Thirty minutes of dominant football was washed away in the third quarter by a steady rain and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' own mistakes, as a 10-0 halftime lead turned into a 21-13 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday.
Making his return to Chicago, where he starred in relief of Jay Cutler last fall, Buccaneers QB Josh McCown led his new team to that 10-point halftime lead with an efficient first half that included 173 passing yards and a 19-yard TD strike to red-hot rookie WR Mike Evans. However, McCown lost a fumble and threw a deflected-pass interception on successive Buccaneer plays from scrimmage in the third quarter. Both turnovers gave the Bears a very short field, and both resulted in Matt Forte touchdown runs.
That certainly wasn't the end of the day for McCown or the Buccaneers, but unfortunately it was not the end of the turnovers, either, and those eventually proved too difficult for the visiting team to overcome. After Forte's second score, McCown drove the Bucs right down the field with a series of sharp passes, only to see the ball slip from Vincent Jackson's grasp after a 24-yard catch-and-run down to the Chicago eight.
"No question [the turnovers hurt]," said McCown. "And those can't happen. Those two were really down in our territory, and that hurt us and it was hard to bounce back from. We fought right back and got the next drive going, and, man, I thought Vince's elbow was down on that play. He did a good job fighting for extra yards and I thought he was down. If we score there we put a little pressure on them, so that was unfortunate."
Chicago's 14 points off turnovers masked what was a second consecutive strong day by the Buccaneers' defense on the road. Tampa Bay held the Bears to 204 total yards, 12 first downs and just four conversions in 16 third-down tries. Chicago mounted just one drive of more than 50 yards in the entire game, going 58 yards to set up Cutler's two-yard touchdown pass to WR Alshon Jeffery early in the second half. Ten of the Bears' 15 possessions lasted four players or fewer.
"Our defense is coming along, they're playing the kind of football we want to play," said McCown. "This offensive group [of the Bears] has moved the ball up and down the field this year and they shut them down. We gave them short fields and that's why they got points. I think our defense is playing great."
With the loss, the Bucs fell to 2-9 on the season and failed to get consecutive wins for the first time in 2014. It also marked the second time this year that the Buccaneers had taken a 10-point lead in a tough road environment only to see it slip away. At New Orleans in Week Five, Tampa Bay stormed back for a 31-20 lead only to lose by three in overtime. With Atlanta's last-second loss on Sunday and New Orleans still to play, it's not even certain that the Bucs are out of the division race, as unusual as that seems.
"We've just got to bounce back and play better football next week," said McCown. "We're obviously not where we want to be, but the guys in this locker room will come back next week and work hard."
Even after the lost opportunity on the Jackson fumble, the Bucs were still alive. The defense got the ball back quickly and Jackson's diving 40-yard catch in Chicago territory set up Patrick Murray's second field goal of the game, making it a one-score margin on the scoreboard. Tampa Bay's defense then forced another punt, which Patrick O'Donnell shanked out of bounds five yards shy of midfield. The Bucs had three minutes to try to get the ball in the end zone but failed on a third-and-one run at the Chicago 36 to set up a do-or-die fourth down. The Bucs called in a sneak for McCown and the Bucs didn't get the push they needed to pick up the yard.
"We didn't get it on third-and-one and just decided to sneak it," said McCown. "I thought we pushed it across and got it, but obviously I was short. It's not good enough."
McCown finished the game with 341 passing yards, completing 25 of 48 throws and also scrambling for 12 yards on the day. However, he was sacked five times and pressured constantly, and he had another interception in the first half when he was hit while trying to throw. WRs Vincent Jackson and Louis Murphy had 117 and 113 yards, respectively, and Evans continued his torrid November with his sixth touchdown in the last four games.
On defense, the Bucs played without their leading tackler, LB Lavonte David (hamstring) but still kept the league's 10th-ranked offense in check. LB Mason Foster led the team with eight tackles and a pass defensed. Jacquies Smith, Clinton McDonald and Gerald McCoy all had sacks in the first quarter but unfortunately that would be the last time Cutler would be taken down. McCoy's sack forced a fumble that led to the Bucs' lone touchdown drive.
Tampa Bay's defense was especially dominant in the first half, allowing just 64 total yards, 14 rushing yards, three first downs and two conversions on nine third-down tries. That led to a halftime shutout for the first time this season, as the Buccaneers racked up 211 yards, most of it through the air. Tampa Bay also had 11 first downs and five conversions in 10 third-down tries.
The only touchdown of the game came after an exchange of turnovers. Chicago S Chris Conte intercepted a deflected pass at the Bears' 23. Although the ensuing drive was extended by a penalty on the Bears' punt attempt, it the ended at midfield when McCoy blasted past T Brian de la Puente and buried Cutler from behind, forcing a fumble that was recovered by McDonald at the Bears' 46. The resulting drive ended in Evans' 19-yard touchdown catch. The only other points of the first half came on a 32-yard field goal by Murray with four seconds to play after a 54-yard catch and run by WR Louis Murphy.
