By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) – With the rush coming on third down, the Buccaneers’ Jameis Winston showed his stature among the game’s best quarterbacks.
He slipped away from Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd’s outstretched arms and dropped 20 yards back, escaping Willie Young and Floyd again, then weaving by Cornelius Washington. With a path of green to launch, Winston stepped up and uncorked a bomb downfield to Mike Evans, who hauled in the deep ball over the head of Tracy Porter.
With the Bears upbeat entering that contest with the Buccaneers last November, it was Winston who sucked the life out of a team grasping to what little hope remained. He toyed with a defense confident it could contain him.
Sunday marks Chicago’s third game in Tampa in as many seasons. Once again, the key for this Bears defense is to keep Winston from doing that.
“I’m seeing the same player, he’s just a little bit better at everything,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Winston.
Added Bears coach John Fox: “Jameis is improving all the time. He’s getting more comfortable with what they’re doing.”
The Buccaneers will open their 2017 season on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium after Hurricane Irma forced the postponement of last weekend’s scheduled contest at the Miami Dolphins. It marks the beginning of a season in which the Buccaneers are being touted as a potential playoff team.
After falling just short last season, the Buccaneers drafted tight end O.J. Howard in the first round and paired DeSean Jackson with Evans. Cameron Brate returns to the fold as a key target at tight end. Though running back Doug Martin is suspended to open the season, this offense is more potent than before.
That starts with Winston, the first overall pick in 2015 who has emerged as one of the top young quarterbacks in the league. At just 23, his growth is just beginning.
“He’s going to be one of the best quarterbacks to ever play this game in my opinion down the line,” Evans said this week via a teleconference. “(I’m) fortunate to have him as my quarterback.”
The Bears have gotten a first-hand look at Winston’s development. In 2015, they outlasted Winston’s 295 yards in the air and earned a 26-21 victory. But they fared much differently last season, with Winston going for 312 passing yards and pacing the Buccaneers to a blowout win.
Winston has been touted as a tremendous leader – “Nothing like I’ve ever seen before,” Evans said – and he boasts great gifts to his game, but he’s prone to mistakes. Evans, Jackson, Howard and Brate pose as key targets, but it won’t matter if Winston continues his trend with interceptions. He has thrown 33 picks in his first 32 games, an interception on 3.0 percent of his pass attempts.
In facing a daunting Buccaneers offense, the Bears’ greatest chance comes with takeaways. Their defense tallied just eight interceptions and three fumble recoveries last season, both which ranked at the bottom of the league. After speaking of forcing turnovers all offseason, the Bears had none in their 23-17 loss to the Falcons filled with regrets. One could’ve changed the dynamic of that opener.
The Bears will get their opportunities on Winston, who has thrown the ball on average 34.4 times per game during his first two NFL seasons. But how will they counter?
Part of the Bears’ coverage in the secondary is up in the air for Sunday’s game. Cornerback Prince Amukamara has been limited in practice as he works back from an ankle injury. Kyle Fuller has done solid work in his place. After expressing frustration in Fuller a year ago, Fangio has seen a different a different player in Fuller now.
Veteran Marcus Cooper will man the other end at corner. The Bears didn’t shadow Falcons star receiver Julio Jones last week and will likely maintain the same strategy against Evans and Jackson. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson will get another tall task in the secondary as he and Quintin Demps prepare to work against the size of Evans and speed threat of DeSean Jackson.
The Buccaneers could key in on Eddie Jackson in the secondary and try to make him uncomfortable.
“I’ve seen a lot from him that I’ve liked throughout the preseason,” Fox said of Jackson. “Obviously, I thought he performed well. I don’t know how much he got tested last week. He functioned really well and he’s a good communicator. I think he does well in all facets.
“He’ll get tested, but overall I’ve been very pleased with his performance.”
Fangio will be tasked with putting his defense in the right position against Winston. That will require steady pressure and utilizing the outside linebackers for a blitz off the edge. But ultimately, it comes down to discipline in the secondary. Demps must stay ready in center field to ensure that Jackson isn’t left in a poor spot.
Given their many uncertainties on offense, the Bears are relying on their defense to keep the game close and force turnovers to turn the tide. The hope at Halas Hall was that a bolstered Bears secondary could lead to different results for the defense.
Sunday provides the next challenge for this new-look defense. Winston is prone to mistakes, but the Bears know well he can beat you so many different ways.
“He’s a very confident player,” Fangio said. “I see an excellent quarterback.”