The Buccaneers go back on the road in Week Four to play the Chicago Bears in a matchup of two first-place teams. The Buccaneers will bring the league's number-one offense and passing offense to Soldier Field, where it will run into game-wrecker Khalil Mack and a Bears defense that has produced an NFL-high 14 sacks. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of the battle between the 2-1 Buccaneers and the 2-1 Bears:
1. Can the Buccaneers contain Khalil Mack and the Bears talented front seven?
The Buccaneers have a league-high 1,202 net passing yards through three games and that doesn't happen without good protection, no matter how hot the quarterback's hand is. Ryan Fitzpatrick has indeed been hot, and other than some stretches against Pittsburgh on Monday night, he's gotten consistently clean pockets from his blockers up front. Tampa Bay ranks eighth in the NFL with a 4.50% sacks-per-pass-attempt rate.
That number will be challenged severely on Sunday because the Buccaneers are facing the defense that ranks first in sacks per pass attempt, at a whopping 14.14%. That effort has been led by Khalil Mack, stunningly added in a trade with Oakland just before the start of the season, but Chicago possessed a talented front seven even before his arrival. That already included defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebackers Danny Trevathan, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch, and that group got a boost in the first round of the draft with Georgia's Roquan Smith.
Mack leads the way with four sacks while Hicks and Trevathan have two each.
"Khalil Mack is playing out of sight," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "He's not their only good player in that whole front. Their first-round pick is a linebacker; Trevathan, good inside linebacker; Hicks – we've played against him a couple times; Floyd – good football player; 99 [Lynch], their other outside linebacker they rotate in there, he made some wild plays in the Cardinal game. These guys have a good defensive football team. Every week has a new set of issues, a new set of problems. That's what we have to figure out how to solve and of course the O-line, everything starts with protection."
Pressure figured into the run of four straight drives that ended in turnovers for the Bucs in the second quarter against Pittsburgh. During that stretch, the Steelers built a 20-point lead they took into halftime. Tampa Bay scored the only 17 points in the second half in a furious but ultimately doomed rally. Pittsburgh still brought decent pressure in the second half but the Bucs were able to adjust. That may be necessary on Sunday at Soldier Field, too.
"We protected him much better in the second half," said Koetter. "I thought Fitz got the ball out of his hands quicker in the second half. We went to some – not entirely – but to some quicker hitting plays, more rhythmic passing plays. We got a little momentum going.
"Pressure is a double-edged sword. If you protect pressure, the defense is exposed. We also had 13 explosives [against Pittsburgh]. We can't turn the ball over; no matter if they pressure us 40 percent or 400 percent, we can't turn the ball over. We look at it as pressure creates opportunity. We expected the Steelers to pressure us."
View pictures of the Buccaneers leaving team facilities for their matchup against the Bears.
2. Will Tampa Bay's rush defense continue to perform well against a team that is likely to be more focused on running the ball than the Bucs' last three opponents?
After three games, Tampa Bay's defense ranks third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, at 70.7 per game. Creating a more stout run defense has been a priority in the last two offseasons, though a rash of injuries to the team's defensive tackles have made that more difficult in the early going. Still, the results have been good so far as the defense as a whole has been relatively gap-sound.
Some of it, of course, is situational. The Buccaneers ran out to big leads against both New Orleans and Philadelphia, forcing both of those opponents to air it out in comeback attempts. The Steelers have a pass-first offense, particularly with Le'Veon Bell out of the picture. So far, the Bucs' three opponents in 2018 rank fourth (Saints), fifth (Steelers) and 15th (Eagles) in highest percentage of plays that are passes. None of those teams is running it even 40% of the time. Tampa Bay's defense has faced an average of 19.7 runs per game, the fourth-lowest total in the league.
That said, the Buccaneers also rank seventh in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (3.59) which is not a measurement based on volume. The Buccaneers have stopped eight of the 59 carries against them for losses, a rate of 14.3% that ranks fourth in the NFL.
There's a good chance they'll face a team on Sunday that is more determined to run the ball than their previous opponents were. Chicago is 11th in the league in percentage of plays that are runs and 12th in rushing yards per game (115.7). They feature a power runner in Jordan Howard and a smaller, faster complement in Tarik Cohen, and they sometimes have them on the field at the same time.
"Chicago's got those two really good backs and their doing some really cool stuff with how they're using those two guys," said Koetter. "It is interesting to watch the creativity of how they're doing it. They're smart. They're playing to their strengths."
Chicago is motivated to get a running game going because their second-year passer, Mitchell Trubisky, is still in the early stages of adjusting to the NFL. He has a fine completion percentage at 69.2%, though the Bears have mostly had him attempt shorter throws. Trubisky's average pass length of 7.38 yards ranks 19th among qualifying passers in the NFL. His 77.9 passer rating ranks 25th.
"They have a good 1-2 punch at running back," said Koetter. "It just makes sense that they would build around that. I think it's just a natural progression. They have a quarterback in his second year."
If the Buccaneers can keep Howard and Cohen from getting into a groove and can force Chicago into a less-balanced attack, they will have a better chance to go after Trubisky. Speaking of which…
3. After facing a trio of prolific veteran passers, will the Bucs be able to rattle the Bears' second-year quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky?
The Buccaneers famously drew a tough start to the 2018 season; they're first three opponents combined for 37 wins last year, the hardest three-game stretch to open a season under that measurement in league history. And specifically, the Bucs had to face some very dangerous passers in New Orleans' Drew Brees, Philadelphia's Nick Foles and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. Brees and Roethlisberger are long-time established stars in the NFL and Foles shined on the sport's biggest stage last February.
