The 49ers are 3-1 for the first time since 2009. They face their second major test of the season this Sunday against a very young, very talented, very well coached Tampa Bay Buccaneer team. This game will go a long way toward telling how far the 49ers have come. What follows are what I feel will be the most vital elements to the 49ers' success this Sunday afternoon:
Alex Smith: He is the most polarizing figure on the 49ers' roster since the departure of Terrell Owens, driving a massive wedge between the team's fan base. Alex supporters offer up "Alexcuses" for his failure to become the dominant QB the team had hoped he'd be when he was drafted and his detractors vent perpetual criticism of his every move…even through his recent string of success under Coach Jim Harbaugh. Love him or hate him, the 49ers need Smith to continue the improvement he's shown week over week thus far. He must continue to display chemistry with his receiving corps and force Tampa Bay's young defense to respect the 49ers' ability to move the ball through the air. He doesn't have to be Tom Brady…but he can't afford to be Trent Dilfer, either. If he becomes the "same old Alex" of seasons past, the 49ers have a snowball's chance in hell of winning this game.
Ricky Jean Francois: Since the departure of Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga has done an absolutely stellar job of locking down the middle of the San Francisco defensive line. Since Sopoaga is sidelined with a staph infection, the burden of anchoring the 49ers' front seven falls squarely on the shoulders of Ricky Jean Francois. He must hold his own against center Jeff Faine if the 49ers hope to derail Tampa's talented second year runner, LeGarette Blount. Tampa's entire offense revolves around moving the ball on the ground. Forcing them to become one dimensional will take away their ability to control the clock and keep them from using play action to freeze San Francisco's second level defenders.
The ENTIRE offensive line: Last week, the 49ers' O-Line stepped up late in the game, notching their best half of football this season. Tampa's young, talented front seven are much better at playing the run than Philly. The O-line has got to pick up where they left off last week for the 49ers to have a reasonable chance to win this game. If Frank Gore and newly acquired counter-punch Kendall Hunter get going early, Tampa's defense will be unable to pin their ears back against the 49er offense, giving Alex all the time he'll need to exploit a talented but beatable secondary. If the O-line fails to get the ground game going, the 49ers could end up having a very long day.
If the 49ers continue to show improvement as they have thus far in the 2011 campaign, they should be able to win this game. How will it turn out? I think that Coach Harbaugh will keep the team on track and the Niners will do just enough to secure the victory. Final score: 24-17, 49ers.