Photos from the Bucs victory over the Bears in 2008 at Solider Field. The Bucs won 27-24 in overtime.
On Sunday, the 6-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 5-9 Chicago Bears at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the 56th meeting between the two teams in the regular season and a chance for the Bucs to break a two-game losing streak, both to the Bears and in the current season. The Buccaneers are hoping to finish their home slate at an even 4-4 and keep their chances at a .500 season alive.
To get past the Bears, the Buccaneers will need to keep their visitors from establishing the running game behind the productive tandem of Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford. Tampa Bay's offense will have to deal with a 3-4 defensive front and a deep stable of pass-rushers headlined by Pernell McPhee. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they get a visit from Lovie Smith's former team.
The Bears changed coaches for the second time in three seasons heading into 2015, but they aren't exactly lacking experience in the corner office. After giving Marc Trestman his first head coaching post in 2013 – and then toiling through 8-8 and 5-11 seasons – the Bears switched gears and brought in John Fox, who has been guiding NFL teams for an unbroken 14 years since 2002. Fox, who spent nine years with the Carolina Panthers and another four with Denver before joining the Bears, has an overall record of 124-98 as a head coach, even with the Bears' 5-9 record so far this year.
Fox's teams made the playoffs in seven of his first 13 years at the helm, and two of those advanced all the way to the Super Bowl. He took Carolina to the big game in just his second year on the sideline in 2003 (ending in a close loss to New England) and then guided the Broncos to the Super Bowl in 2013 (ending in a blowout loss to Seattle). He has an 8-7 record overall in postseason play.
The Bears and first-year General Manager Ryan Pace jumped on Fox as their new team leader just days after he had left the Broncos last January. While it was fair to note that Fox's 38-10 regular-season record in Denver from 2012-14 coincided with the arrival of veteran quarterback Peyton Manning, it's also worth noting that he developed Jake Delhomme from a former undrafted player to a Super Bowl quarterback in Carolina. In Chicago, he inherited the somewhat star-crossed Jay Cutler, who led the NFL with 18 interceptions the year before. Cutler has quietly enjoyed a fine season under Fox, with a 92.3 passer rating and an 18-8 TD-INT ratio.
Of course, Fox's history before he advanced up the ladder to head coach came on the defensive side of the ball, and his teams have usually fared very well on that side of the ball. He began coaching on the collegiate level in 1978, focusing on defensive backs through a number of stops, including Utah, Kansas and Iowa State. Fox's first professional coaching job actually came in the USFL, when he tutored the DBs for the Los Angeles Express in 1985, the last year of existence for that league. He first broke into the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1989. Fox became the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1994, spending two years in that post. It was a strong run as the DC for the New York Giants from 1997-2001, including a trip to the Super Bowl in 2000, that led to the Panthers calling in 2002. As a head coach, Fox has seen seven of his teams finish with a top-10 defensive ranking.
Cutler has a strong cast of offensive weapons to work with, though he lost one when tight end Martellus Bennett went on injured reserve two weeks ago. Bennett was the team's leading receiver at the time, with 53 catches, though he has since been passed by wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Fortunately for the Bears, they uncovered veteran Zach Miller (a Bucs' training camp participant in 2013), who has five touchdown catches in the last seven games, several of them of the acrobatic variety.
Jeffery is one of those aforementioned weapons for Cutler and easily the team's most dangerous wideout after the departure of Brandon Marshall. Jeffery has been forced to miss five games due to injury, but when he's played he's averaged 89.7 receiving yards per game, the eighth-highest total in the NFL. He has the classic speed-size combination of many of the NFL's top receivers, and an excellent per-catch career average of 14.8.
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, December 23rd, at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
Otherwise, the Bears have not gotten much out of a wide receiver corps with few experienced players. Former Bronco and Charger Eddie Royal is the most recognizable name but he has just 217 receiving yards and a 6.8 yards-per-catch average. Third-year man Marquess Wilson has shown great promise (16.6 avg. on 28 grabs) but is now on injured reserve.
