By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (4-6) host the Buccaneers (2-8) on Sunday at noon at Soldier Field. Here are my keys to the game.
Beating the Tampa Bay defense requires patience to work the ball down the field. The Bucs do their best to prevent big plays, looking for teams to make a mistake somewhere along the way. That defense may not be look good statistically, but it’s improving and making plays.
The Bucs are tied for fourth in forcing negative plays with 75, including 45 negative runs, which is third-best in the league. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is the engine, and Lavonte David is an outstanding young linebacker and a tackling machine. The unit has three pick-sixes, 15 takeaways and 45 points off those takeaways.
There are ex-Bears getting playing time in the Bucs secondary, including Major Wright at safety and Isaiah Frey in sub packages. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will have the opportunity to make plays against the Bucs’ zone and occasional man-to-man, but a significant commitment to the run would be the plan to get Tampa Bay out of its Cover 2 zone. Teams have opened up some downfield passing lanes against corners Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner, who have combined to give up eight passing touchdowns.
The Bears defense is obviously familiar with Bucs quarterback Josh McCown from his time in Chicago — and vice versa. McCown is competitive, and while his season has been compromised by missing time with an injury, he’s capable of driving the ball downfield and making big plays if he gets into a rhythm. Disrupting that rhythm will be a big key for the Bears defense.
Against the blitz this season, Tampa Bay quarterbacks are 31st in quarterback rating at 57.6, along with four touchdowns, seven interceptions and nine sacks. McCown is responsible for four of those interceptions. The Bears’ cornerbacks deal with size disadvantages in practice every day, so they won’t be overwhelmed by the size of Bucs receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Evans is on a tear and gains speed as he runs his deep routes.
Tampa Bay is getting poor production in the run game, but it will try to establish it to set up play-action for McCown. The Bucs have the second-fewest carries in the league and are averaging only 3.2 yards rushing on first down. Rookie running back Charles Sims is a player to watch, but he’s still working his way back to top form from an ankle injury. Little Bobby Rainey hides in the trees and is a tackle-breaker who must be accounted for past the line of scrimmage.
Special teams: penalty-free
Playing a sound game on special teams and avoiding the penalties and the big plays by a foe is a storyline to watch again this week for the Bears’ special teams units.
Bears kicker Robbie Gould is looking to rebound from last week, when he missed a field goal and knocked a kickoff out of bounds. Gould is a weapon at Soldier Field and given the wet conditions expected, he’s a reliable asset in the weather. Limiting the field position advantages for a 2-8 football team is also a key, given that the slightest bit of momentum can turn a scoreboard. Newly signed Bear Marc Mariani will be the return man in place of the injured Chris Williams. Mariani hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2011 due to injuries, but he’s healthy and excited about his return to the NFL, where in 2010 he was named to the Pro Bowl.
Intangibles: powerful emotion
There’s no doubt a coaching staff led by Lovie Smith and many ex-Bears assistants will be looking to exact a measure of revenge for their respective departures after the 2012 season. The dozen Bears who played for Smith did a good job over the course of the week balancing their collective respect for Smith and the importance of claiming a second straight win. The Bears must meet and surpass the anticipated enthusiasm, intensity and emotion that the Bucs will likely bring in to Soldier Field given the circumstances.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.