Open-field tackling, a Buccaneer strength as displayed by CB Brian Kelly, could be important against a Chicago offense that spreads out the defense, then runs the ball
The 2-8 Chicago Bears were 4-6 at this same point last season, so you're not likely to hear that they've 'turned it around' in the Windy City just yet. In one way, however, the Bears have pulled a 180 from last year, at least on offense.
The Bears' offense was one of the surprise success stories of the 1999 NFL season, with new coordinator Gary Crowton using an unusual variety of receiver screens and downfield passes to lead Chicago to an eighth-place ranking overall. The Bears got by almost solely on the passing game, ranking third in that category while coming in 26th in rushing yards, as short passes often took the place of runs in the Chicago attack.
So it's a bit of a surprise to see the Bears' rankings this year: 16th in rushing, 24th in passing. In addition, Chicago has averaged a robust 4.6 yards per carry to rank sixth in the league in that category. While the effective scrambling of now-injured QB Cade McNown certainly played a part in that stat, primary runner James Allen has posted his own healthy average of 4.3 yards per tote.
That's why, even against an opponent that constantly runs out of spread formations, Tampa Bay defenders are staying on page one, paragraph one of their media quote book: 'We must stop the run first.'
"I'll tell you what – their offense is turning around," said DE Marcus Jones on Wednesday. "They're running the ball a lot more than we had previously seen. They believe they can run the ball and be successful doing so. They have done that, and they believe in their scheme. We have to go in there knowing that we have to stop the run in order to be successful."
In part due to a season-ending injury to McNown's replacement, Jim Miller, the Bears' attack struggled in hostile Buffalo last Sunday, putting up just 234 yards of offense. However, in the six previous games, the Bears offense had averaged 325.7 yards per outing, a stretch during which Chicago won two games and lost two others by a touchdown or less.
And the correlation between the Bears' running success and their chances of getting a 'W' has been even more striking. In their two victories, identical 27-24 clippings of Green Bay and Indianapolis, the Bears ran for an average of 160.5 yards on 35.5 carries. This kind of rushing success, coupled with the Bucs' periodic and surprising lapses against the run this year, most likely have Chicago devising a ground-based game plan for this Sunday.
"The key to stopping the run is basically understanding that a team wants to establish the run first," said Jones. "They've already come out and said, 'We feel like we can run the ball on them.' Knowing that, we've got to be prepared for the run and just play everything else. The key is understanding that they feel that they're able to run the ball."
None of this is to suggest that Crowton and the Bears have abandoned their approach from 1999. The Bears still employ frequent receiver screens and short crossing patterns, and will usually have extra receivers on the field. However, with the injury-related QB carousel and the tendency of NFL defenses to eventually adept to the newest thing, the Bears are finding more reason to emphasize the run out of the same formations.
"I think they've kind of scaled back their offense a little bit more than they had earlier in the year, as far as slinging the ball all over the field," said LB Jamie Duncan. "They're still throwing the ball a lot, but they're making more of a conscious effort to get the running game going."
So Allen, who has averaged 19 carries per game over the last month, gets to apply his quick cuts and bursts to, if things go right for the Bears, a spread-out defense with wider lanes to attack. The Bucs, however, have the type of speedy and aggressive defenders that can often thwart such an approach. That, in part, explains why Chicago, with Crowton's offense, has managed a total of just three field goals against Tampa Bay in the last three meetings combined.
"We have a fast team on defense and that helps us against them," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "But we've been fortunate. I always preach to our guys that what happened last week or six weeks ago or six years ago really doesn't matter this time around. Whether it's weather, how many times you've beaten a team or whatever, it all comes down to how you play that week."
Dungy, of course, doesn't want his team to be overconfident following the 41-0 blanking they administered to Chicago in Raymond James Stadium in Week Two. Buc defenders have surely been reminded that, although the Bears managed just 165 yards of total offense in that game, they did rush for 116. Allen had 47 yards on just six carries in that game. The Bucs expect to see him coming out of the backfield repeatedly on Sunday, even in passing formations.
"It puts more pressure on everybody in the back row, whether it be the secondary that has to come up and make plays or the linebackers, because we're out in space a lot," said Duncan. "It makes it tougher on everybody, because we're a defense that likes to really get to the ball. Against this kind of offense, it's going to take a total team effort when we're talking about stopping the run. The corners have to tackle well, the linemen have to recognize a lot of the screens that they run and get to the ball.
"It's going to take a total team effort."