QB Brad Johnson have done a good job of protecting the ball in most games this season and probably will need to do so again to win in Chicago
From 1983 through 1996, Chicago's Soldier Field was a house of horrors for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won just once there in those 14 years. However, while the Bears' windy field on Lake Michigan is a tough place to play, that run of futility had much more to do with the wildly divergent talents of those two teams in that era.
The fortunes have been somewhat reversed over the last four years, and the result has been a closer competition when the Bucs visit Chicago. In fact, the two teams have split the last four games there, with the rubber match coming up on Sunday. Tampa Bay has finally proven it can win in the Windy City, but it also discovered exactly what it is that will keep them from doing so.
The Bucs won fairly handily in 1998 and 1999, by scores of 31-17 and 20-6, respectively. They lost their 1997 game in Chicago by a much tighter 13-7 margin, and were edged last season, 13-10.
In the '97 game, the two teams' offensive statistics were quite similar (279 total yards and 17 first downs for the Bears to 272 and 14 for the Bucs), but Tampa Bay lost three fumbles and the Bears didn't turn it over once. In fact, Mike Alstott fumbled on the first play of the game and the Bears capitalized with a touchdown before the contest was three minutes old. Horace Copeland then lost another fumble on their third play of the game, and the Bears tacked on a field goal.
Last November, the Bucs lost by a field goal to the Bears without surrendering an offensive touchdown. Shortly before halftime, safety Tony Parrish intercepted a Shaun King pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. Then, with the Bucs driving well into Chicago territory in the third quarter, with a chance to take the lead, Warrick Dunn lost a fumble and the Bucs never recovered.
Given the possibility of bad weather this weekend and the Bucs' seeming insistence on turning every game into a nail-biter, it's a good bet Sunday's game will be a tight one. If so, Tampa Bay will have to overcome a Bears team that is perfect in close games this year. Chicago is 1-0 in games decided by three points or less, 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less and 2-0 in overtime. The most obvious answer is to take care of the football.
"Turnovers are critical," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "The way Chicago plays, they play a lot of close games. Generally, a turnover swings the field position and could swing the score. That has been the thing that has gotten us the two times we lost up there recently."
And it got the Bucs a month ago in Tampa, as well. The Bucs, who lead the NFC in turnover ratio at plus-13, have only lost the individual-game turnover battle twice this season, and once was the November 18 matchup with the Bears. The giveaways proved critical. Tampa Bay lost the ball a season-high four times that afternoon, one of which led to a field goal (the eventual winning margin) and another which ended the Bucs' last hope for a sustained drive.
The Bears are only plus-two in turnover ratio, in the middle of the pack, but they have taken the ball away 23 times and have gotten them in bunches at times, with five against the Falcons in October and four against the Bucs. They're doing so without taking unnecessary risks.
"They're not gambling, they just hit hard," said Dungy. "That's why they're forcing turnovers. They're putting you in long-yardage situations. They knock the ball loose from running backs, they fly aggressively to the ball and they're playing good defense. It's not gambling at all, it's just that they have some good, aggressive players."
Interestingly, the Bears are actually 3-0 this season when they lose the turnover battle, a stat that goes against all conventional wisdom. More importantly, they are doing a very good job of holding onto the ball, with exactly one turnover in each of their last four games. They have seemingly placed an importance on ball-control this season and QB Jim Miller has been intercepted just nine times, including only three times in Chicago's last five games.
"Miller's not making a lot of mistakes," said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. "He's not losing games for them. He hangs in there, takes what you give him and makes crucial plays at crucial points in the game. It seems like they're not asking him to shoulder the offense but to be consistent, don't turn the ball over and win the field position. That's what they're doing."
The dream of full-roster activity at practice was put on hold Thursday when Eric Vance's sprained knee wasn't quite ready for action.
With wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson (foot/ankle) returning to practice at full speed on Thursday, the Bucs could have had their first practice with every player available since training camp. That novelty will now wait until at least tomorrow, but just getting close is heartening at this point in the season. The Bucs could have a full arsenal to choose from Sunday in Chicago.
"I think the only person in question right now is Eric Vance, and we're going to see if he can go tomorrow," said Dungy after Thursday's workout. "Other than that, I think we're relatively healthy."
Center Jeff Christy, who practiced Wednesday with a cast on his right hand but then had the cast removed immediately afterward, was back at work Thursday, though he still didn't snap the ball as often as he normally would. Christy has a sprained thumb on his snapping hand, which could obviously be a major concern for a center, but he is progressing nicely and may be unlimited on Friday.
"He snapped some, but we still tried to protect that (thumb)," said Dungy. "I think he'll be full go doing that tomorrow. It should be fine. Now, if he has a problem tomorrow, then we'll have to see, but we're not anticipating that. He actually could have snapped today, but we're just trying to keep some of the aggravation off it."
Speaking of snapping, tight end Sean McDermott, the team's long snapper, was added to the Bucs' official injury report on Thursday morning due to a neck sprain, but he was able to practice. He is considered 'probable' to play on Sunday.
Midway through the week, Simeon Rice took over as the Bucs' 2001 sack leader.
When the week began, Rice and defensive tackle Warren Sapp were tied for the team lead with six apiece, but only because one of Sunday's sacks was erroneously credited to Sapp.
This mistake by the statistics crew was first pointed out to the Bucs' communications staff by Sapp himself, who knew he was not the one to drop Detroit QB Mike McMahon for a three-yard loss at the Bucs' 32-yard line during the third quarter.
The play was thus reported to the Elias Sports Bureau for review. After studying the game video, Elias re-assigned credit for the play to defensive end Steve White and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. Each is credited with half a sack.
White has 3.5 sacks this season, a career high. McFarland, who had 6.5 sacks last season, has recorded 2.5 this year. Sapp has five sacks.
Under the Helmet
Most consider Brooks to be among the upper echelon of NFL defenders, the type of player who can control a game when he is at his best. Brooks can't control everything that happens on game day, however, and that leads to some unhappy moments during the pregame period.
It's the music. Brooks isn't pleased.
Thanks to NFL Films, the Bucs' four-time Pro Bowl 'backer has been wired for sound during several games in recent seasons. On Saturday at noon EDT (check local listings), some of those miked-up moments can be seen on the popular "NFL Under the Helmet" show on FOX-TV. One segment during this week's show will feature Brooks reacting to his wirings from past seasons. He lets viewers in on one of his stadium pet peeves – bad music blaring over the PA system during warm ups – and the how his enthusiasm on the sidelines keeps his fellow teammates pumped up for the game.
"NFL Under the Helmet," the NFL's teen-driven magazine show, produced by NFL Films, features the best of the NFL and the world of contemporary music.
Other segments during this week's show will include an interview of Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice by World Cup soccer start Brandi Chastain, as well as some on-field action between the two, a 'Back in the Day' feature led by Dallas Cowboys WR Raghib Ismail, and a miked-up piece on San Diego Chargers' safety Rodney Harrison.
"NFL Under the Helmet" airs every Saturday at noon ET on FOX-TV (check local listings). The show is hosted by Ron Pitts and Rebecca Grant.