TAMPA — All week long, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers talked about making their matchup with the playoff-contending 49ers a fourth-quarter game, which is to say they wanted to be in a position at that time to determine their own fate.
The Bucs met that objective Sunday, and if this was indeed a statement game for them, then perhaps that says something about where they are in their quest to prove they can compete with the league’s upper echelon.
At end of the day, though, all the 4-10 Bucs really did in dropping a 33-14 decision before a sellout crowd at Raymond James Stadium was raise more of the same questions that have been asked of them since the beginning of the season.
Can their offense move the ball and score when it has to? Can their defense make a play and get off the field when it needs to? Can their coaches make indisputable calls when nothing else will do?
On Sunday, when the 49ers used a 10-minute, 17-play drive to produce a key fourth-quarter field goal and then recovered a botched reverse on the ensuing kickoff to score a touchdown, the answer to all three questions was a resounding no.
“It was a hard-fought game,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “It’s just unfortunate the way it ended.’’
From a Buccaneers perspective, it truly was unfortunate, because the fourth quarter began, literally, with Bucs rookie quarterback Mike Glennon throwing a 24-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Tim Wright.
The final play in a 92-yard drive, Glennon’s second touchdown toss of the day came on the first play of the quarter and cut the 49ers’ lead to 20-14. It gave the Bucs the chance they wanted to decide the outcome on their terms.
In a way, though, the Bucs did decide this game on their terms, because it was as much their own blunders as the 49ers’ ability — and in particular the ability of quarterback Colin Kaepernick — to make plays that determined the outcome.
Case in point: on third-and-12 from San Francisco’s 29-yard line, Kaepernick escaped the pressure of an all-out blitz and threw a 14-yard dart to receiver Michael Crabtree, who was standing uncovered at the 43-yard line.
Later in that seemingly never-ending drive, Kaepernick escaped again, this time on third-and-6 from the Bucs 29 as he broke free of tackles behind the line by Derek Landri and Mason Foster and ran for 10 yards.
Four plays later, the 49ers settled for the third of kicker Phil Dawson’s four field goals, but his 21-yard kick extended their lead to 23-14 and with 4:27 to play and put the Bucs in desperation mode.
That became obvious on the ensuing kickoff, when Schiano dialed up a reverse that called for first-year return man Eric Page to hand the ball off to rookie Russell Shepard as Shepard ran behind him and his blockers.
Shepard, however, never secured the handoff, dropping the ball at his 5-yard line and then slipping as the ball rolled to the 2, where 49ers cover man Kendall Hunter picked it up and went in for the touchdown.
“It was a called play,’’ Schiano said of the reverse. “We were going to run a reverse if the opportunity presented itself the right way. It didn’t yet we still ran it. We made a mistake. Guys make mistakes sometimes.’’
The Bucs made plenty of them down the stretch. Glennon, who had completed 18 of 28 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns to that point, was 0-for-6 with an interception during his last two possessions. He was also sacked twice and those mistakes helped the 49ers tack on yet another field goal.
But it was the inability of the Bucs offense to move the ball early in the game and the inability of their defense to get off the field that gave the 49ers a cushion in the first place.
The Bucs finished off the first half by stitching together a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that cut the 49ers’ halftime lead to 20-7, but that was sandwiched by seven series in which the Bucs gained just 39 yards on 25 plays.
“We weren’t effective running the ball,’’ Schiano said after his team was held to 39 rushing yards by the fourth-ranked rush defense in the league. “There’s a lot of reasons for that (including) playing some really good defenses, but that’s what you’re going to see in this league.
“We’re just not performing at a consistent enough level. It’s not from a lack of effort, a lack of work, a lack of any of that stuff. These guys are laying it on the line, coaches and players alike. We’re just not getting the results that we want all the time.”
The 49ers got results in part by taking advantage of the short fields the Bucs gave them. They racked up 227 first-half yards and three scores, including touchdown passes of 4 yards to Michael Crabtree and 52 yards to Vernon Davis.
“We expected it to be a physical game, but there were a lot of things that we controlled and didn’t take advantage of and a lot of mistakes on our part,’’ Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson said. “The Niners definitely took advantage and it cost us in the end.”
What it cost them was a chance to prove they really are on the upswing. The Bucs had won four of five prior to facing San Francisco and were looking to prove in this game they truly are capable of beating the league’s best teams.
That was the statement they were seeking to make, but they have now wasted three chances to make that statement, losing in overtime at Seattle six weeks ago and decidedly at Carolina two weeks ago.
Throw in the loss to the 49ers, which was riddled with missed blocks, missed tackles and missed opportunities, and even the Bucs sense that they have a few more steps to take before they can say they’ve turned a corner.
“If we want to be the team that we say we want to be, then we have to learn how to win the tough games against the tough teams,’’ defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “This one today came down to the fourth quarter and that’s what we wanted.
“We had them right where we wanted them. It was 20-14 and all we needed to do was get the ball back but they went on a 10-minute drive. The defense can’t allow that. That’s happened too many times this year and we have to do better. We have to learn to finish.”