Walker and Davis combined for three TD receptions
For anybody who questioned whether new coach Jim Harbaugh could turn around the downtrodden San Francisco 49ers in a hurry, his team is giving every indication this year will be different from the franchise’s struggles over much of the past decade. How different? How about Sunday’s 48-3 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that beat the Niners by three touchdowns last season.
The 49ers put it all together before a joyous sellout crowd at Candlestick Park, recording their most lopsided victory in 24 years to stretch their winning streak to three games and improve to 4-1 to match their best start since 2002.
Another week, another impressive win against a NFC contender.
But this time, no late heroics were needed like during last week’s 24-23 victory at Philadelphia, when the Niners rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit. This time, the Niners were in control from start to finish against a Tampa Bay team that entered the game 3-1 and tied for first place atop the NFC South.
Alex Smith threw two of his three touchdown passes to Vernon Davis, Frank Gore ran for a touchdown in his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game and San Francisco rolled to more than 400 yards of offense for the second consecutive week while shutting down the Bucs on the other side of the ball.
"We're not putting any limitations on ourselves," Harbaugh said.
Not after Sunday’s superb effort, when the 49ers dominated in just about every way possible and were still doing so at the end of the game when drove 90 yards for a touchdown with a reserve rookie quarterback and reserve rookie running back doing most of the damage.
Carlos Rogers returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown and tight ends Davis and Delanie Walker each caught TD passes of 20-plus yards in San Francisco's third consecutive win since blowing a late lead in a Sept. 18 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
That late letdown – when the 49ers blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead – is the only thing standing between the Niners and a perfect start for Harbaugh, whose team maintained its two-game lead over the rest of the NFC West.
This marked the Niners' largest margin of victory since they beat the Los Angeles Rams 48-0 on Dec. 27, 1987 — and it matched the Bucs' worst loss ever.
"It's been a long time," Davis said of being on the better end of a rout. "To be ahead like we were today, I don't remember the last time I've seen anything like that."
But a late right leg injury to wide receiver Joshua Morgan put a damper on what had been a near-perfect day. Morgan was injured on a 19-yard reception that took the ball to the Tampa Bay 1-yard line and set up San Francisco’s final touchdown on the next play.
While the Niners beat Seattle and Cincinnati in September, the past two weeks are more telling: the thrilling come-from-behind win at Philadelphia last Sunday followed by this lopsided affair against the former NFC South leader. The loss dropped the Bucs a game back in the division behind New Orleans, which won 30-27 at Carolina on Sunday.
"He told us to stay humble and keep working," Gore said of Harbaugh's postgame message.
Harbaugh declined to put too much stock in one victory, even if it is the most impressive of his young career as a NFL head coach and leaves his Niners with even more confidence and momentum than they had entering the day.
But he did have to admit it was a nice way to come home after the signature comeback win in Philadelphia.
“That was a good character builder for a young team last week,” Harbaugh said. “To be able to do that on the road and then bounce back and put an exclamation point on and stamp that, that’s another step, that’s another building block for our team. Certainly not where we want to be yet, but we’ll leave out of here and enjoy this one and then get back to work. We’ll just move on with humble hearts and get ready for Detroit.”
Next up: The 49ers get another test next week when they play at Detroit, which is unbeaten at 4-0 heading into Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears.
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman never found the flow that made him so effective in Tampa Bay’s 21-0 rout of the 49ers here last November, and the Bucs were a step behind in a short week after beating the Colts on Monday night.
“Flat start. Flat finish. Flat middle. Everything," coach Raheem Morris said. "We didn't even get off the plane this time."
Tampa Bay lost its cool, too — and lost its share of the NFC South lead in the process.
A testy Morris received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 9:05 left in the third quarter for yelling in the face of line judge Mark Steinkerchner.
Just more than five minutes later, safety Sean Jones had a late hit to Kendall Hunter's head after the play was over.
Linebacker Dekoda Watson was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty 4 seconds into the fourth quarter that set up Davis' second TD catch.
"They were really frustrated. I felt like they gave up," Davis said. "I was telling Ronde (Barber), 'Get your guys, get your guys, y'all got to play harder.'"
With Smith making all the right calls behind center, those occasional Blue Angels flyovers for Fleet Week just added some extra entertainment on a gorgeous fall afternoon in the Bay Area.
Smith never got a chance to help during the embarrassing shutout home loss to Tampa Bay last year. He watched from the sideline as former coach Mike Singletary chose Troy Smith to start instead.
He made his mark this time, going 11 for 19 for 170 yards and no sacks or interceptions before giving way to rookie backup Colin Kaepernick midway through the fourth. Smith finished with a 127.2 passer rating – his best of the season – and continues his climb among the NFL leaders with his 104.1 season rating.
Smith’s latest standout effort pushed the 49ers to their best start since the last time the franchise had a winning record and reached the playoffs. That was four head coaches ago.
San Francisco came out of halftime with an 80-yard, seven-play scoring drive capped by Davis' 23-yard TD grab. Walker caught a 26-yard pass for the 49ers on their opening drive of the game.
The big plays are coming in all phases — from Smith and Co. on offense, from special teams and from the defense.
"That's what we can do every single week," left tackle Joe Staley said.
Even the kickers did their part to secure San Francisco solid field position.
That worked out nicely for Smith, who these days is generating cheers from the Candlestick Park crowd that has let him have it with boos so many times in recent years.
One of his shining moments Sunday came when Smith had nearly gone to the ground under pressure and he released the ball at the last second to find Morgan on the left sideline for a 13-yard gain. Morgan made five catches for 75 yards before the injury.
It's those kind of situations where the old Smith would have been clobbered or sacked for a big loss. His decision-making has been spot-on so far. The 49ers have only four turnovers in five games. They had a 3-1 edge in turnovers Sunday and have a plus-10 turnover differential for the season.
By halftime, Smith had hit four different receivers on completions of 12 yards or longer.
Rogers' third interception of the season, on a pass intended for Kellen Winslow early in the second quarter, stopped any momentum Tampa Bay might have gained after Gore fumbled deep in Bucs' territory.
"When you put points on the board on defense like that, it takes a lot out of an offense," Rogers said.
Rookie Chris Culliver thwarted the next Buccaneers' drive with his first career interception. Each of Tampa Bay’s three turnovers set up San Francisco touchdowns.
Dashon Goldson provided a nice block on Freeman as Rogers stepped into the end zone on the right side, then Goldson forced a fumble by Mike Williams late in the third that was recovered Ray McDonald.
These 49ers now are determined not to waste another strong start the way they did two years ago.
Smith was part of the team that began 3-1 in 2009, but wound up dropping the next four games and five of six on the way to an 8-8 finish.
But this year already is looking much different.