The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to play their latest regular-season opener in almost exactly 40 years. They are more than ready.
Sunday's visit from the Chicago Bears was supposed to be the home opener, after a Week One battle at Miami. However, Hurricane Irma scrambled the schedule and now the Bears game is doubling as the much-anticipated debut of a 2017 Buccaneers squad that has serious playoff aspirations. In 1977, the Buccaneers' first regular-season game fell on September 18, but that was as planned at the beginning of a 14-game slate. This year is, well, different.
"There were some different sets of circumstances, and the NFL made totally the right move on cancelling that Dolphins game," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We had some logistical issues. Obviously, Florida's dealing with a hurricane and the recovery has begun on that, but as far as team goes it's time to play football."
Like many Floridians, there are some Buccaneer players and coaches who are still dealing with the aftermath of Irma. That's obviously true of the team's fan base, as well. All of that can be forgotten for at least three hours on Sunday afternoon as the Buccaneers and the Raymond James Stadium crowd get a chance to focus on football.
We're excited about that," said Koetter. "I talked to the guys. We've got to start fast, we've got to protect RayJay. That's got to be a place that for other team's it's very difficult on them, from the standpoint of how we play against them, and we want our fans to help."
It was a visit from the Bears last November that started the Buccaneers' turnaround at Raymond James Stadium. After several years of struggling at home, and an 0-4 start in that regard in 2016, Tampa Bay won its last four games on its own turf. A win over the Bears would give the Bucs their longest streak of victories at home since they won eight straight over the 1999-2000 seasons.
And the Buccaneers will go into that quest with a full crew. Only one player, second-year linebacker Devante Bond, is unavailable for the opener due to injury. He's obviously one of the team's seven Sunday inactives; the other six are DEs Jacquies Smith and Will Clarke, CB Javien Elliott, C Joe Hawley, T Leonard Wester and TE Antony Auclair. Tampa Bay's starting lineup is intact.
"We're about as healthy as we will ever be," said Koetter. "That is one thing with the number of days off that we had. We're required now to put out an officially injury report, and our report will never again be as clean as this week."
Chicago's inactives are QB Mark Sanchez, WR Markus Wheaton, CB Prince Amukamara, S Deon Bush, RB Benny Cunningham, DL John Jenkins and G Kyle Long. Both Amukamara and Long will miss their second game in a row to start the season. Though the Bears did not specify new lineups for today's game, Amukamara and Long are listed as starters. Potential fill-ins include CB Kyle Fuller and OL Tom Compton.
Even fully healthy, the Buccaneers currently have just three running backs on the roster: Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber. Koetter and his coaches have a plan for those backs that, of course, he isn't sharing prior to kickoff, though he says all three will get their touches. Rodgers will get the start; he was responsible for both of Tampa Bay's individual 100-yard rushing games last season.
"He's a hard-nosed runner who you can trust to be in the right place at the right time," said Koetter of Rodgers. "He's going to give you everything he has. He knows our offense inside and out. But we feel good about all three of the backs that we're going to have up, and we're going to use all three of our backs. We're going to use Quizz, we're going to use Peyton and we're going to use Charles Sims. Those guys will all be mixed in there."
The Bears will counter with a possibly troublesome backfield duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Howard was the NFL's second-leading rusher last year as a rookie while Cohen had his own rather impressive debut last week with 113 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. As always, the Buccaneers will look to shut down the Bears' running game first before turning their attention to quarterback Mike Glennon.
That would be former Buccaneer Mike Glennon, who left Tampa this past offseason to sign a free agent deal with Chicago. There is, of course, familiarity on both sidelines with Glennon set to face the Buccaneers' defense for the first time in a real game, but Koetter doesn't think that will have a huge impact on the game's outcome. The Buccaneers' defense has evolved over the offseason under coordinator Mike Smith.
"We have a lot of respect for Mike, we like Mike," said the Bucs' coach. "He practiced against our defense many times. So he'll know our players' strengths and weaknesses, but even though he's practiced against him he doesn't know what Smitty's going to call and he doesn't know what new looks Smitty has in. Once the ball gets kicked off, I don't think there's a big advantage or disadvantage either way. Like I said, we respect Mike and we wish him well but we're going to try to get after him."