By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (5-9) visit the Bucs (6-8) for a noon contest Sunday. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Be patient
Over the nine seasons Lovie Smith coached the Bears from 2004-’12, we heard opposing quarterbacks speak of the need to “be patient” against his defense. His plan forces a quarterback to take what’s available and work a long field, with his unit’s goal to be to then force a mistake or turnover.
The Buccaneers have forced 22 fumbles and 11 interceptions this season, and they have 33 sacks despite minimal star power on the unit. Jay Cutler and the Bears offense must covet the ball, and they know it.
Three-technique defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is Tampa’s engine. His 7.5 sacks lead the team, but he’s playing with a protective cast on a broken hand that has muted some of his pass rush. In three healthy games, McCoy has 4.5 sacks. In 10 games dealing with a shoulder injury and his broken hand, he has three sacks. Still, McCoy’s a player who must be blocked for the Bears offense to run smoothly.
The other Bucs star player is LaVonte David at weakside linebacker, another critical position in the Tampa 2 zone defense. David’s an active linebacker with 12 pass breakups, three interceptions, two sacks and a forced fumble. The Bears want to run the ball, but the Bucs have slammed the door in allowing only 3.3 yards per carry, second in the league. Tampa is eighth in yards per play allowed.
Receivers are averaging 10.8 yards per catch against Tampa Bay, which is the fifth-fewest in the NFL. However, quarterbacks are completing 69.2 percent of their passes — the most in the league — and have tossed for 28 touchdowns. The Bears can move the ball, but they just have to be patient to finish.
Defense: Challenge Winston’s accuracy
If the Bears can marry their pass rush and coverage and challenge the accuracy of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, they will enhance their ability to force a bad throw, a hurried throw or a high throw redirected into an interception. There are times Winston gets to his final step in his drop and, with no open receiver, goes into a little panic. He tends to be high on his throws, which lead to some deflected picks.
Tampa receivers have 29 drops, which equates to a 7.9 drop percentage, second-worst in the league. The Bucs have a good rushing attack spearheaded by the “Muscle Hamster” Doug Martin, who averages 5.1 yards per carry. Martin has piled up 1,305 rushing yards, and he’s getting 2.4 yards per carry after contact, the most in the league. Martin doesn’t have great speed, but his strong lower half powers through arm tackles, resulting in chunk yardage.
Second-year receiver Mike Evans is a matchup issue for the Bears. Few players high-point the ball and post up cornerbacks better than Evans, whose catch radius is more than seven feet, thanks to 35-inch arms, unusually long for a receiver.
The other weapon to watch is running back Charles Sims, who’s effective on screens at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, one of five Buccaneers with at least three touchdown catches. The Bears’ front seven should be able to generate a pass rush on Winston, as the Bucs’ offensive line has permitted a high number of knockdowns.
Special teams: Take another step
Each week, the Bears special teams unit takes another step toward consistency. The introduction of Deonte Thompson on kick returns has improved field position, as he’s averaging 32 yards on his returns, best in the NFL, despite a small sample size.
The coverage units have been solid, thanks in part to more of a dedicated role for Sherrick McManis, who leads the team in special team tackles.
The Buccaneers have some good speed on their coverage units. Bobby Rainey’s averaging 11.1 yards on his punt returns and a modest 24.7 yards on his kick returns.
Intangibles: Ex-Bear factor
Each team is eliminated from the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean the intensity of this game won’t be high. Jobs are being evaluated for 2016, and as several Bears have indicated, they believe the last two games are being treated like job interviews.
The other wrinkle is the Lovie Smith factor. Only a handful of Bears remain from his last season coaching the Bears in 2012, but his staff is full of ex-Bears assistants and former Bears like Henry Melton, Chris Conte and Major Wright on defense. Everyone wants to win this game.
A subplot to the game is the weather. The Bears haven’t played in 84-degree weather and 70 percent humidity, which is expected, so it will be an intangible to watch in terms of their hydration and preparation for warm conditions.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.