RB Warrick Dunn may find running lanes scarce against Chicago's conference-best run defense
The Great A-Train Debate has been gathering steam as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears gear up for their first clash of the season.
To whom does that recognizeable nickname belong?
When you hear it, does it conjure up images of Bucs' fullback Mike Alstott bashing through a pile at the line of scrimmage? Or does it bring to mind the 2001 breakout season of Bears back Anthony Thomas?
It's a light-hearted, auxiliary issue when it comes to the important Chicago-Tampa Bay clash of this weekend, but it may get somewhat of a resolution on the field Sunday. Perhaps Alstott or Thomas will lay claim to the name with a game-turning performance and help his team to victory.
It should be noted, however, that Chicago has apparently embraced the A-Train nickname for their breakout rookie from the University of Michigan. He is referred to as such in the Bears' news and notes for the game, some of which are excerpted below. To get a feel for Sunday's contest from Chicago's perspective, read on.
(Excerpted from Chicago notes)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have alternated outcomes in each of the last four weeks and are coming off a last-second victory at Detroit as they prepare to host the Bears. Tampa Bay is looking to move above the .500-level for the first time since Oct. 7 as the Bucs desperately try to rejoin the race for their second Central Division crown in three years. Despite featuring a defense rated among the leaders of the NFL, the Bucs have yet to win consecutive games this season due an inconsistent offensive attack. Quarterback Brad Johnson, signed as an unrestricted free agent from Washington in the offseason, has upgraded a Buccaneer passing game that currently ranks 16th in the league. Surrounded by a talented group of runners and receivers, the 10th-year pro has thrown for 1,752 yards, nine TDs and four INTs while also showing some running ability (18-88).
Johnson's main contributor is his namesake, two-time pro bowler Keyshawn Johnson who leads the NFC and is second in the NFL with 59 receptions for 745 yards. The Johnson and Johnson duo is still looking for its first touchdown, however, as veteran tight end Dave Moore leads Tampa Bay with three TD catches. Fullback Mike Alstott has powered his way to the Bucs' lead in rushing (84-339) and touchdowns (five, four rushing) while speedy Warrick Dunn continues to complement him with 450 yards of total offense this year (76-224 rushing; 28-226 receiving) despite missing two games to injury. With 22 catches for 256 yards, former Florida receiver Jacquez Green gives the Bucs another solid deep threat. The Tampa offensive line is a unit looking to improve its play having allowed 29 sacks through eight games. With 12-time pro bowl LG Randall McDaniel, three-time pro bowl C Jeff Christy and RT Jerry Wunsch back together for the second consecutive season, the team is working in second-year pro RG Cosey Coleman and first-round draft pick from Florida LT Kenyatta Walker.
Led by the power rushing right side of DT Warren Sapp and free agent acquisition RE Simeon Rice, Tampa Bay's defense is one of the most productive in the league, ranking eighth in total defense and 10th in points allowed. This fearsome pass rushing duo has combined for five sacks while the left side of NT Anthony McFarland and LE Marcus Jones have totaled four. James Cannida has filled in for the injured McFarland for the last two games. The Buccaneers carry three players with 50 or more tackles, led by weak-side linebacker Derrick Brooks with 56. The 2000 Walter Payton/NFL Man of the Year co-winner has been named to four consecutive pro bowls. A pair of Vanderbilt products fill out the linebacker corps as fourth-year pro MLB Jamie Duncan has 50 tackles, putting the second-year starter 10 shy of a new career high, while fifth-year pro SLB Shelton Quarles has 19 tackles. Each of the linebackers has in interception in 2001, led by Brooks' two. The team interception leader is RCB Ronde Barber who ranks fourth in the NFL with a career-high five interceptions. The fourth-year starter entered the season with six career interceptions. LCB Donnie Abraham, a first-time pro bowler in 2000, has two picks this year and his next interception will move him into a tie for second place on Tampa's career list with 28. The Buccaneers' second-leading tackler is SS John Lynch with 51 and the notorious hard-hitter also has one of Tampa's 15 interceptions this year. Free safety Dexter Jackson has found success quickly in Tampa's ball-hawking defense as the third-year pro has three interceptions in his first year as a starter.
Punter Mark Royals, a 13-year veteran of six NFL teams, is in the third year of his second stint with Tampa Bay after playing for the Buccaneers from 1990-91. Martin Gramatica follows his rookie brother Bill of Arizona in taking on the Bears in 2001. The third-year kicker enters the game having missed only two field goal attempts this season, both from beyond 50 yards. Slated to return punts and kickoffs for the Buccaneers is Karl Williams. Rookie cornerback Dwight Smith currently leads the Bucs with a 22.2-yard average on 16 kickoff returns.
