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LeGarrette Blount and the Bucs ran all over the 49ers in Tampa Bay's 21-0 victory last season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Alex Smith was a quarterback of the 2009 49ers team that started its season 3-1.
Now, his team is 3-1 again and preparing to face Tampa Bay Sunday at Candlestick Park in a matchup of surprise division leaders.
But Smith says this 49ers team feels different to him than the one in ’09 that eventually finished 8-8.
In fact, Smith says the 49ers almost feel like a different team this week than the one that headed back east two weeks ago for back-to-back, come-from-behind road victories over the Bengals and Eagles, with a stay-over in Ohio between games.
“It was definitely a step for us, though, for sure,” Smith told reporters this week. “I think actually doing it (coming back). … I think this team has had a great attitude and something about it.
“I’ve been part of games where you get down and then you get close but never actually finish it off like that.”
On Sunday, the 49ers will face a Tampa Bay team that has one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks in Josh Freeman, a tough, physical running back in LeGarrette Blount and a defense that ranks 11th in the league against the run.
The Bucs, however, had a short week to prepare – having beaten the Colts on “Monday Night Football” – and had to travel west.
Yet Tampa Bay has shown its resilience in jumping off to its fast start. The Bucs, hoping to get to 4-1 for the first time since 2005, rallied from 10 points down to beat the Vikings, held off a late Falcons rally and came back from an early 10-point gap to beat Indianapolis.
In beating the Colts, Freeman threw for 287 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for another, while Blount rushed for 127 yards. Blount has averaged 93 yards over his past three games.
The 49ers haven’t allowed an opposing back to rush for 100 yards or more in 26 straight games, but they’ll likely be missing nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who has a staph infection. Ricky Jean Francois is expected to start in his place. The status of cornerback Shawntae Spencer (toe) also is uncertain.
Offensively, San Francisco is coming off its best performance of the season, and running back Frank Gore – who had a season-best 127 yards vs. the Eagles – hopes the Niners can keep it rolling vs. Tampa Bay.
“We’re just following, believing and great things are happening,” Gore said this week, in reference to first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. “As long as we just keep following our leader and keep believing in our leader, we’ll be fine.”
The 49ers rank 28th in the league offensively, but are a different team when they get their running game going. Since 2007, the Niners are 11-4 when Gore rushes for at least 100 yards and 14-29 when he doesn’t.
Last season, the Bucs beat San Francisco 21-0 at Candlestick. Going into Sunday’s game, oddsmakers have the 49ers as three-point favorites.