LB Hardy Nickerson is pleased with the Buccaneers' focus
In the typical work week that faces an NFL team during the season, Wednesday represents the day that you begin focusing on your next opponent. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers walked off their practice fields on Wednesday knowing that the pleasant, 64-degree afternoon they were experiencing would be nothing like the conditions this Sunday in Chicago. They also know that the Chicago Bears are likely to be nothing like the downtrodden, last-place team their 6-9 record might suggest.
"Chicago is a team that has been extremely competitive all year," said S John Lynch on Wednesday. "They've made a great improvement from last year and they have played everybody tough this season. We expect to have to play our best game if we want to beat them."
That sentiment was echoed throughout the Buccaneers' locker room today, before and after Tampa Bay conducted a practice that Head Coach Tony Dungy described as 'sharp.' Like any team, the Buccaneers' goal is to make their opponent play Tampa Bay's style of game, but Dungy's squad also spent quite a bit of time preparing for the unique challenge of Chicago's offense.
Under new Head Coach Dick Jauron and Offensive Coordinator Gary Crowton, the Bears have employed an innovative attack that has used the league's second-best passing game to rise to seventh in overall offense in 1999. The Bears average over 350 yards of offense per game and run a variety of formations that is unlike any other the Bucs have faced in 1999.
"They do a lot of things that you don't see in the rest of the league," said Lynch. "So that poses some problems. The thing that I have found most impressive is that it hasn't mattered who they've plugged in at quarterback, they've still been successful. They have a good system and they have made it work. The positive thing is that we played them as good as anyone has this year and held them to three points."
A negative for the Bears offense is that it could be without at least three key players. Starting running back Curtis Enis has already been ruled out due to a shoulder injury and starting QB Cade McNown and starting wide receiver Marcus Robinson are considered questionable for Sunday's game due to side and quadriceps injuries, respectively. Though McNown's replacement, veteran Shane Matthews, has had more experience and overall success this year than the Bears' rookie, Chicago has no similar replacement for Robinson. Robinson, in fact, leads the NFC in receiving yardage and is the Bears' leading scorer with nine touchdowns.
While Dungy doesn't expect the potential loss of any of those three to slow down Chicago's attack, he does concede that Robinson is a major weapon. "If he's not out there, that takes away a deep threat," said Dungy, "in terms of a guy who goes over guys to get the ball. He has been spectacular. But they will still do the same things on offense."
After Wednesday's practice, Dungy has a receiver of his own with quadriceps problem. Reidel Anthony, who was already on the injury report as probable with an ankle ailment, suffered a pulled left quadriceps during practice and has now been downgraded to questionable. Dungy also mentioned DT Brad Culpepper after a practice in which the starting nose tackle was just a spectator. Culpepper is fighting a bruised heel and is hoping to return to practice before the week is over, but Dungy is not yet sure of his playing status.
Of course, as Dungy also pointed out after practice, it would take a lot to keep one of his players out of this game. The Buccaneers have had no problem grasping the magnitude or importance of Sunday's affair, and today's strong workout is an indication of the focus in the team's locker room.
"We plan on going to Chicago and playing our best game," said LB Hardy Nickerson. "This is what you dream about as a player – the division title on the line in the last week of the season – nobody in here would want it any other way. Every guy in this locker room is focused on that goal."
"For me, it's the biggest game I've ever played in," added T Jerry Wunsch. "That's the way I'm approaching it. We just have to keep our eye on the prize…if we do that, we won't have any worries on our mind about being cold."
"It's a matter of who wants it," summed up DT Warren Sapp. "They're playing for pride and we're playing for a division championship. We have a lot more to lose."