, so I think that says a lot. I know that they’ve struggled with turnovers, but any time you have a combination of two quarterbacks who are on pace to throw for 6,000 yards, that’s pretty unheard of.”
Winston is on pace to pass for 2,208 yards. Fitzpatrick is on pace to pass for 3,785. Combined, they’re on pace to throw 40 touchdown passes, but also 37 interceptions. The interceptions are the reason they mostly lose, because they often take foolish risks.
“They’re going to sling the ball and we know that,” 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said in the locker room. “The ball is going to be in the air. A team that passes that much, you’re going to get your opportunities (to intercept passes). It’s going to be up to us how we respond.”
The 49ers have intercepted just two passes all season. They could add to that total on Sunday and still lose. That’s how potent Tampa’s offense can be.
“The Buccaneers don’t change their offense with either (quarterback),” Shanahan said. “It’s a similar style. (Winston and Fitzpatrick are) pocket passers who can make some plays outside of the pocket off-schedule. But they’re gunslingers who are going to let it rip. They both, at times, can play as well as anyone in the league.”
Winston, 24, was the top pick in 2015, and his quarterback rating is 80.3. Fitzpatrick, 36, was a seventh-round pick in 2005, and his quarterback rating is 100.4.
Neither quarterback is the catalyst of the Buccaneers’ offensive success. For catalysts, you must look elsewhere.
“You’ve got two Pro Bowl-caliber receivers (Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson),” Shanahan said. “You’ve got a very good slot receiver (Adam Humphries). Their running back (Peyton Barber) is solid. Their O-line is very good and they have a very good scheme. Dirk has done it as well as anyone I’ve seen over my career. They’re tough to stop. They’re going to get yards.”
The Buccaneers lead the league in total yards and passing yards. They have gained 500 yards in three of their past four games. Last Sunday, they scored 35 points in a loss to the New York Giants. And in all but two games, the Buccaneers have scored at least 26 points. They’re dangerous and loaded with weapons.