"If you look at our first three games, we've played two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and now we're playing a quarterback that [is less experienced]," said Koetter. "[That] doesn't mean he's less talented – he's very talented, very strong arm, better runner than you think, just less experience. We've been through the same thing."
Trubisky has been under some heat this season despite the Bears' fine start. He has been taken down nine times and the Bears rank 24th in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt, at 8.65%. He's also been hurried into three interceptions. Still, he is clearly a very talented player and while he may not yet be stringing together multiple big games, he's certainly capable of one on Sunday. The Buccaneers are not taking it for granted that they'll be able to stifle Trubisky simply because of his relative lack of experience.
"That's what everybody would think that would happen, but like I said the other day when we talked about this is we've been the same boat," said Koetter. "We started a young quarterback. I'm a big believer in experienced quarterbacks in this league, but that doesn't mean guys aren't going to go out there and shoot the lights out on any given day. That's what Chicago is trying to do – they're trying to build their plan around what he does best. That's the same thing we did and continue to do with Jameis as our quarterback. The Drew Breeses, the Ben Roethlisbergers, the Tom Bradys, Aaron Rodgers of the world have done it over and over and over and over for multiple years. These young guys, that's why they're picked where they're picked first round because somebody believes they can do that too someday."
4. Will a youth movement in the Bucs' secondary create a shaky adjustment period?
The Buccaneers used two second-round picks and a fourth-round pick in the most recent NFL draft to add youthful talent to their secondary. Cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead were all considered big parts of the team's future in the defensive backfield. That future just happened to arrive more quickly than expected.
Injuries have already forced starters Vernon Hargreaves and Chris Conte to injured reserve. The loss of Hargreaves affected both Davis and Stewart, as the third-year veteran began the season as a starter on the outside and the starting nickel back. That left Davis with a part-time role as Hargreaves' replacement outside in the nickel, with Stewart waiting for his opportunity. Now Davis is playing every snap opposite Brent Grimes and Stewart is the number-one nickel back. With Conte landing on I.R. this week, it will now be Whitehead who steps up to join his fellow rookies as a starter.
"I think all three of those young men are really good football players," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "Of course, Carlton has probably got the most snaps of the three guys. He's a big, strong corner that plays well when he's close to the line of scrimmage than when he's off. I think that we're seeing that as the games start getting put into the books. M.J. has some flexibility in terms of where he can play. He's lined up and played corner, nickel and safety for us. He's a guy that's got flexibility and then we're just getting these young guys – as quickly as we can – up to speed. Every day is a new day for those guys, but we've been very pleased with how they've worked for us thus far. They've been battle-tested that's for sure. You face two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a guy that was MVP of the Super Bowl, so they haven't had any slack that's for sure."
Conte left each of the last two games early so Whitehead has actually logged about 80 snaps in the past two weeks. Now he'll have an even bigger role, and Koetter thinks he's got the mental toughness to handle the responsibilities of being a safety. Having to recognize when to provide run support without letting pass plays get over your head is a difficult task, especially for an NFL newcomer.
"Of course, if you're a young safety you're going to be hesitant at times," said Koetter. "When you say the game's not too big for them, usually you're referring to there wasn't much hesitation and there's going to be mistakes there. From a coaching side, you say make your mistakes going full-speed."
"All three of those rookies, I think that's probably the thing that's jumped out the most is the way they're not afraid to go out there and compete and not back down, no matter who it is. Think about it, these guys were all in college last year and they're going against guys they watched on TV – now that's the same for every new player in the league. All of a sudden we've got three of them out of the five when we're in nickel defense out there at the same time and they're going against guys that they dreamed about going against and now they are."
5. Is this the week that Vita Vea and/or Ronald Jones make their NFL debut?
Before the Bucs began reloading their secondary in the draft, they used their first two picks on Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea and USC running back Ronald Jones. So far, neither has played in the regular season.
For Vea, the issue has been a calf strain he sustained on the third day of training camp, a troublesome injury that sidelined him for roughly seven weeks, including the first three games of the regular season. Vea returned to practice before Week Three but was still limited. It wasn't until Friday of this week that he participated fully in a practice, and as such he is going into the weekend with a chance to play for the first time since the games began. Vea was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report.
If the enormous rookie can play on Sunday, it would be a well-timed return for the Buccaneers. They are already without starting defensive tackle Beau Allen, who will miss his second straight game with a foot injury, and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein is on injured reserve. Last week, the Bucs compensated for all those absences by moving defensive end Will Gholston inside, and he has proved invaluable in that role.
"Thank goodness for that," said Koetter. "We needed that. You don't expect you're going to lose three of your top four defensive tackles. That's just crazy how injuries happen, how they come to one position. Again, thank goodness for Will's versatility because he's gone in there and held his own."
Gholston is almost certain to continue helping out inside on Sunday, but the team's depth would be much improved by the availability of Vea. Not to mention, the Buccaneers and their fans are eager to see their first-round pick in action.
The same is true of Jones, who has been healthy but inactive because he hasn't yet fit into the specific game plan of any of the first three weeks. The Bucs have chosen to keep fellow rookie Shaun Wilson active as their third tailback, in part because Wilson has been handling the kickoff returns, and in part because they've had some plays designed for him on offense. At some point, Jones will be part of the 46-man puzzle that gives the Bucs the best chance to win, and that could come as soon as this Sunday.
"He's playing a different position on special teams than Shaun is, so some of that falls on who else we have up for that game – who else is in there," said Koetter. "I've said it multiple times – RoJo's day is coming. This has nothing to do with anything he's not doing well. It's on me – it's on us. His day is coming. Guys can get drafted where they get drafted, but my job's still to put the 46 guys out there that give us the chance that week to win and that's always what we're going to do."