By Dan Durkin-
A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent, this week: Tampa Bay.
(CBS) The Bears take a trip across the pond to merry old England and will have a go against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fresh off a win against a bad Vikings team, the Bears hope to keep the positive momentum going. The Bears and Bucs may find themselves with similar records at the end of the year, so seeing how wild card tie-breakers work out, a head-to-head win would be huge for the Bears. Let’s take a look at the Bucs’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the key match-ups in a critical NFC game.
If you were buying NFL futures, Tampa Bay would be an intriguing investment. Tampa Bay is the youngest team in the NFL, led by the youngest head coach in the NFL, 35-year old Raheem Morris. After Week 6 of the 2010 season, Morris boldly claimed the Bucs were the best team in the NFL, despite being 4-2 at the time, and had suffered two 25-point home losses. This claim ended up being hot air, as the Bucs didn’t make the playoffs, and 8 of their 10 wins came against non-playoff teams. Nevertheless, their surprising run in 2010 spawned a lot of optimism about the direction the Bucs were heading.
After dropping their 2011 home-opener to the paper champion Detroit Lions, the Bucs have battled back, picking up division wins against Atlanta and New Orleans, earning a 4-2 record. Yet, I’m not buying them or their record. As impressive as their victory against New Orleans was this past weekend, the week before they lost by 45 points against a San Francisco team that had not scored that many points since 2003. Inconsistency typically breeds mediocrity.
Offensively, the Bucs are middle-of-the road, cautious, methodical. Defensively, they don’t generate enough pressure on the quarterback. Quarterback Josh Freeman has earned the nickname “Captain Comeback” from his penchant for leading late game rallies. But seeing that most of the Bucs wins have come against mediocre-to-bad competition, why are they falling behind to begin with?
Freeman is more of a caretaker quarterback who doesn’t make critical mistakes, but has yet to take the next step in his career development. In order for the Bucs to take the next step as a team and as an offense, Freeman must start making more plays down the field. There have been opportunities, but Freeman hasn’t been able to find the right touch on vertical routes. Consequently, the Bucs find themselves running a lot of screen and check-down routes to move the ball through the air
The Bucs have some play-makers in the passing game, specifically wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, as well as tight end Kellen Winslow. Williams in particular flashed play-making skills in his 2010 rookie season, averaging a touchdown every six catches. This year, Williams is still the most targeted receiver on the team, but he finds himself in a bit of a sophomore slump. Certainly, opposing defense have focused more attention to neutralize Williams.
The Bucs will be without the services of load back Legarratte Blount, who is dealing with a torn MCL. Earnest Graham will carry the load in Blount’s absence, which will not strike fear in the heart of opposing rush defenses. While reliable, Graham is not a game-changer. Considering the amount of money the Bucs spent this past off-season to keep the core of their offensive line in tact – in particular guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood – the line should be better than it has been so far.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs sunk a lot of money into linebacker Quincy Black, who they hope is their new version of Derrick Brooks. Since becoming a starter, Black has displayed versatility in his ability to be a stout run defender and drop into pass coverage. Finding cornerstones on the defensive line hasn’t been as easy for the Bucs. Certainly, this can’t be attributed to a lack of trying. Since 2007, the Bucs have used three first round, two second round, and a third round draft pick on defensive ends and tackles. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy seems to be the best of the bunch, but he is dealing with a high ankle sprain.
In the secondary, fifteen-year veteran cornerback Ronde Barber is still the anchor. Barber is paired with mercurial Aqib Talib, who has amazing athleticism, but is a gambler on the field who has been routinely beat this season. The Bucs’ inability to get a push with their front four and their shaky secondary make them vulnerable in pass defense. Look for the Bears to establish the running game to pull the linebackers and secondary closer to the line, and hit a few deep balls off the play-action passing game.
Despite their 4-2 record, the Bucs are an unpredictable football team. Their up-and-down performances show they are still searching for an identity. In what is technically a home game for the Bucs, I expect it to be a decidedly pro-Bear home crowd at Wembley Stadium, which may be the difference in a low scoring, sloppy game.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball:
Matt Forte vs. Bucs Linebackers: Even though Matt Forte is the only weapon on the Bears that other teams have to game plan for, he still manages to make a huge impact every game. Last week Forte’s effective runs opened up some play-action shots for the Bears. Jay Cutler posted a 148.8 quarterback rating on his play-action passes against the Vikings, so Mike Martz should look to build on this. The Bucs linebackers are young and athletic, but also inexperienced. Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster should be a guy the Bears try to attack using his inexperience and over-aggressiveness against him.
What to watch for when the Bucs have the ball:
Bears Safeties vs. Tight End Kellen Winslow: Game 2 of the Chris Conte-Major Wright experiment will present a much more difficult challenge in Tampa Bay tight end Kellen Winslow. Winslow is a fluid route runner who has become a reliable safety valve for Josh Freeman. While he is not going to turn a short catch to a long gain, Winslow is a solid possession tight end, who will be targeted on third downs. Tight ends have had a lot of success against the Bears pass defense this season, so this is a match-up the Bucs should look to capitalize on. Pay attention early on to see if the Bears bring Major Wright in the box for run support.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.