Both Chicago quarterbacks have been effective conducting the Bears two-minute offense. Jim Miller completed four of five passes at the end of the first half against the Packers. With 0:45 remaining he drove the Bears 40 yards in seven plays capped by a Paul Edinger field goal to close the half. Shane Matthews engineered three scoring drives conducting the Bears' two-minute drill against Cleveland, completing five of seven attempts to close the first half before Anthony Thomas ran in the Bears first score from two yards out. Matthews then orchestrated the come-from-behind win with two touchdown passes (completing seven of eight attempts) in the final 0:32, the first a nine-yard pass to Marty Booker and the second a 34-yard Hail Mary to James Allen as time expired, setting up overtime. In the final two minutes of both halves, Matthews completed 15 of 18 attempts for 171 yards and two touchdowns.
SPREADING THE WEALTH
Eight different receivers caught passes in Sunday's game against Green Bay. Marty Booker led the way with eight grabs, followed by Dez White's seven. The group includes three wide receivers (Booker, White and David Terrell), two running backs (James Allen and Anthony Thomas), two tight ends (Fred Baxter and John Davis) and one fullback (Daimon Shelton).
RETURN TO MILLER TIME
Bears quarterback Jim Miller returned to the starting lineup against Green Bay after missing the Cleveland game (11/4) with a bruised left hip. He set season highs with 47 attempts and 28 completions against the Packers. The 47 attempts is just one off his career high of 48 set Nov. 14, 1999 versus Minnesota. Miller had started four consecutive games (Atlanta, Arizona, Cincinnati and San Francisco) for the first time in his career but was knocked out midway through the second quarter against San Francisco (10/28) and was replaced by Shane Matthews, the Bears starter for the first two games of the season (Baltimore and Minnesota) and Matthews responded by completing 25 of 31 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns. He completed five consecutive passes to end the first half with a score and completed 13 of his final 14 attempts (the lone incompletion was to spike the ball to stop the clock) of the game to bring the Bears back from a 19-point deficit.
Miller made his first appearance of the 2001 season against Minnesota (9/23), replacing injured starter Matthews who left the game early in the second quarter with a rib muscle strain. Miller finished the game completing 18 of 29 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. The Michigan State product orchestrated his second victory coming off the bench in a Bears uniform (at Green Bay, 11/7/99). Prior to his appearance versus Minnesota, Miller last played quarterback for Chicago at Buffalo (11/12/00) where he was lost for the season in the second quarter with a ruptured left achilles tendon.
Running back James Allen has proved to be one of the Bears most clutch performers in game-deciding situations the last three games. He finished the day with two catches for 11 yards against the Packers with both receptions coming on the Bears final drive of the first half with under 0:45 to play in a drive which resulted in a field goal. Then, in the fourth quarter, he had his lone rush of the afternoon gaining six yards from the Green Bay 21 with just 0:57 left to play in the game. Allen was also the intended receiver on a fourth-and-four from the GB 15 on the Bears last offensive play of the day. A week prior against the Browns (11/4) Allen was not called upon until the fourth quarter and caught two drive-sustaining passes to help Chicago pull within 21-14 with under two minutes remaining, then was the lone receiver on three plays and accounted for all 47 yards in the drive that tied the game at the final gun in regulation, catching a 36-yard TD pass. A week prior against San Francisco, Allen accounted for 30 of the Bears 55 yards on the Bears first touchdown scoring drive with under a minute to play in the first half. He caught two passes for 15 yards and had one rush for 15 yards to set up a one-yard TD pass from Matthews to Daimon Shelton.
Rookie running back Anthony Thomas, the Bears second-round pick out of Michigan, had 90 yards of total offense against the Packers. He had 45 yards rushing on 22 carries and had 45 receiving yards. Thomas is the NFC's leading rookie rusher with 580 yards on 127 carries trailing only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson's league-leading total of 726 yards on 195 carries. At the midpoint of the season, Thomas is on pace to eclipse Rashaan Salaam's 1995 rookie record of 1,074 yards. Against the Bengals (10/21) he set a Bears rookie record with 188 yards rushing, then posted 127 yards (27 carries) against the 49ers (10/28). The 188 yards marks the eighth-highest single-game rushing total in Bears history and is the top performance by a rookie this season. The total is the third best rushing effort in the League this season, eclipsed only by the Rams' Trung Canidate who had 195 yards on 23 carries against the Jets (10/21) and Seattle's Shawn Alexander who had a League-best 266 yards on 35 carries against the Raiders (11/4).
