The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Chicago Bears on Thursday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at Soldier Field. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Tyler Johnson. Discussing 2020 draft picks Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Tyler Johnson late last week, Head Coach Bruce Arians said, "They should be able to contribute when their number is called." Vaughn showed that he was ready with a fantastic play on the game-winning touchdown against the Chargers on Sunday. Now it looks like it's Johnson's turn. If Mike Evans and Scotty Miller – both questionable for the game – can play, Johnson would likely slide in as the primary third receiver in three-wide sets, which are usually prevalent. If Evans and Miller join Chris Godwin and Justin Watson on the sideline, Johnson could actually become Tom Brady's top target. When he made his NFL debut in Denver in Week Three, Johnson showed that he has studied well, as he was able to take reps at three different receiver positions during the course of the game. Johnson was a big-time playmaker at the University of Minnesota known for his excellent route-running and natural ability to gain separation. That's obviously harder to do on the NFL level but the Bucs have high hopes for what Johnson can do as a pro and they may need to start finding out if they're right on Thursday night.
ILB Devin White. White is the Buccaneers' leading tackler in 2020, but not by as big of a margin as a week ago, as fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David got to the ball more frequently against the Chargers. David had 11 tackles to White's four (including just one solo stop), and now White's overall total of 37 stops is just two better than David. Those two have a friendly rivalry, so White will probably be looking to get to the ballcarrier first on Thursday night. The Bucs' second-ranked run defense will look to stop David Montgomery early in order to make the Bears' offense one-dimensional and put the load on the shoulders of quarterback Nick Foles. As we noted on Wednesday in our Scouting Report of Chicago, the Bears' offense has actually found more success operating out of two-TE formations, and Jimmy Graham is the team's second-leading receiver, so the Buccaneers will need White to help keep the Bears' tight ends in check, too. To put it more simply, this Week Five Bucs-Bears matchup looks like one that will be dominated by defense, and as one of the team's defensive captains, White will help prove that his squad can have more impact on the game than Khalil Mack and the Chicago D.
RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Speaking of Vaughn, his 19-snap offensive debut in Week Four could be the precursor for a larger role in Week Five. LeSean McCoy has been ruled out of the game, Leonard Fournette is doubtful and practice squad running back Kenjon Barner is unavailable. That means it's highly likely that Vaughn and Ronald Jones will be the only two running backs in the game for the Buccaneers on Thursday night. Vaught saw his first NFL action on offense in Week Four, and while his three carries only gained four yards he also caught two passes for 22 yards and a touchdown. Vaughn looked natural catching the ball and made a very nice grab on his nine-yard score in the fourth quarter. Vaughn may step immediately into the third-down role with McCoy out, and he is likely to take some of the rushing load off Jones, too, with Fournette probably out. The Bears have a strong run defense but Arians and the Bucs are still likely to work to establish the run game early, believing it does a lot to open up things for Tom Brady.
DL Ndamukong Suh. Suh is a big part of the Bucs' success in stopping the run since the start of the 2019 season, but he's also making plenty of impact this season as a pass-rusher. After his two-sack game against Carolina in Week Two, Suh had another hit on the quarterback in Denver and two more in last Sunday's win over Justin Herbert and the Chargers. And, obviously, his forced fumble near the end of the first half against Los Angeles was the play that turned the game around and kick-started a comeback win from 17 points down. In recounting that play the next day, Suh described how the Chargers' alignment revealed to him what they intended to do at the snap and that allowed him to move quickly to the right gap and hit running back Joshua Kelly in the backfield. That kind of veteran know-how has been built over 11 seasons and 162 games, and it makes Suh one of the more likely defenders to come up with a big play when his team really needs it.
G Alex Cappa. All five of the Buccaneers' offensive linemen are playing well and, crucially, in concert right now. Cappa is the player-to-watch choice though because of who he is likely to spend much of Thursday night dealing with. The Bears' sack leader is defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who according to the NFL Next Gen Stats player location tracker almost always lines up to the left of the center (facing the offensive line). Hicks is a powerful player with some surprising pass-rush moves for a 347-pound man, so Cappa will have his hands full for four quarters Sunday. Of course, Hicks will have his hands full, too, because Cappa has settled in well at the right guard position in his second season as a starter. Last week, in the Bucs' 115-yard rushing effort, running back Ronald Jones had his most success running over right guard, gaining 61 yards on seven carries.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 80.0%/37.5%/100.0%/62.5%. Last week we used a very similar set of numbers to point out that the Chargers-Bucs game could be quite a battle in the red zone when Tampa Bay was on offense. Week Five is the same story. In fact, Tampa Bay's numbers for red zone touchdown percentage (80%) and goal-to-go touchdown percentage (100%) haven't changed because the Bucs went 4-5 in the red zone and 3-3 in goal-to-go situations against L.A. hurting the Chargers numbers, the Bucs allowed Chicago to move into first place in that category on defense, with a 37.5% TD rate allowed in the red zone. Their 62.5% goal-to-go TD rate is ninth in the NFL.