Perhaps for that reason, the Bears have relied heavily on their rushing attack despite a strong season from Cutler. Of course, the presence of two-time Pro Bowler Matt Forte and the rise of a strong complementary runner in Jeremy Langford is good motivation to keep the ball on the ground, too. Chicago has run the ball on 58.0% of their first-and-10 plays, the fifth-highest total in the league, and on 48.3% of all first-half plays, third-most in the NFL. That approach has worked, as the Bears have gained four or more yards on 46.2% of their carries (5th in the NFL), including 43.2% on first-down runs (8th in the NFL). That has helped create shorter third downs and allowed Cutler and company to convert 41.7% of their third-down tries, the ninth-best mark in the NFL.
Langford, in his rookie season out of Michigan State, emerged in November when Forte was out for several weeks due to injury. He put together a four-game stretch of scoring at least one touchdown and also became a big part of the passing game, including a 100-yard outing at St. Louis. He has two different games this year in which he has recorded 70+ rushing yards *and *70+ receiving yards. That versatility has allowed Langford to remain involved even as Forte has returned to the starting lineup.
Photos of the Bears' starters via team depth chart.
As for Cutler, that reduction in interceptions is clearly the most important area in which his game has improved in 2015. He is ninth in the NFL in interceptions per attempt, but otherwise close to the middle of the league in most other passing categories. The Bears' offense has not generated an inordinate amount of big plays, ranking 29th in the NFL in plays that gain 10 or more yards. However, they've been better in that regard in the passing game, tying for eighth with 50 completions of 20 or more yards. Cutler is clearly able to get the ball downfield, with a passer rating of 99.0 on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air. That's the 10th-best mark in the NFL.
Cutler is also playing in front of an offensive line in Chicago that, like the one in Tampa, is enjoying far better results than in recent years. That's true even though that five-man front has had different starters over the last month of the season than it had on opening day. Only right tackle Kyle Long has started every game at the same position on the Bears' line so far this season. Football Outsiders' rankings of the NFL's 32 offensive lines puts the Bears as the ninth-best run-blocking crew and the eighth-best pass-blocking unit. Chicago passers (including a bit of work from current Raven Jimmy Clausen) have been sacked 28 times and the Bears rank 13th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play.
Long's strong play is no surprise; he made it to the Pro Bowl his first two seasons after being drafted in 20th overall in 2013. The rest of the line has a new look to it, however. The left tackle is second-year man Charles Leno, a former seventh-round pick who replaced Jermon Bushrod in Week Four, then held onto the job after Bushrod returned from missing a month with a concussion and a shoulder injury. Former Buccaneer Patrick Omameh has been starting at right guard the last two months and rookie Hroniss Grasu has taken over as the starting center.
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Chicago's offense ranks just 25th in touchdown efficiency in the red zone, at 50%, but there is one situation in which Cutler and the Bears have excelled: two-minute drills. Chicago has scored 43 points out of its two-minute offense, the highest total in the league and well above the NFL average of 17 points per team.
In terms of yards allowed, the Bears have been much better against the pass (third in the NFL) than the run (26th), though they have been lacking in big plays. Chicago has intercepted just seven passes this season and forced 14 turnovers overall, the 27th-best total in the NFL. The Bears are also last in forcing negative rushing plays, with just 21 all year. While Chicago has allowed only four runs of 20 or more yards all season, the lowest total in the NFL, they've also allowed 47.5% of opposing runs to succeed for four or more yards, the second-worst mark in the league. In other words, Doug Martin may have to grind out the rushing yards this Sunday rather than get it in big chunks as Martin has done all season.
Chicago's pass rush lands right in the middle of the league in terms of sacks per pass play, but they attack with a deep and effective group of pass rushers out of the new 3-4 front that Fox and his staff brought to the team this year. Five different players on the team have at least four sacks, including linebackers Pernell McPhee (5.0), Willie Young (6.5) and Lamarr Houston (6.0). All three are players added as free agents in the last two years, and they have fit well in Fox's defense. Young has 5.5 sacks in his last seven games and Houston has 5.0 in the same span, both ranking in the NFL's top 10 during that time frame.
