Though he had to endure a crushing hit from S John Lynch, Bears WR Marty Booker held on to this long TD pass and two others in Tampa
Three weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to St. Louis and beat the explosive Rams, in large part because they eliminated their opponent's long-range scoring strikes. The Rams still recorded seven catches of 20 or more yards, as seems almost inevitable, but they got the ball in the end zone only once, on a fourth-down, one-yard pass.
The Bucs prevailed, 24-17. Unfortunately, the almost had to win to keep their playoff dreams alive, because the week before Tampa Bay had made the Chicago Bears look like the St. Louis Rams.
On November 18, the Bears came to Tampa on an active streak of 18 straight quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown against the Buccaneers. They ran 68 offensive plays against the Tampa Bay defense, and 65 of them produced 136 yards, 10 first downs and no points.
Unfortunately, the other three were touchdown bombs of 66, 44 and 28 yards to one man, WR Marty Booker.
Booker is a very talented receiver having a breakout season for the Bears, but he had exactly one touchdown reception of over 20 yards in the eight games before his team came to Tampa. He has none since.
In fact, the Bears have just four other scoring passes of more than 20 yards all season, and one came on a throw by a receiver (Booker, of course), while another came on a 'Hail Mary.'
For most of the past three seasons, the Chicago offense has operated largely through a short passing game with a lot of receiver screens, finding great success doing so in 1999 (8th in the NFL in overall offense, third in passing) and somewhat less success in 2000 (23rd, 23rd). The attack rarely worked, however, against the Buccaneers, who held the Bears to an average of 235 yards per game and a total of 15 offensive points in four games from 1999 to 2000.
Even now, after seeing those three deep strikes in Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs still evaluate the Bears in the same manner.
"Their offense has done a nice job all year of moving the chains and controlling the clock," said safety John Lynch. "They're playing a style very similar to what we have tried to do here through the years. They're doing it through running the ball well, they have underneath, short, crossing routes that they do very effectively and they've been efficient. It's winning football games for them. It's a team we respect and we're looking forward to a great matchup this weekend."
It seems safe to say, then, that the Bucs were caught off guard by the Bears sudden downfield attack in the second half of a game that was 9-7, Tampa Bay, at the intermission. Buccaneer players say they shouldn't have been.
"We should have been prepared the first time," rued safety John Lynch. "They haven't done it, but they certainly are capable of it. And they got us on it. We have to come ready to play in all factors, and not giving up the big plays will be a big part of it as well."
Remove Booker's three long strikes, and the Bucs have given up only four touchdown passes of 20 or more yards all year, two to that irrepressible Packer, Brett Favre. They have not allowed one since that Chicago game, which may have been a painful reminder that limiting the big play has been a staple of this proud Buccaneers' defense since Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin arrived in 1996.
"We have forgotten it and we've done a great job of not giving up the big plays since then, but you kind of revisit it when we start breaking out the film from last time," said Lynch of Booker's big day. "It's just disappointing, because we played a very solid game other than that. The fact that it wasn't a team, coming in, that was throwing the ball downfield, and they haven't been since, that makes it a little tougher to swallow. But that's the past, and what you have to do is learn from that. We're very aware that that's a huge part of what we're doing. Like every week we're trying to stop the run – well, the other part of that equation is we can't give up the big play."
The Bucs are preparing for this Sunday's rematch with the Bears, this time in Soldier Field, where wind and possible cold and rain could make the deep passing game even more unlikely. Who knows? That might be even more of a reason to expect more vertical passing. All season, the 9-3 Bears have found different ways to win ballgames, despite ranking just 25th in offense and 19th in defense. That tells the Bucs they have to be on guard for anything, and that guard can't come down at any point during the fourth quarters.
"One, we've got to realize that, as much as we dominated the game (in Tampa), we didn't win," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "That's typical of them. Most of their wins, they've been out-gained, but the stat that stands out is they've won the turnover battle and they've won the field position battle. And they've had more points. That's what we got from that, we have to play 60 minutes. Obviously, we've got to keep them out of the end zone and we've got to put up points, no matter how much you move the ball or stop them from moving it."
Chicago, in fact, has outscored its opponents by 62 points (234-172). They haven't put up more than 235 yards of offense in any of their three games since playing the Buccaneers, which has drawn some scrutiny, but the Bears still won two of those contests and are tied for the NFC Central Division lead.
"They've lost one game in the last couple weeks, and everybody's upset because they lost in Green Bay," said Dungy. "I think they're playing well. They're doing the things that you need to do to win games, and sometimes that gets lost on people."
So how do the Bucs keep Booker from running wild again? They do what they've always done, just better.
"The attention to detail is what we have to focus on," said defensive end Steve White. There were a couple of (touchdown) plays where we were almost right on the details, but we were just a half-second off. I think this time we'll pay more attention to details and we'll be able to knock down that pass or pick it off."