The Bears started the game in a three-receiver package and threw a bubble-screen to Jeffery on the first play for a gain of four. They gave those yards right back with a false start, and Verner broke up a deep slant to Marshall on second down. Good coverage on third-and-11 forced a check-down over the middle to Forte and Foster made the tackle two yards in front of the sticks, forcing a punt.
The Bucs narrowly averted early-game disaster when WR Marcus Thigpen dropped the punt but was able to recover it in the ensuing pile-up. Starting from the 20, McCown ran a play-action fake but eventually had to throw it away after being flushed from the pocket. Two plays later, with good protection, McCown threw a precise sideline route to Jackson for a gain of 12 and the game's initial first down. McCown also converted a third-and-three moments later with a short pass over the middle to Martin and a third-and-four at midfield with a six-yard pass to RB Bobby Rainey. Rainey made a dazzling catch of a high throw and ran through a Lance Briggs tackle to get past the needed line. The drive ended on the next third down, however, as McCown was hit as he tried to throw downfield to TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, resulting in a floater that was intercepted by S Chris Conte at the Bears' 23.
The Bears' next drive should have been a three-and-out; an Orie Lemon TFL and a Jacquies Smith sack forced a punt, but S Dashon Goldson rolled into the punter's leg and got flagged for a personal foul. That made it first-and-10 for the Bears at their own 45. A pass over the middle to Marshall moved the chains on third-and-nine and got the ball into Buccaneer territory. The Bucs kept the pressure on, however, with McDonald getting a 10-yard sack on the next play and McCoy blowing up a third-and-15 moments later with a sack and forced fumble. McDonald recovered for the Bucs at Chicago's 46.
A run and a catch by Sims resulted in a net gain of two, but McCown converted the third-and-nine with an 11-yard pass to Seferian-Jenkins on the last play of the first quarter. Sims showed good moves on the first two plays of the second period, running for five and 10 yards to get down to the Bears' 19. The Bucs went to their hot hand on the next snap, with McCown briefly looking right and then throwing a perfect back-corner pass to Evans in the end zone for the game's first score.
A taunting penalty on Evans after the score forced the Bucs to kick off from their own 20. Michael Koenen had no chance to get it into the end zone from there, allowing Marc Mariani a chance to return it to the Bears' 45. Fortunately, the Bucs' defense held, with Smith getting a hand up to bat away a pass on third-and-three. However, P Patrick O'Donnell bounced his kick down to the Bucs' two-yard line.
Two power runs up the middle left the Bucs in a third-and-six (and FB Jorvorskie Lane had to be carted off the field after an apparent ankle injury following his two-yard run), and the Bucs once again narrowly avoided disaster on the next play. QB Josh McCown was flushed out of the pocket and out of the end zone, then sacked from behind by CB Demontre Hurst. McCown didn't know Hurst was coming but somehow managed to avoid fumbling when his arm was swatted from behind. That allowed Koenen to get off a 42-yard punt to midfield.
After a near-interception by CB Isaiah Frey on a great anticipation play, Cutler dropped back on third-and-eight and had time to find WR Marquess Wilson on the left sideline for a gain of 10. However, a penalty helped push Chicago back to the Bucs' 42, where they faced a third-and-14. A dump-off to Forte came up short thanks to a hustle play by Smith, but the Bears still had a shot at a 54-yard field goal. Strong-legged kicker Robbie Gould hit it with plenty of distance but it was rejected by the left upright.
That led to great field position for the Buccaneers' offense, but they got nowhere with it. McCown had an open shot downfield to Jackson on third-and-seven but he was swarmed over as he threw and the pass sailed high and incomplete. Koenen's punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
Tampa Bay's defense came right back with a three-and-out, with Dashon Goldson getting the stop on Forte on a third-and-seven dump-off. A penalty on the ensuing punt helped the Bucs start again their own 37. Martin ran for three and 10 yards to get a first down on the midfield stripe, but a downfield shot to Jackson was overthrown. McCown threw incomplete on third down, as well, and Koenen's punt came off sideways and went only 18 yards to the Chicago 32.
Two plays left Chicago in a third-and-four as the two-minute warning arrived. Cutler tried to convert it with a quick slant to Wilson but the pass was incomplete and the Bears punted again, with the ball fair caught at the Bucs' 12.
Two plays later, Murphy caught a pass in the right flat, escaped a tackle by CB Tim Jennings and broke free down the sideline for a gain of 54. However, Murphy was flagged for a facemask at the end of the play and a false start made it first-and-15 back at the Chicago 42. A successful screen to Rainey two plays later was then erased by a block in the back by G Logan Mankins and the ball was back to midfield. Somehow, McCown kept the drive going, throwing a sideline pass on third-and-23 of which Jackson made a brilliant leaping grab. Two more completions made it first-and-goal at the 10 and the Bucs called a timeout with 36 seconds left. McCown was sacked for a loss of four on the next play, and Tampa Bay used its last timeout. Two more cracks at end zone failed so the Bucs settle for Patrick Murray's 32-yard field goal with four seconds left in the half.