Photos of the offensive players selected for the 2016 Pro Bowl.
The Bears drafted Florida State's Eddie Goldman to anchor their 3-4 from the nose tackle spot and he has also come on strong in the second half of his rookie season. The Bears have tried a number of different players at one of the two end spots, most recently Mitch Unrein, but Jarvis Jenkins has started every game on the other side and has four sacks.
Fox and Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio seemed excited about inheriting Shea McClellin, a 2012 first-round pick, for their defense upon arrival in Chicago but Bears fans tend to focus their displeasure on the former Boise State star. Fox and Fangio put him in the middle of their 3-4 base, giving him his fourth different position as a pro. He's second on the team with 96 tackles but has not been the source of many big plays.
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At cornerback, the Bears pair a relative newcomer in Kyle Fuller with a well-traveled vet in Tracy Porter, and that combination has worked well, for the most part. Opposing teams are throwing for just 216.1 yards per game against the Bears, although they have found the end zone 26 times. A fantastic 26-7 TD-INT ratio by Chicago opponents is the main reason that the Bears have allowed an overall passer rating of 97.8 this season. Fuller, a first-round pick in 2014, had a strong rookie season with four interceptions and three forced fumbles, helping Chicago weather a season-ending injury to the since-departed Charles Tillman. This year, Fuller leads the Bears with two interceptions. Porter has just one pick but a team-high 18 passes defensed.
Photos of the defensive and special teams players selected for the 2016 Pro Bowl.
Chicago drafted Adrian Amos out of Penn State in the fifth round this past spring and plugged him right into one of the two starting safety spots. He is the team's leading tackler with 98 stops and also has one sack and three passes defensed. Three different players have started at the other safety spot, beginning with Antrel Rolle before he landed on injured reserve. The most recent answer has been Chris Prosinski, a fifth-year player out of Wyoming who played in just seven games last year and wasn't on an NFL roster until the Bears signed him in late September. He's coming off a tough outing in the Bears' lopsided loss at Minnesota last Sunday.
As with the run defense, it has mostly not been an issue of big plays against the Bears' pass defense. They've allowed 45 completions of 20 or more yards, which is tied for the 12th-lowest in the league. However, opponents are managing successful plays on 48.5% of their first-down snaps (22nd in the league) and are also converting on 45.4% of their third-down tries (31st in the league).
Kicker Robbie Gould became the Bears' all-time leading scorer earlier this season and has been an extremely steady presence for the franchise for 11 years. His career success rate on field goal tries of 85.2% is 10th-best in NFL history, though he's been down a bit at 80.0% over the past two seasons combined. Gould is also an impressive weapon from long range, making 22 of 30 field goals from 50 or more yards in his career, a success rate of 73.3% that is fifth-best in NFL history. This year alone Gould has made six of eight tries from 50-plus, and another six of eight from 40-49 yards.
Gould has not been one of the league's top kickoff men this year, however. He's getting touchbacks on 47.8% of his kickoffs, which ranks 27th in the league. To make matters worse, the Bears' kickoff coverage teams have allowed an average return of 26.5 yards, ranking 27th. Put those two factors together and Chicago opponents have started at the average of the 25.1-yard line after kickoffs, the worst mark in the NFL.
The Bears drafted a punter in 2014 and Miami's Pat O'Donnell has been a steady producer in his two seasons. He has a gross average of 44.0 yards per punt and a net of 39.7 to rank 23rd and 18th, respectively. O'Donnell has also dropped 25 punts inside the opponents' 20, suggesting he's adept at situational punting.
Chicago has mostly relied on the experienced Marc Mariani in the return game. Mariani, who had several very good years in Tennessee as a return man, is averaging just 6.8 yards per punt return while calling for 19 fair catches against 26 runbacks. He's done better in the kickoff return department, averaging 24.7 yards on 15 runbacks, but lately that job has fallen to Deonte Thompson, who has a 32.0-yard average and a long return of 74 yards.