Bears starting QB Kyle Orton has made it through two games without committing a single turnover
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears are fellow alumni of the former NFC Central, the group once affectionately known as the Black and Blue Division.
The Bucs and Bears have been in separate divisions since 2002, but they retain many of the hard-nosed traits that defined the NFC Central: stingy defense, for instance, a rugged running attack that is best balanced by a high-percentage passing game.
That latter concept works best, of course, with a high-percentage passer. For the Bucs, that's Brian Griese, who set a franchise record for completion percentage (69.7%) in 2004. For the Bears — as of the end of a preseason competition with Rex Grossman — it's Kyle Orton.
Orton, who also started for the Bears as a rookie in 2005, is cut from the same cloth that has made Griese a success in his two stints in Tampa: well-prepared, accurate and intent on limiting mistakes and letting his running backs and defenders do their things.
"I think every game I'm going to prepare as hard as I can and I just try to throw to the open guy and put our team in the best chance to win," Orton said. "I just feel that I can see the defense well. I've been in the system now for four years and I feel like I've got a great grasp of it and I'm able to do quite a bit of stuff at the line of scrimmage and try to get us into the right place."
Orton and Griese were teammates with the Bears in 2006 and 2007. Neither was the starter when the '07 season came to a end; that was Grossman. But now, three weeks into the 2008 campaign, each is at the helm of a 1-1 team that has designs on the postseason.
Each has also won the trust of his head coach, and the expectations that greater things lie ahead.
"Well we expect more, quite a bit, as you go along," said Lovie Smith, the Bears' head coach. "Kyle has done some good things for us. We haven't had good numbers with the passing game yet; we are a running football team, and the numbers will be down. But Kyle has protected the ball; he has made, for the most part, good decisions. Just like our football team, we see signs of what we can become. The passing game is a part of that and we are just hoping this week we can take another step towards that."
Orton's assessment of his first two starts of the season mirror those of his head coach — there are some positives, but he feels the best is yet to come.
"We've had two tough games on the road," Orton said. "I feel like we've played, out of four halves, three very good halves. We didn't close the game out like we wish we would've against Carolina, but we have a lot of good things to draw from and now we get to come home in front of our fans. It'll be a very exciting atmosphere and should be a great game.
"Obviously with our run game we're hopefully going to get some good looks to throw the football. I think early on, we've completed a high percentage of our passes. We haven't been able to make some of the big plays that we want to, but that will come along. It's a work in progress, and I think for the most part, we're right where we need to be. Just keep on completing a high percentage and with this offense; it's all about staying in third-and-manageable situations."
Smith mentioned protecting the football as a major emphasis, and Orton has done a good job of that thus far. While he has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season, Orton has also not been picked off or lost a fumble. Considering he lost five fumbles and threw 15 interceptions in his first 18 games of NFL experience heading into this season, that's a major step in the right direction.
"[Protecting the football] is important," Smith said. "Our formula on the offensive side of the ball is first establishing a running game, and protecting the football, of course, is big. Third downs are very important on the offensive side too, to keep the drives going and one thing we have done a good job with in both games is third down conversions, offensively."
Protecting the football will be key for Orton on Sunday. Like the Bears, the Bucs pride themselves on an aggressive defense that creates opportunities for its offense by forcing turnovers and three-and-outs, and sometimes even scoring points of its own.
Orton said he's well aware of the stiff test he'll face at Soldier Field come Sunday.
"When I watch film I see a defense that's played quite a bit of football together," Orton said. "They're not out of position a whole lot and they've got veteran guys, veteran leaders. Any time you've got a Derrick Brooks or a Ronde Barber, you certainly have to know where they're going to be on the field. We've got a tough task this week, but we feel confident and feel like if we execute our game plan, we'll be just fine."
One benefit Orton will have at his back this weekend that he hasn't had the first two weeks of the year will be a boisterous crowd at the Bears' home stadium, the historic Soldier Field.
"We've got a great fan base, certainly a storied franchise and it's certainly a privilege to be able to put that Bears uniform on and play like so many greats have before you," Orton said.