CB Ronde Barber and the Bucs' defense aren't ready to pass the torch to Chicago just yet
Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium will truly be a blast from the past for the Buccaneers.
It's not just that the Chicago Bears are coming to town, bringing echoes of the rugged NFC Central with them. That is an intriguing element of the game, of course; the Bears were the first team the Bucs ever beat in RJS, in a wild comeback on Sept. 20, 1998. The Bears, who beat the Bucs 23 times in a 27-game stretch in the '80s and '90s, were also one of the first huddles a new Tampa Bay team had to clear when it rose to prominence in 1997. The Bucs put together a six-game winning streak over Chicago from 1997-2000, and that signaled a vast change in both team's fortunes.
And it's not just that the Bucs are facing a team with an identical record for the third straight week. In that regard, this game recalls the last two strongly, in terms of where the competitors are and where they will be after the game. In retrospect, consecutive wins against Washington (5-3 at the time like the Bucs) and Atlanta (6-3 at the time like the Bucs) were almost critical in Tampa Bay's playoff hopes. Sunday's game may prove to be the same.
No, there is another factor to this game that will surely bring back memories for the Buccaneers, memories of the early days of their own turnaround in the mid-90s: the Chicago Bears' defense.
Thanks to its number-one league ranking and last week's domination of the high-powered Carolina Panthers, Chicago's D is suddenly drawing comparisons to the legendary defense of the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl championship team. For the Bucs, the comparison is more personal; in a way, it's like looking in a mirror.
Under Head Coach Lovie Smith, a former linebackers coach with the Buccaneers and a Monte Kiffin protégé, the Bears are running a system practically identical to the one in which Tampa Bay has excelled for the past decade. The Bucs are ranked third in the league in defense this year and are likely to stay in the top 10 for a remarkable ninth straight year, so their mastery of the scheme is beyond proven. The Bears, however, are the team with the up-and-coming defensive stars and, it must be admitted, the top spot at the moment.
Lumped in as non-contenders with the rest of the struggling NFC North for the first month of the season, the Bears have exploded with six straight wins and are now as legitimate a contender for the conference crown as any of the six teams that are 7-3 or better. And a defense that has allowed only 51 points combined over those six wins while scoring four touchdowns this season is obviously the reason why.
Include the Bucs among those impressed.
"They're great," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Everybody knows about [Brian] Urlacher. Tommie Harris is a fine defensive tackle. They made a great trade with Miami to pick up a premier pass rusher [Adewale Ogunleye]. Everybody knows about Urlacher; no one talks about [Lance] Briggs. Number 55 is a great linebacker. Mike Brown was absent last year, he was hurt. He's as good a safety man as there is in the league."
There are many individual parallels that can be drawn between this newly-arrived force in the league (the Bears were just 21st on defense last year). See if any of this sounds familiar. The Bears have a pair of play-making cornerbacks (Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman), one of whom is known for touchdowns and well-timed turnovers; a thick and quick, disruptive defensive tackle in the middle (Harris); a sideline-to-sideline linebacker (Urlacher); a second, less-heralded linebacker who is quietly having a Pro Bowl season (Briggs); and an intelligent safety who's always in the right place at the right time (Brown).
Sounds like a blueprint for success. In addition, the Bears defenders are well-coached by Smith and coordinator Ron Rivera and they believe in their ability to completely take over a game.
"They can all tackle, they're very physical and fast and they're really well-rounded in terms of their pressure package, how they play coverage, their disguises," said Gruden. "They're together. They're tight on defense and they're very good, physical players, so it will be a real challenge for us."
No doubt, but the Buccaneers have recently proved quite capable of handling big challenges. Their victories over the Redskins and Falcons hinged on overcoming difficult situations late in the games, and both times the Bucs came through. Unlike in years past, it was primarily the offense that answered the challenge in the final minutes. That group, like the Bears' rising defense, is full of young contributors, which means every victory and every success at a critical moment builds its confidence.
"I think it's helping them," said Gruden of the two comeback victories. "I can't speak for everybody but I don't think Chris Simms or Cadillac Williams or Michael Clayton or [Joey] Galloway or any of these guys lack confidence. A lot of them are young guys, this is a new experience to them. Alex Smith came up big [in Atlanta]. Dan Buenning had a heck of a game in there against a great player in Rod Coleman. I don't think they know enough to really get anti-confident or over-confident or anything. I think they just are eager to go out and play football but I think winning and having success is not harmful to anyone."
Of course, the Bucs' defense isn't ready to pass the torch just yet, and it did make several big plays to help seal those Redskin and Falcon victories. Throw in a kicking game that has been consistently excellent all season and the Bucs, like the Bears, are looking like legitimate contenders this year.
"We're playing a little bit better offensively, which has allowed us to come from behind and win some games that maybe we weren't able to do last year," said Gruden. "Like San Diego, like St. Louis, there were games that expired with us closing in on a dramatic victory. We just weren't quite able to get it done. And our defense has held on in some situations, unlike last year in Carolina and some other instances. It's all three phases; we've been able to close games out a little bit better."
Now the Bucs and Bears will see who can close the season out better. A meaningful November game between Chicago and Tampa Bay, former Black-and-Blue brothers? Now that's a blast from the past.