Ann Arbor Express
Rookies David Terrell and Anthony Thomas, both drafted out of Michigan last season, are posting numbers Wolverine fans would recognize from the duo. The two combined for 17 receptions for 163 yards in the last two games while Thomas has added 141 yards rushing. Against San Francisco (10/28), the two combined for three scores and a crucial two-point conversion to force overtime and the twosome also combined for 279 yards (Thomas 188 yards rushing and Terrell 91 yards receiving) in the win over Cincinnati. Terrell left Michigan ranked No. 3 in TD receptions and receiving yards while Thomas is the UM career leader in carries, yards and touchdowns.
By Land Rookie running back Anthony Thomas, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month in October, has averaged 114 yards per game over the past four games. He was the first Bears rookie to crack the century mark in rushing yards in consecutive games since Rashaan Salaam turned the trick three times in a row at the end of the 1995 season. Salaam gained 105 yards at Cincinnati, 134 vs. Tampa Bay and 122 against Philadelphia and holds Bears rookie records for rushing attempts (296) and yardage (1,074).
Train Progression Prior to consecutive 100-yard games against San Francisco and Cincinnati, running back Anthony Thomas had a then career-high 58 yards on 11 carries against the Cardinals (10/14) and, at Atlanta (10/7), scored the Bears' first rushing touchdown of the 2001 season with a 32-yard run late in the game. The score marked his first career rushing touchdown in the League. Thomas was the first Bears rookie to record a start in the 2001 season. He lined up at fullback on the Bears opening possession against the Vikings (9/23) and caught an eight-yard pass on the game's first play.
By Air Rookie wide receiver David Terrell, who contributed three catches for 12 yards against Green Bay, caught two touchdowns against the 49ers (10/28) to become the first rookie wideout to catch two touchdowns in one game for the Bears since teammate Marty Booker turned the trick against Minnesota back in November of 1999. Booker, who earned his first career start in that game, caught seven passes for 134 yards and three scores in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Vikings. Terrell has 22 catches for 202 yards and two scores in 2001.
Terrell's Turn Rookie wide receiver David Terrell, the Bears first-round draft choice in 2001, established career highs with two TD catches versus the 49ers (10/28). The week prior, he set career highs in receptions and yards with seven catches for 91 yards against the Bengals (10/21) and stepped up his effort after Marcus Robinson was injured in the second quarter of the same game. At the time of Robinson's injury, Terrell had one reception for 11 yards, after the veteran left the game, Terrell had six receptions for 80 yards.
The Bears offensive line matched the top-rated sack defense in the League and did not surrender one sack. The Packers entered the game against the Bears with a League-high 30 sacks but failed to get to quarterback Jim Miller. Through eight games the Bears O-line has only allowed seven sacks and last year, in the same amount of games, gave up 26.
The Bears have the top-ranked run defense in the NFC (third overall behind Baltimore and Pittsburgh) allowing just 78.9 yards rushing per game and have not allowed a individual rusher to crack the 100-yard plateau since Oct. 15, 2000, when Robert Smith of the Vikings gained 170 yards on 23 carries, a span of 17 games. The Packers Ahman Green just fell short of the 100-yard plateau with 93 yards rushing on 18 attempts. The 17-game span ranks second in the League behind Baltimore's 41 (playing Monday night- 11/12).
With an interception and fumble recovery against the Packers, the Bears have recorded 15 takeaways through eight games and have turned those turnovers into 49 points, including interception returns for touchdowns in back-to-back games (Cleveland 11/4, San Francisco 10/28) by free safety Mike Brown. Against the Cardinals (10/14), R.W. McQuarters scooped up a fumble and raced 69 yards untouched for the score and linebacker Brian Urlacher returned a Michael Vick fumble 90 yards for a score against the Falcons (10/7). Bears opponents have scored 41 points off of turnovers.
The Bears have only surrendered three points in their last two road contests (3 at Atlanta, 0 at Cincinnati). The three points marks the lowest back-to-back road contest total since 1942 when the Bears posted shutouts in two consecutive games.
The Packers Ahman Green reeled off a 24-yard run midway through the second quarter marking the first run over 20 yards surrendered by the Bears this season. Entering the Packers contest, only the Bears and Raiders had yet to allow a run of over 20 yards. The Raiders also had their string broke against Seattle on Sunday, allowing Shawn Alexander to scamper 88 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Including a second-quarter TD surrendered to the Packers, the Bears defense has only allowed two touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of play all season. Chicago defenders had gone 27 opponent pos-sessions without allowing a first half touchdown before the Niners (10/28) put together a 10-play, 85-yard drive for the lone first half TD the Bears defense has allowed this season. Incidentally, the Bears defense has only allowed 10 touchdowns all season and only eight TDs in the last 28 quarters.