LB Derrick Brooks and the Buccaneers have stifled the Bears over the past two years largely by tackling hard and sure
Omar Moreno to Curtis Conway.
Only a diehard Chicago fan would remember that scoring combination, but those are the last two Bears to hook up for an offensive touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Eighteen quarters of Bucs-Bears football, two Chicago offensive coordinators, 36 flips of the calendar and 12 Gene Hackman movies (no lie) have passed since then. Michael Jordan was barely into his second retirement when Conway scored.
Conway found the end zone against Tampa Bay on a 21-yard pass from Moreno in Chicago on November 29, 1998. The Buccaneers won that game, 31-17, then proceeded to take the next three Bucs-Bears tilts by scores of 6-3, 20-6 and 41-0. The Bears won the most recent game between the two, last November in Chicago, by a 13-10 score, but the home team's only touchdown came on an interception return.
In the four games between the two teams over the past two seasons, Tampa Bay has held the Bears to an average of 235 yards of offense, 13 first downs and 3-of-14 third-down success. Those are impressive numbers, but they all take a backseat to the Bucs' amazing streak of not allowing an offensive touchdown to the Bears since midway through Bill Clinton's second term.
Of course, you could look at that and say the Bears are due. Or, more relevantly, you could say that this 2001 version of the 'Monsters of the Midway' appears to be much improved over the 1998-2000 Bears. The Bucs have their own way of looking at it: in the rearview mirror. In other words, what happened over the past three years doesn't mean much when it comes to evaluating this Sunday's game in Raymond James Stadium.
"Not really," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Those games are in the past. We played them well and I think they are getting better quarterback play now then they've had in a long while. We have to go out there and tackle well and hit them and control their short passing game."
In 1999, new Chicago Head Coach Dick Jauron brought on Offensive Coordinator Gary Crowton, who gave Bears opponents something new to look at with a short passing game that seemed to borrow liberally from the NCAA. The Bears offense shut up to number eight in the league and confused many teams with its complicated receiver screens.
Not the Bucs. Tampa Bay countered Chicago's spread-them-out scheme with their outstanding team speed and sure tackling on defense. Nobody matched up better against the Bears' offense over the past two seasons than the Buccaneers.
Crowton has moved on, heading back to the college ranks to become Head Coach at BYU, but the Bears have retained his offense under new coordinator John Shoop. The Bucs, meanwhile, have maintained their same approach to stopping the Bears' attack: sure tackling.
"It's basically going to boil down to tackling," said linebacker Derrick Brooks of Sunday's game. "There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. We have to tackle the backs; if the receivers catch the short passes, we've got to tackle them and keep them to a minimum gain in order to give ourselves a chance to win. There's no magic formula about it. That's what's good about this week. It's a physical game and we have to tackle if we want to win."
Just like the last five games won't have much bearing on Sunday's affair, the Bucs' strong tackling of previous years won't automatically put Bear ballcarriers on the ground this year. Tampa Bay defenders have uncharacteristically struggled in that department at times this season, helping to explain the periodic big rushing games the Bucs have allowed. Maybe passion will help. Tampa Bay players seem geared up this week as they discuss the possibility of getting back to a hard-nosed approach against their long-time division rivals.
"We just know these guys, especially with the offense they put in a couple years ago," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "It's a lot of the screen game, a lot of the stuff that guys probably haven't seen since college, but with our team speed we end up playing it pretty well. We're really aggressive, and you can knock some of that stuff out with that style of play. But there's nothing in particular. It's just our effort, and that usually shines through."
Added Brooks: "Their offense looks impressive right now. They're hustling downfield, blocking, linemen and receivers are running hard. I guess they're not really doing anything special. They just do what they do and they're doing it well. We should expect a physical game, and that's the type of game we've got to turn it into – a physical game where we dictate the action.
"It's going to be a physical game, but in the past when we've faced Chicago we've made it a physical game and we've tackled. That's how we've had success against them. The times we've lost against Chicago are the times we didn't tackle. That's the bottom line."
Chicago's offense dipped from that eighth-place ranking in 1999 to 23rd last year, perhaps a sign that the rest of the league was catching up to the novelty. Now, in 2001, the Bears are back up to 15th, and not because they're sneaking up on anybody. The difference is personnel, as the Morenos and Conways are long gone. The current Chicago torchbearers are quarterbacks Jim Miller and Shane Matthews, wide receiver Marty Booker and a pair of University of Michigan rookies, RB Anthony Thomas and WR David Terrell.
"It's really the same offense, but Anthony Thomas and David Terrell have given them some sparks and big-play ability," said Dungy. "I think their quarterbacks are throwing the ball more accurately and sharper as they've been in the system longer. It's the same thing, they're just doing it a little better."
Thomas, in particular, has given the Bears a power running game to nicely complement the receiver screens, and Miller or Matthews have both been steadier than the departed Cade McNown. Miller started the Bears' last game and so is the favorite to play against Tampa Bay.
"They offer some different challenges and they're doing very well at what they do," said Barber. "The quarterbacks aren't making a lot of mistakes. For the most part, they're a running football team and Anthony Thomas is taking them where they need to go. They've got some guys – Marty Booker and Dez White and the rookie (David) Terrell. We'll be ready for those guys and it will really be a challenge for us."
McNown, billed as a dangerous scrambler, never gave the Bucs too much trouble. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp thinks Miller, though less mobile, is a bigger threat.
"I would think Cade McNown was easier to rush, the only thing you have to do is prevent him from getting out of the pocket and he wasn't going to beat you with his arm," said Sapp. "Jim Miller is way different than that. Jim Miller is quarterback in this league that knows exactly what he is doing. He can beat you either way. He might not be the most mobile guy, but if you give him a lane to run, he can get out of it."
Even so, the Bucs will try to contain Miller and the Bears the same way they went after McNown and the Bears: get right in the offense's face and force the action.
"You have to be more aggressive, I think," said safety Dexter Jackson. "They rely on the short passes, letting their receivers and running backs break tackles and try to make yards after the catch. The quarterbacks aren't trying to throw the ball down the field and beat you themselves. They're trying to use that great defense they have right now and pick away, pick away, hit the underneath things and hope a wide receiver or running back makes a big play."
No Chicago offensive player has done that against the Bucs in over two years. Whether or not the Bucs can maintain their amazing streak of keeping the Bears out of the end zone on Sunday will probably depend on how well the Buc defenders can make their tackles stick.