A look at the Buccaneers' Week 2 opponent.
On Sunday, the 0-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 0-1 Chicago Bears at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the 58th meeting between the two teams in the regular season and a chance for the Buccaneers to beat the Bears two seasons in a row (more on that series history). Tampa Bay is also getting a belated start to its 2017 season after Hurricane Irma pushed its regularly-scheduled opener in Miami to Week 11. Chicago opened the season with a hard-fought home loss to the defending NFC-champion Atlanta Falcons.
As such, both teams are looking for the first wins of 2017. For the Buccaneers to accomplish that goal, they will need to watch out for the fearsome interior pass rush of Akiem Hicks and see if they can do a better job of stopping rookie scatback Tarik Cohen than the Falcons did in Week One. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when their former NFC Central rivals come to town.
John Fox is at the front end of the third season of his third NFL head coaching stop. His Bears have won just nine of 33 games so far, but he previously found early success in his tenures at Carolina and Denver. Fox's Panthers made it to the NFC Championship Game in his second year at the helm (2003) and his Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship Game in his third year. Overall, Fox has a 128-113 record on NFL sidelines, plus an 8-7 mark in the postseason.
Fox was an NFL defensive coordinator for seven years before getting his first shot with Carolina in 2002. In his 16 seasons as a head coach, his teams have finished in the league's top-10 offensive rankings four times, while his defenses have done so seven times. His teams have made the playoffs seven times in those 16 years.
The Bears jumped on Fox as their new team leader just days after he had left the Broncos in January of 2015. While it was fair to point out 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 quietly enjoyed a fine season under Fox in 2015, with a 92.3 passer rating and an 21-11 TD-INT ratio but he was limited by injuries last year before retiring, then un-retiring to join the Dolphins. Heading into 2017, the Bears signed quarterback Mike Glennon from the Buccaneers and drafted Mitchell Trubisky second overall.
Fox 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.
The Bears lodged right in the middle of the NFL rankings in both offense and defense last year, with matching 15th-place finishes. In both cases, their scoring rankings were significantly worse, as they tied for 28th in scoring and placed 24th in points allowed. However, it's hard to draw too much of a scouting report from those numbers because the team has been significantly overhauled on both sides of the line.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
The most significant change on offense was mentioned above: Cutler is out, Glennon is the new starter and Trubisky is waiting in the wings. Glennon's first start for the Bears, last Sunday against Atlanta, wasn't perfect but it was encouraging enough as he completed 65% of his throws, tossed a touchdown pass and wasn't intercepted. However, he also absorbed four sacks and was hit 10 times and had trouble getting his wideouts involved until late in the game. Glennon's passer rating of 86.8 in the Atlanta game was very similar to what he posted over 19 games and 18 starts in Tampa: 84.8. Glennon also got sacked 56 times in those 19 games.
With Alshon Jeffery leaving for Philadelphia and last year's top target, Cameron Meredith, suffering an ACL tear late in the preseason, the Bears had hoped that injury-plagued former first-rounder Kevin White would step up as this year's number-one receiver. However, White's incredibly poor luck continued in the opener against Atlanta when he suffered a shoulder injury that will again send him to injured reserve. The seventh-overall selection in 2015 has played a total of six games in three years.
Now Glennon (and potentially Trubisky at some point) will be counting on Kendall Wright, Deonte Thompson, and Markus Wheaton to step up at the receiver spots. None of the three reached 30 catches or 500 yards last year, but Wright has been a high-volume (if not high-scoring) pass-catcher in the past for Tennessee and Wheaton had seven TDs in the 2014-15 campaigns for Pittsburgh.
Fortunately for the Bears, they have the makings of a strong rushing attack. A year ago, Jordan Howard went from a fifth-round pick to the NFL's second-leading rusher, taking the starting job away from Jeremy Langford, who had surprised the season before. After rushing for more than 1,300 yards and 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie, Howard started the new year with 52 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against Atlanta. The Bears also have the makings of a promising offensive line, with left tackle Charles Leno getting a contract extension after a breakout 2016 season and Cody Whitehair immediately stepping in as one of the league's better centers as a second-round rookie last year. The Bears also have former Green Bay standout Josh Sitton at right guard and have an effective Kyle Long at left guard, though Long missed the season opener. Newly-arrived TE Dion Sims, a former Dolphin, is considered a very good blocker as well, but he also had two catches for 31 yards on Sunday.
Fox's team emphasized the run a year ago, ranking seventh in the league in percentage of rushing plays in the first half of games. There was a good reason for that – with Howard providing consistently rugged running, Chicago's offense picked up four or more yards on almost exactly half of its first-down runs last year, second-best in the NFL.
