For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a lot has happened since the last time they played the Chicago Bears, most notably, you know, a Super Bowl championship. The Bears were one of only four teams to get the better of the Buccaneers on their way to the title, with a 20-19 Thursday night decision in Week Five last October. That loss didn't ultimately keep Tampa Bay from the NFL's mountaintop, but the game remains fresh in the minds of players and coaches.
"It seems like a long time ago but actually it wasn't that long ago," mused quarterback Tom Brady on Thursday as his 2021 Bucs continued preparations for the Bears' visit to Raymond James Stadium this Sunday.
Many Bucs have called that loss one of the major turning points in the team's run to the title, primarily because it left them feeling very dissatisfied with their own level of execution. Tampa Bay was still 3-2 after that outing and would end the week in a tie for first with Carolina and New Orleans in the NFC South. But the Buccaneers didn't think they could get where they were trying to go if they continued to play sloppy football. Eleven penalties, repeated third-down failures, poor pass protection and even an extremely rare mental miscue by Brady – he forgot what down it was on the fourth-down incompletion that ended the Bucs' last drive – brought that issue to a head.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
The Buccaneers rather quickly and remarkably solved all of those problems. They were, for instance, the least penalized team in the NFL over the 12 weeks that followed the Chicago game. The very next Sunday, against a strong Green Bay squad, they played an entire game without committing a single penalty or turnover or allowing a single sack for the first time in franchise history.
But some problems don't stay solved, and penalties are again hurting the Buccaneers despite their excellent start to the season. The Bucs have the second most called (50) and accepted (47) penalties against them and the most penalty yards (471) incurred. That hasn't stopped the team from ranking third in points scored and yards gained and first in passing offense, but it has made it harder for them to close out games. Tampa Bay dominated Philadelphia in most statistical categories last Thursday night and had a three-touchdown lead in the third quarter but had to sweat out a 28-22 final because they were stung by 120 penalty yards.
And thus the rematch with the Bears 54 weeks later has proved to be good timing. They are forced to look back at that game and try to absorb all over again the lessons it taught them.
"That was a tough loss and I think we learned a lot from that loss last year," said Brady. "There was a lot of self-inflicted issues, there was a lot of penalties, there was a lot of miscommunication, there was a lot of things that weren't clean. And then ultimately, we have a chance to win the game in two-minute by going down and kicking a field goal, and we don't get the job done. So, penalties, not coming through in critical situations…I think that's something that we've come through in critical situations. We've cut down on the penalties, but we've got to stress that and continue to stress that all the time."
The solution? Well, since we're listening to Tom Brady here, the answer is unsurprising. Work harder. Identify the problems and attack them? Full speed ahead.
"It's not like that's ever a finished subject, either," said Brady of working to eliminate penalties and mental mistakes (which are often one and the same thing). "You've got to work at it every day. You've got to sharpen your skills. You take nothing for granted. You come out here every day with the mindset you're going to work to improve and get better and gain the trust of your teammates and coaches. You can't take the foot off the gas at all. You've got to put in every day, you've got to prove to everybody what you want to become."
Actually, even if the penalty issue has surfaced again, the Buccaneers' offense has shown in recent weeks that it can improve a shortcoming by throwing a little extra attention and time at it. Brady said the players have been getting together in recent weeks on Fridays to go over run plays in order to get everyone on the same page. Center Ryan Jensen mentioned the same thing regarding the offensive line after practice on Thursday. The results have been clear and evident.
Over the first three games of the season, the Buccaneers were averaging 16 rushing plays for 56.3 yards per game and a 3.5-yard per-carry average. In the three games since, they have averaged nearly 29 rushing plays for 114 yards per game, picking them up at 4.0 yards per clip. That's a lot better and it has helped the Bucs counter defenses that are trying to emphasize coverage over extra defenders in the box against their elite passing attack. It's still not where the Bucs want it to be, however, and in Brady's mind that true about everything the offense is trying to do.
"Everything, everything," he said when asked where that attack needs to improve. "I don't think we've reached our potential at all. I think we've got to continue to stress the importance of the details every day of what we're trying to do. We don't have any thing that I feel that I'm out there going, 'Man, we've really got this nailed.' There's a lot of things we need to do better."