By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) Just three weeks ago, both of the the Bears and Bucs teams were thinking playoffs. However, they’ve gone a combined 1-5 since then, so the 5-9 Bears and 6-8 Bucs will be playing for pride Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay.READ MORE: Mayor Lori Lightfoot Sets Goal To Get 77% Of Eligible Chicagoans Vaccinated By End Of The Year
While many current Bears never played for Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith when he was Chicago’s coach from 2004-’12, some core players did. That can serve as extra motivation for a Bears team staring at its second straight double-digit loss season.
Here are some aspects on the field to focus on during Sunday’s action.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
Through 14 games, Smith has tried seven different combinations in the secondary. It’s worth noting that three former Bears — Chris Conte, Major Wright and Tim Jennings — are all on the Bucs, with Conte and Wright getting consistent playing time. Certainly that underscores the root cause of Tampa’s issue, as it severely lacks talent in the defensive backfield.
Opposing quarterbacks are averaging a 100.3 passer rating against Tampa Bay, the sixth-highest total in the league. Another major factor is the Bucs’ lack of a consistent pass rush, which has left the secondary exposed.
Smith still favors zone coverage, playing primarily Cover-2 and Cover-3 looks but occasionally mixing in some man and Cover-4 looks. Not only do the Bucs use a simplified scheme, their players are vulnerable to double moves and are shoddy open-field tacklers.
The Bucs don’t use a lot of pre-snap rotations to create confusion. Consequently, quarterbacks have a defined picture of what the defense is doing pre-snap and have dialed up route combinations designed to beat that particular coverage.
Once again, Chicago receiver Alshon Jeffery’s status for Sunday is uncertain due to a hamstring injury. However, given Tampa’s combination of poor personnel and an inconsistent pass rush, this could be a get-well week for the Bears’ passing game.
Tough sledding on the ground
A bright spot for the Bucs, particularly over their last six games, has been their run defense. Over that stretch, they’ve given up only 454 yards (75.6 per game average) and made their opponents one-dimensional.
In typical Smith fashion, he has developed a front seven that values speed over size for his one-gap attack. He has talented young building blocks at the three-technique (Gerald McCoy) and Will linebacker (Lavonte David) positions, which are crucial to his scheme. The Bucs are quick to get their face in the gap and force running backs to redirect their course, which allows their speed to take over and chase in space.
Given that the Bears already have a depleted group of pass catchers and may also be without Jeffery, they can’t abandon the run too early, as they did against the Vikings last week.READ MORE: 1 Killed, 13 Wounded In Mass Shooting At Kroger Grocery Near Memphis, Tenn.
One way teams have consistently gotten vertical agains the Bucs is off of play-action. When you play zone-based schemes like the Bucs do, all eyes are on the quarterback and the ball, so a good play fake can lead to an explosive gain.
What to watch for when the Bucs have the ball
This past May, the Bucs elected to decline the fifth-year option on running back Doug Martin, making him a free agent at the end of the season. The front office’s rationale was easy to understand. Since his stellar rookie season, in which he put up 1,494 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, Martin played only 17 games over the next two seasons and didn’t top 500 rushing yards in either.
Clearly, Martin took the team’s snub as extra motivation this offseason. He was the talk of training camp, showing up healthy and 20 pounds lighter. It’s translated to the regular season as well.
Through, 14 games, Martin leads the league with 13 carries of 20 or more yards. His 5.1 yards per carry average is the most for running backs with 200 or more carries, and he’s second in the league with 1,305 rushing yards. He’s displaying the vision, lateral quickness and burst that made him a first-round selection in 2012.
The Bucs use a lot of man-blocking schemes with defined aiming points for Martin. Thus, Sunday’s game will be a big test of the Bears’ inside linebackers — who have been a major issue all season — and strong safeties as they fill their gaps. They must fit properly and be in proper striking position at the point of attack to prevent explosive gains, as Martin isn’t only quick, but he physically finishes his runs.
Even with a depleted group of receivers and a rookie quarterback, Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter likes to attack vertically with his passing scheme.
The Bucs spent the first overall selection this past April on Jameis Winston, a classic pocket quarterback, who was groomed in a pro-style offense by Jimbo Fisher at Florida State.
While he has a deliberate windup and will throw the ball into harm’s way more often than wanted, Winston checks all the boxes as a franchise quarterback. He’s shown significant growth over the course of the season, particularly with coverage recognition.
Koetter has compensated for Winston’s windup by using shotgun sets and three-step drops, with route combinations that typically have a vertical shot built into the front side of the read. The primary target has been Mike Evans, who ranks in the top 15 in most major receiving categories and has a 20-plus-yard reception in nine games this season.
The Bears play a primarily man coverage in passing situations with press-man technique on the outside. Whether they shadow Evans with Tracy Porter remains to be seen, but their cornerbacks must be careful with their jams at the line. Evans is physical off his release and makes up for his lack of suddenness by being a strong hand fighter to quickly gain outside leverage on vertical routes.MORE NEWS: Body Found In Illinois River Confirmed To Be Missing Illinois State University Student Jelani Day; Police Call Death 'Very Suspicious'
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.