The wild card for the Bears' offense both on the ground and through the air is rookie Tarik Cohen, who had an electrifying debut on Sunday against the Falcons. Cohen is just 5-6 and 181 pounds and he played his college ball on the FCS level at North Carolina A&T, but he didn't look overmatched by the NFL in either way in Week One. The Bears lined Cohen up all over the formation, including in the backfield and the slot, and they were very creative in getting the ball into his hands in the open field. Cohen responded with several big plays, leading the team in both rushing (66 yards) and receiving (eight catches for 47 yards) and scoring a late touchdown in Chicago's comeback attempt.
As much as the Bucs can take from last year's numbers, the Bears were a little below average in third-down conversions on offense last year (37.8%) although they ranked ninth in converting tries of 10 or more yards. Glennon's crew was 5-of-13 (38.4%) in the opener. Chicago had some trouble in the red zone, ranking 29th in percentage of successful plays in that area and 23rd in touchdown efficiency inside the 20.
The Bears actually ranked seventh in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game in 2016, but that may have been a bit misleading. For one thing, Chicago was 27th in rushing yards allowed, and they were quite often behind in games while finishing 3-13. That adds up to opponents not needing to throw as much. Perhaps more telling is that the Bears were just 23rd in opponent passer rating (93.5) and they were dead last in turnovers forced. It's clear that Chicago was not satisfied with its secondary as it went out and signed three new starters in free agency.
Two of those three – cornerback Marcus Cooper and safety Quintin Demps – started in Week One, while the third was cornerback Prince Amukamara, who is dealing with an ankle injury. Cooper and Demps combined for 10 interceptions a year ago – for Arizona and Houston, respectively – so the Bears hope they can inflate that league-low takeaway total from a year ago. However, Chicago did not force a turnover in its Week One loss to Atlanta (nor did they commit one, on the bright side). Matt Ryan threw for 321 yards against the Bears – 88 of it on a touchdown pass to TE Austin Hooper that seemed to be the result of a breakdown – but the Falcons did that sort of damage to most opponents last year.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Bears.
Meanwhile, Chicago's front seven has been largely built through free agency, with the exception of two high draft picks that have panned out well: outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman. Floyd had seven sacks in 12 games as a rookie last year after being selected ninth overall while the hefty 320-pound Goldman (second-round pick in 2015) had seven sacks in 21 games in his first two years and has also been stout against the run.
Otherwise, the Bears have invested heavily in their defense on the open market, though mostly before the 2017 offseason. DE Akiem Hicks, a very effective inside pass-rusher in the Bears' 3-4 front arrived last year; he had two sacks in the opener against Atlanta. The interior linebacker combination of Jerell Freeman and Danny Trevathan were also signed last year; Freeman had 10 tackles and a tackle for loss against Atlanta while Trevathan is hoping to rebound from an injury-plagued debut season in Chicago. Pass-rusher Willie Young arrived in 2014 after four fairly unassuming years in Detroit and has since put up 24 sacks in three seasons. DE Pernell McPhee was widely assumed to be headed for the PUP list to start the year but he was healthy enough to get into the season opener and he could help the pass rush after getting 10 sacks over the previous two years.
Chicago held one of the NFL's most explosive offenses to 23 points in Week One, allowing only one touchdown in the first three quarters before the aforementioned breakdown on the Hooper touchdown. Atlanta had very little success running the ball, gaining just 64 yards on 23 carries, for an average of 2.8 per try. Other than Hicks, who had three QB hits, the Bears put very little pressure on Ryan.
Last year, probably in large part due to that low takeaway rate, the Bears' defense had a difficult time getting off the field. Chicago allowed the most five-minute drives in the NFL, nearly twice the league average, and gave up third-down conversions at a 40.5% clip (22nd in the league). However, they did do a fairly good job of limiting big plays, ranking 10th in gains of 10+-yards allowed.
Kicker Connor Barth, former Buccaneer, got a late-preseason challenge from former Buccaneer Roberto Aguayo but held onto his job and showed why in the opener by drilling a 54-yard field goal. Barth is coming off his lowest single-season FG percentage since 2009, 78.3% last year, but that's not too far off the league average and he also made 31 of 32 extra points from the new longer distance. He's 56-of-58 in that regard since the rule change and has otherwise never missed an extra point in his career.
Kickoffs have never been Barth's strength and he ranked 27th in touchback percentage last year for the Bears; however, he drilled three out of four tries for touchbacks against Atlanta. Notably, the one that didn't find the end zone was returned 63 yards by the Falcons, though it was then called back on a penalty. Chicago ranked 16th last year in kickoff return average allowed but were dead last in punt return average allowed (12.8).
The Bears used a sixth-round pick in punter Pat O'Donnell in 2014 and he has held down the job ever since, though he ranks 26th in gross punting average and 25th in net average in that span. O'Donnell started his fourth season off well last Sunday, averaging 48.8 yards per boot with a 40.0-yard net and three punts dropped inside the 20.
Chicago ranked 19th last year in punt return average but they might have found their most dynamic return man since Devin Hester in Cohen. The Human Joystick, as he was nicknamed in college, averaged 15.0 yards on three runbacks last Sunday even though none were longer than 17 yards.