The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have run the football on 50.4% of their plays in the first halves of their 14 games this season, the highest percentage of any team in the NFL. The Chicago Bears, who will visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday to take on the Buccaneers, are third on that list at 48.4%. Clearly, these are two teams that believe in establishing the running game as quickly as possible.
In the Buccaneers' case, the primary goal of this approach – winning football games – could also result in a secondary achievement, as their lead tailback, Doug Martin, is in a two-man race for the NFL's rushing title. Martin enters the final fortnight of the season just nine yards behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. His teammates would like to help him get that title, but they don't have to sacrifice their primary goal to chase it.
"It's important," said Head Coach Lovie Smith of the need to get Martin going from the game's onset. "We've gone into every game with that mindset. It would be special for him to end up the leading rusher in the league, but that's how we win football games, being able to establish the run. We'll need to do that again this week. Again, there's a commitment to it. I know our offensive line and everybody is locked in."
The Buccaneers don't go run-heavy early because they're afraid to let rookie QB Jameis Winston take over. They do it in order to give Winston and his pass-catchers better opportunities when they do throw. Winston's top target is second-year man Mike Evans, who is coming off a 157-yard game in St. Louis in Week 15.
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"The running game helps to get favorable matchups outside, and then it's a one-on-one game," said Smith. "Mike's better than most of the guys that he goes against, so we'll need to concentrate, look that ball again, and once Mike has that ball in his hands we should be able to do some things."
The Bears don't have a back in the battle for the rushing title, but they do have a very productive RB duo in veteran Matt Forte and rookie Jeremy Langford. Their good work has helped QB Jay Cutler put up a 92.3 passer rating and an 18-8 TD-INT ratio. The Bucs, who have the NFL's ninth-ranked rush defense, know Chicago has the same offensive aims as they do.
"Jay Cutler is mobile, so he can beat you with his feet, and he's got as strong of an arm as anybody in the league," said Smith. "We were talking about establishing the run; Matt Forte is one of the best running backs in the game. We can't let him get going, running the ball or catching the ball out of the backfield."
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Fortunately for the Buccaneers, their defense is getting some reinforcements as they prepare to stop Cutler and company. Linebacker Bruce Carter is back from an ankle injury that kept him out for one game; he'll start at middle linebacker, moving Danny Lansanah back to the strong side. Defensive end George Johnson will also play for the first time since Week 10 after recovering from a calf injury. However, the defensive backfield is down a man as safety Chris Conte will be unable to suit up due to a knee injury sustained in St. Louis.
"Bruce Carter is healthy and ready to go; he's starting at the MIKE linebacker position," said Smith. "That will allow us to put our guys back in their regular positions; I'm talking about Danny Lansanah going back to the SAM linebacker position. We're as healthy as we've been and should be able to play better this week.
"Secondary-wise, Chris is one casualty from the last game. He won't play this week. With that, another opportunity. Keith Tandy will get a lot more time this week, along with Major Wright and Bradley McDougald."
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The Bucs have kept both Gosder Cherilus and Demar Dotson active, and it is Dotson that will start at right tackle. In addition to Conte and Jackson, the Buccaneers have also deactivated QB Ryan Griffin, RB Mike James, DE Kourtnei Brown, TE Brandon Myers and WR Evan Spencer. Conte, Jackson and Brown are out due to injury.
Photos from the Bucs victory over the Bears in 2008 at Solider Field. The Bucs won 27-24 in overtime.
The Bears' inactive list includes two key starters in wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and inside linebacker Shea McClellin. First-year player Joshua Bellamy will take over for Jeffery while former Florida State standout Christian Jones will start in place of McClellin. Chicago's other five inactives are CB Bryce Callahan, CB Jacoby Glenn, G/T Nick Becton, T Tayo Fabuluje and DL Bruce Gaston.
The Buccaneers have a chance to even their 2015 home record at 4-4 heading into the season finale at Carolina next week. Smith and his players aren't necessarily looking at this game from a 2015 perspective, however, given that the playoffs are not attainable.
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"We say we're going to be a good football team next year and, yes, as we look at it we've got a two-game start to the 2016 season," said Smith. "We want to play well. It's important to play well in front of our home crowd. We're a better football team and there's no reason why we shouldn't play our best football this week.
"Both teams want to finish up on a high note and we're excited about playing our last game here at home in front of the fans."
The Buccaneers take on the Bears on Sunday with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.