The Bucs got the ball to start the half but that didn't prove to be an advantage. A one-yard run by Martin, a pass that was nearly intercepted and a delay of game call made it third-and-14 back at the 12 and an attempted screen pass was incomplete, leading to a punt. WR Russell Shepard, the Bucs' ace gunner, caught Mariani by the leg just as he fielded the kick at the Chicago 42.
Still, a quick strike to Marshall for 11 yards got the ball right into Buccaneer territory. Forte followed with his best run of the game to that point, a 13-yard cutback around right tackle, and TE Martellus Bennett made a great leaping catch for 26 yards down to the eight. Two Forte runs got the ball to the two and Cutler threw a hard pass into Jeffery's gut on third-and-goal to put the Bears on the board.
The next drive started with a touchback and a fine five-yard run by Sims but it was still third-and-10 after an incompletion and a false start. McCown had little time to throw on the third-down play, going down roughly to a sack by Stephen Paea. Tampa Bay did benefit from a penalty on Chicago on the punt, pushing the line of scrimmage back to the Chicago 35.
After a false start and two Forte runs made it third-and-five, the Bears tried to convert with a swing pass to Forte but CB Johnthan Banks made a great open-field tackle to force a punt. A nice 12-yard return by Thigpen got the ball back to the Bucs' 22.
McCown converted a third-and-seven on the ensuing drive with a heady scramble but was forced to fumble by a David Bass sack two plays later. The Bears recovered at Tampa Bay's 13 and it took Matt Forte one play to run it in for the score.
Things quickly got worse for the visitors, as McCown's first-down pass to Sims went through the rookie's hands and was easily intercepted by S Ryan Mundy. That gave Chicago possession at the Bucs' 16, and a horse-collar tackle penalty on Banks on the next play made it first-and-goal at the six. Forte got the ball three times from there, eventually running it in for a one-yard score that put the Bears up, 21-10.
McCown came out firing on the next drive and got the ball quickly into scoring range with completions of 16 yards to Evans and 22 to Murphy. A scrambling hook-up from McCown to Jackson and a good run after the catch took it down near the goal line, but Jackson lost the football at the end of the play. The play was reviewed but it stood and the fumble return got the ball back to the Chicago 21. A 16-yard catch by Jeffery brought the third quarter to an end.
The Bucs quickly forced a punt after the two teams switched sides, and it was fair caught by Thigpen at the Bucs' 22. A 14-yard strike through traffic to Jackson got one first down but the drive stalled before reaching midfield. A fair catch on the ensuing punt put the Bears at their own 10 but two Forte runs moved it out to the 24 but a well-defended third-down play ended in an incompletion and a punt and the Bucs started back at their own 28.
A 17-yard catch-and-run by Murphy got the drive started and McCown converted a third-and-10 with a scrambling downfield throw to Jackson for 40 yards. On the play, Jackson had to wheel around to find the ball while running downfield, then make a diving catch and hold on as he landed on a Bears defender. Two sacks by the Chicago defense killed the drive there but Murray made it a one-score game with a 39-yard field goal with five minutes remaining.**
Photos from pregame and the first half of Buccaneers vs. Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago.
- GAME NOTES:**
- The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive before Sunday's game: WR Robert Herron, RB Mike James, CB Crezdon Butler, CB C.J. Wilson, LB Lavonte David, T Kevin Pamphile and DE Da'Quan Bowers. David was out due to injury.
- Chicago named these seven players inactive: CB Terrance Mitchell, LB Khaseem Greene, LB Darryl Sharpton, G/T Eben Britton, T Jordan Mills, DE Trevor Scott and WR Chris Williams. Sharpton, Britton, Mills, Scott and Williams were out due to injury.
- Defensive linemen Jacquies Smith, Clinton McDonald and Gerald McCoy all had sacks of QB Jay Cutler in the first quarter. That marks just the sixth time since 1994 that the Bucs have had at least three sacks in the first quarter of a game. The last time was fairly recent, however: vs. Buffalo, Dec. 8, 2013.
- Rookie WR Mike Evans' 19-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter gave him a streak of four consecutive games with at least one score. That ties a franchise record, which had previously been accomplished five times. Mike Williams did it most recently in a streak that stretched from the 2010 season into the 2011 campaign. Evans' six total TD catches in November is the most ever by a Buccaneer in a single month.
- Michael Koenen's 53-yard punt in the second quarter bounced into the end zone, marking the first touchback Koenen has suffered on a punt all season.
- The Buccaneers pitched a first-half shutout on Sunday for the first time since Sept. 29, 2013 against Arizona. They also allowed just 68 yards of offense, their lowest first-half total surrendered since a 64-yard effort at San Francisco on Nov. 21, 2010.
- WR Vincent Jackson finished the game with 117 yards on five catches and WR Louis Murphy added 113 yards on six grabs. That marked the first time two Buccaneer receivers had crossed the 100-yard mark in the same game since Dec. 23, 2012 when it was accomplished by Jackson (108) and Mike Williams (132).
Photos from the second half of Buccaneers vs. Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago.