The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will hit the road in Week Four and try to build on a 2-1 record that was forged against a trio of 2017 playoff teams. Their hosts will be the Chicago Bears, who have used the league's fifth-best defense to get off to their best start since 2014 and take over the top spot in the always-competitive NFC North. Thus, the Bucs-Bears matchup on Sunday at Soldier Field will pit two first-place teams trying to stay atop their divisions as they wrap up the first quarter of the season.
Chicago has played three one-score games, losing by a single point to Green Bay before beating Seattle by a touchdown and winning at Arizona by two points on a fourth-quarter field goal. The Bears' offense has not put up a large number of yards, ranking 26th in yards per game (293.7) and 30th in yards per play (4.45), but the defense has been dynamic, with eight takeaways and a league-leading 14 sacks. Here is a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face against Chicago on Sunday:
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. LB Khalil Mack. Mack would be front and center if Koetter made a "Game-Wreckers" cut-up for the NFL as a whole. His impact on the Bears' fortunes since arriving in a stunning Sept. 2 trade with the Raiders cannot be overstated. Mack leads the Bears and is tied for the top spot in sacks with 4.0 and he's already forced three fumbles in just three games in a Chicago jersey. That total also leads the NFL. Mack even ran an interception back for a touchdown in the narrow opening-game loss to the Packers. In the Bears' 3-4 defense, Mack plays as a standup pass-rusher usually coming around the right end of the opposing line. His incredibly quick first step and ability to shed blockers makes him a potential danger to quarterbacks on every dropback.
2. WR Allen Robinson. With Alshon Jeffery now in Philadelphia and former first-round pick Kevin White never able to escape his injury troubles, the Bears needed a new big-play wide receiver. They found one who, if he can return to his 2015 Pro Bowl form, could help significantly in the development of their young quarterback. With the Jaguars in '15, Robinson rang up 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaged 17.5 yards per catch and was one of the NFL's top deep threats. His 2016 numbers didn't quite compare to that big season, but some attributed that to the struggles of quarterback Blake Bortles, and then Robinson suffered a season-ending injury in Week One last year. While Robinson's per-catch average in Chicago so far is just 11.4, he at least has given the team a number-one receiver, with 17 catches for 194 yards so far.
3. DT Akiem Hicks. A third-round pick out of Regina by the Saints in 2012, Hicks had a couple mildly-productive seasons in New Orleans before being traded to the Patriots midway through the 2015 season. He has blossomed since joining the Bears in 2016, with 7.0 sacks his first year, 8.5 more last season and another 2.0 already in 2018. Hicks currently plays the DT position in Chicago's three-down-linemen front, and he stays on when the team occasionally takes out one of those linemen in a nickel package.
4. RB Tarik Cohen. A fourth-round pick in 2017, the diminutive Cohen (5-6, 181) announced himself with a huge performance in his NFL debut, rushing five times for 66 yards and catching eight passes for another 47 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta in Week One. Through the first three weeks of the season, he had 283 yards from scrimmage and was proving to be the perfect complement to power runner Jordan Howard. Cohen's numbers fell off quite a bit after that, but new Head Coach Matt Nagy and his staff seem to have found effective ways to deploy the explosive runner in 2018. Cohen only has 14 carries but he's picking up yards at a clip of 6.1 per tote. He also has seven catches for 48 yards and he's becoming a dangerous option in the return game, as noted below.
Chicago's defense has been very stingy against the run, allowing only 65.3 ground yards per game (second in the NFL) and 3.38 yards per rush (fifth). Chicago's offense has helped keep that defense fresh by ranking second in the NFL in average time of possession (34:42 per game). Some other bright spots for the Bears, statistically, in the early part of this year:
· It's not just the 14 sacks – Chicago's defense is making a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Bears are tied for fourth in the NFL with 22 quarterback hits, and their 17 tackles for loss is tied for third.
· The franchise that enjoyed the Hall of Fame-caliber return skills of Devin Hester for eight years has found another dynamic special-teamer in running back Tarik Cohen. Cohen has all eight of the Bears' punt returns so far and is averaging 15.9 yards per runback, with a long of 42. That has Chicago ranked third in the NFL in punt return average.
· As one might suspect from that time-of-possession note above, the Bears have been fairly good at keeping drives going. In fact, Chicago has six drives this year that have lasted for five or more minutes, which is the most in the NFL.
· Chicago's passing attack hasn't been explosive, with a yards-per-attempt mark of 5.68, but it has been efficient, with a 69.2% completion rate. The ball has been spread around well, with running backs Jordan Howard and Cohen getting a combined 19 targets, tight end Trey Burton getting 15 and slot receiver Taylor Gabriel getting 22.
Behind second-year passer Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago's passing attack has only managed 4.73 yards per pass play so far, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league. The Bears' defense, while quite good overall, has not kept too many red zone drives out of the end zone. Opponents have scored touchdowns on 75% of their incursions inside the 20 so far. In addition:
· While the Bears have terrorized opposing quarterbacks, they haven't protected their own passer very well. Trubisky has been sacked nine times, and the Bears' 8.65% sacks-per-pass-play rate is the ninth worst in the NFL.
· Chicago's offense has not generated many big plays. Through three games the Bears have 17 plays of 10 or more yards on offense, the second-lowest total in the NFL.
· The Bears have yet to score on a two-minute drive at the end of either half. They are one of six teams still looking for points in the last two minutes of a half.
· Some more detail on the red zone work of Chicago's otherwise effective defense: The Bears have allowed an average of 3.9 yards per play in that restricted part of the field, which is tied for 25th in the league. They have also allowed their opponents to run "successful plays" on 55.6% of their snaps in the red zone, ranking 24th in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2018
That rising Chicago defense does have a lot of homegrown talent, including seven starters the team has drafted since 2014. Still, the Khalil Mack trade is clearly what has taken that crew to a new level. The Bears' 2018 draft started with a big addition on defense, while the offense got some key new parts in free agency.
1. LB Roquan Smith. The Bears used the eighth overall pick in this year's draft to secure the former Georgia star, and while it took much longer than anticipated to get Smith under contract, he is now in the starting lineup alongside Danny Trevathan in the middle of that 3-4 front. Smith is second on the team with 14 tackles and he also already has a sack, two tackles for loss and a pass defensed.
2. WR Allen Robinson/Anthony Miller/Taylor Gabriel. We noted Robinson, the former Jaguars star, above in our Game-Wreckers section, but the Bears spent the offseason completely reshaping their receiving corps around Trubisky. Robinson and Gabriel were added through unrestricted free agency and then the Bears selected Miller out of Memphis with the second of their two second-round draft picks. Robinson and Gabriel are the team's two leading receivers and Miller caught one of Trubisky's two touchdown passes so far.
3. TE Trey Burton. One of the heroes of the Eagles' Super Bowl win over New England, Burton left the Eagles, where he was the second option to Zach Ertz, to be the main man in Chicago. Burton has the Bears' other touchdown catch and has hauled in nine passes for 90 yards through his first three games as a Bear.
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1. CB Prince Amukamara. Amukamara suffered a hamstring injury in the Bears' win over Arizona and will thus begin Week Four as a question mark. He has one of the Bears' five interceptions, which he returned 49 yards for a touchdown against Seattle.
2. TE Adam Shaheen. Chicago took the small-school prospect (Ashland) 45th overall in the 2017 draft and saw him make 12 catches for 127 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie. He could have formed an intriguing two-TE combination with Burton, but he suffered ankle and foot injuries in the second week of the preseason and is currently on injured reserve.
3. WR Anthony Miller. The rookie started against the Cardinals and was having a solid outing with four catches for 35 yards before a dislocated shoulder ended his afternoon. If he can't play against the Buccaneers, the Bears would likely turn back to White, who does not have a catch yet this season.