· 187. That's how many snaps made by skill-position players in last Sunday's game by players who are or may be unavailable on Thursday night. That does not include the usual contributions from Chris Godwin or Leonard Fournette, who will be missing their second straight game each.
· 122.0/0. Those numbers help to illustrate how well Chicago quarterback Nick Foles has handled the blitz over the last five seasons (including one in Kansas City, two in Philadelphia and one in Jacksonville). Of all the passers in the NFL who have thrown at least 100 passes against blitzes since 2016, Foles has the best passer rating in that situation, at 122.0, according to Next Gen Stats. The zero above indicates how many interceptions Foles has been pressured into by blitzes in that same span. There are 56 quarterbacks who have 100 or more pass attempts against the blitz since 2016 and Foles is the only one not to throw an interception on such reps.
· 100%. The Buccaneers head to Chicago seeking a win and their first 4-1 start since 2005. Tampa Bay has won at least four of its first five games in a season four times (1979, 1997, 2002, 2005) and each of those seasons ended in a playoff berth. The Bucs have actually finished better after their two 4-1 starts than they did with their two 5-0 starts, both of which ended in 10-6 records (1979 and 1997). The Bucs started the 2002 season 4-1 and won a team-record 12 games before going all the way to the Lombardi Trophy presentation stage at Qualcomm Stadium. That 2005 season went 11-5 and won the NFC South.
View photos of the Buccaneers departing for their Week 5 matchup against the Bears in Chicago.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· With O.J. Howard now on injured reserve, Cam Brate could make his first start of the season if the Buccaneers open with a play out of 12 personnel. In the first four games, Rob Gronkowski was the tight end most likely to be on the field when the Bucs were in a one-TE set, but they also paired him with Howard extensively. Brate has made 28 previous starts in his 86 games played.
· Nick Foles will get his second start at quarterback for the Bears after replacing Mitchell Trubisky last week. The Bears were actually 3-0 in Trubisky's starts, but it took a Foles-led comeback to get that third win in Atlanta. Chicago lost to Indianapolis last week in Foles' first start but the veteran passer has a 30-25 record, including playoffs, as a starter.
· Like the Bears, the Buccaneers have had 10 of their 11 starting defenders open every game so far this season, the only exception being DL Will Gholston, who was replaced by third cornerback Jamel Dean in one game when the opposition opened in a three-receiver set. This trend is likely to continue for both teams in Week Five, as neither the Bucs nor the Bears has a starting defender ruled out on their injury report.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE BEARS
The Bears' offense is just 25th in scoring through the first quarter of the season and has struggled on third downs, but it does feature several weapons that will test the Bucs' defense, including high-volume wideout Allen Robinson and hard-running tailback David Montgomery. Chicago's defense has a talented front seven that includes a trio of dangerous pass-rushers (Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks) as well as active inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. The Bears rank seventh in points allowed and eighth in yards allowed. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Thursday night.
Chicago's passing attack most often runs through Allen Robinson, who is fourth in the league with 41 targets (more than 10 per game) and is far and away the Bears' leader with 24 receptions for 331 yards. That receiving yardage total is more than double any other player on Chicago's offense. The 6-2, 220-pound Robinson creates a bigger window for his quarterback to throw the ball through and is often asked to come down with jump balls. Robinson had a big season in 2019, as well, catching a career-high 98 passes for 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns. While he only averaged 11.7 yards per grab in that 98-catch season, Robinson does also have NFL history as a big-time downfield threat. In 2015 with the Jaguars, Robinson racked up 1,400 yards on 80 catches (17.5 avg.) and led the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions.
The Bears' pass-rush has the potential to be lethal, as indicated above, and if it could turn up the pressure on the Buccaneers that might help ball-hawking cornerback Kyle Fuller make some big plays. He doesn't have an interception yet in 2020 but he averaged nearly four per season from 2014-19 and was a first-team All-Pro after his seven-pick campaign in 2018. Fuller went to the Pro Bowl that season, too, and then went back last year after picking off three more passes. He does lead the team and rank fourth in the NFL through four games with five passes defensed. If the Buccaneers are forced to go with a largely green cast of wide receivers, they'll have to be wary of Fuller and his veteran savvy.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On where the offense has seen the most improvement as the 2020 season has progressed:
"I think the most growth is on the offensive line. We're running the ball, I think, at a really good rate right now, which sets up a lot of the play-action passes. Their pass protection has been outstanding. Everybody knows about our receivers and the backs, but the offensive line is playing at a really high level right now."