DE Chidi Ahanotu and the Bucs' puss rush got to Cade McNown five times in September, but the Bears' offensive line has been difficult to penetrate recently
The last time Tampa Bay faced Chicago, way back in September, the Buccaneers' pass rush came away with five sacks. Early performances like that – Tampa Bay had 18 sacks through its first three games – got the Bucs off to a quick start towards breaking the team single-season sack record, and it has hardly slowed down since.
However, it would be inaccurate to take that first-game sack total and conclude that the Bears' offensive line consists of five revolving doors who offer little resistance. CB Ronde Barber tallied 2.5 of those five sacks on well-timed corner blitzes, and the propensity of then-Bear QB starter Cade McNown to hold the ball and scramble increased the opportunities to catch him for a loss.
In fact, the Bears' offensive line is a firmly-established, respected, veteran group, one of the strengths of this 2-8 squad. At least, that's the way 10-sack Buccaneer Marcus Jones sees it.
"I think the biggest challenge this weekend when we face the Bears for us personally, the defense, is going to be the offensive line," said Jones. "A lot of people don't realize it, but they have pretty much one of the best offensive lines in our division right now. Big Cat (James Williams) always plays well, and (Blake) Brockermeyer always blocks well."
As a defensive end, Jones, of course, focused in on the Bears tackles, a pair that averages nearly 6-6, 316 pounds but is surprisingly agile. Inside, Chicago has one of the league's up-and-coming centers in Olin Kreutz and a pair of hard-working guards in Todd Perry and Chris Villarial. Only Kreutz has less than five years of NFL experience.
While Tampa Bay put up a five-spot in early September against that unit, the Bears have allowed three or less sacks in seven of 10 games this season. Over Chicago's last four contests, Bear signal-callers have been sacked just seven times, total, despite an average of 39 pass plays per game. That is an excellent protection record for the last month, and it is reflective of the return to health of this unit.
After three games intact, the Bears' original starting O-line suffered a variety of injuries that kept them from starting together for the next five outings. By contrast, the Bucs have started the same offensive line in every game this season.
However, the firm of Brockermeyer, Perry, Kreutz, Villarial and Williams has practiced together over the last two weeks, allowing Indianapolis and Buffalo a total of just two sacks. Having watched film of those two games in preparation for Sunday's trip to Soldier Field, Buccaneers' Head Coach Tony Dungy is impressed with the chemistry of those five.
"They seem to work well together," said Dungy. "They do a lot of different things to keep you off balance, with all the different screens and draws and things. So it's just going to have to be a game where you just have to read your keys and play well."
In other words, it's not only the effectiveness of these five players but also the variety of the Bears' offense that can work to hinder the opposing pass rush. The Bears' offense runs out of a lot of extra-wide receiver formations, and they try to turn short passes into long gains with an unusual mix of receiver screens. Buccaneer defensive ends might find themselves an important part of the pass defense after the catch if the Bears employ the receiver screens that send the passcatcher back towards the middle of the field.
However, the Bucs' defensive line doesn't want to get too focused on downfield tackling, because they would prefer to rush the passer and put the pending sack record behind them once and for all.
The team mark of 44 sacks, set in 1997, has been on the verge of extinction for weeks, ever since Tampa Bay had seven sacks against Detroit on October 19 to get to 35 on the season. Since then, consecutive sack totals of two, four and one have slowed down the pursuit of the magic number of 45. Now, the team is at 42 and would need less than its per-game average of 4.2 to set the mark.
The Bears new quarterback, after McNown and second-stringer Jim Miller each went down with injuries, is former Florida Gator Shane Matthews. That's a different set of challenges for the Buc rush that got to McNown five times. Matthews doesn't possess McNown's scrambling abilities, but he is also a more seasoned QB that is likely to get rid of the ball quicker.
There is no reason to think that the Buccaneers can't get the three sacks they need for the record...they haven't gone two consecutive games with less than three sacks all season. There is reason to believe, however, that they'll have their work cut out for them in that quest. With the Bears' talented offensive line healthy and back in the groove, the Bucs' front four is in for a serious challenge on Sunday.