DT Chris Hovan has no problem getting inspired for a black-and-blue game between old NFC Central foes
Kyle Orton has yet to throw a touchdown pass and yet his Chicago Bears have scored 46 points through two games and fell just about four minutes shy of going to 2-0 last weekend.
Give Matt Forte a good portion of the credit for Chicago's strong start. Of course, Chicago's eighth-ranked defense has been a significant factor, especially with its outstanding third-down success. And Orton has committed as many turnovers as he's thrown touchdowns, so his efficient guidance of the offense has been key, as well.
But the Bears really needed their rookie running back out of Tulane to step up after they cut ties with former first-round pick Cedric Benson, and so far he has done just that. Forte was the sixth running back taken in the 2008 draft but through the first two weeks of the season he leads all rookies with 215 rushing yards. He has scored just one touchdown (as fantasy football players know, fullback Jason McKie has vultured two others) but he's averaging 4.7 yards per carry and making recently-signed veteran Kevin Jones a well-heeled luxury on the sideline.
"He's talented and he's been given the opportunity," observed Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "The issues that they had there with Cedric allowed the door to open for a young runner. They brought in Kevin Jones, who still has a lot left in the tank. But Forte was a good back in college. He's been given the opportunity and sometimes when you're talented you get a shot to prove to a lot of people you're capable of doing the job. This guy's a great kid; I met him at the combine and I'm happy for his success. He's got a great future."
Buccaneer defenders saw plenty of game tape on Forte this past week, and they came away impressed.
"That's a smart draft pick coming out of college at Tulane," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "He ran the ball impressively well back in college. Chicago is a run-oriented-first offense. He's running between the tackles, he's running outside — he gives them another dimension to their offense right now."
So far the Bears have run the ball 68 times and executed 56 passing plays (53 passes and three sacks). Even if you assume Orton's two carries were probably broken pass calls, that's still a significant emphasis on the rushing attack in Chicago. Gruden said that the Bears have obviously committed to hammering away at the ground this season, which is always a good compliment to a stingy defense and a relatively inexperienced quarterback.
Buccaneer defenders have seen the same thing.
"Yeah, as always they have a physical running game," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "That has allowed them the first two games to be very efficient on third downs in terms of keeping their quarterback in manageable situations. Forte has stepped up a lot; it reminds me a lot of how Cadillac [Williams] stepped up his rookie year. Again, he's running the ball hard, the line is coming off the ball and this is another big week for us and our run defense."
The Bucs will hold one final walk-through at team headquarters on Saturday morning and then fly to Chicago in the afternoon. Kickoff on Sunday is at 1:00 p.m. ET. Here's a look back at some of the key topics leading up to the Week Three contest between the Buccaneers and Bears:
The Buccaneers lost another player to a foot injury this week, as wide receiver Joey Galloway joined guard Davin Joseph on the sideline. While Joseph has been out since the second week of the preseason, Galloway just sustained his injury last Sunday against the Falcons, and the Bucs were hopeful he could avoid missing time.
No such luck. Galloway was ruled out for the Chicago game on Friday, along with Joseph. The team won't announce his replacement in the starting lineup until the morning of the game. Galloway has led the Buccaneers in receiving for three seasons running, in the process becoming the first player in franchise history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Still, the rest of Tampa Bay's offense believes it can thrive even in the speedster's absence.
"We have other guys that have to step up," said quarterback Brian Griese. "Obviously, the expectation here is for the position and whoever steps into his spot has to play as good as Joey Galloway if not better."
The Bucs' foursome of Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall is cross-trained so that any of the four can play split end, Galloway's spot, or flanker. In the end, it probably won't be terribly significant which player starts in Galloway's spot, as the team will likely use all four receivers in some capacity.
Rookie wide receiver Dexter Jackson could figure into the mix, as well. Jackson has yet to catch a pass this season — he has mostly focused on returning punts and kickoffs — but he has the best chance or replacing the top-notch speed element that Galloway brings to the attack.
"Coach Gruden has told me to expect to be out there this week," said Jackson. "So I'm basically just learning a lot. He has a lot of faith in me and I told him I know a lot of things on the offensive side. I'm just waiting to step in and have a chance to showcase my talent."
The Buccaneers will also reserve judgment on three defensive players until Sunday morning. Defensive end Gaines Adams (ribs), linebacker Derrick Brooks (hamstring) and cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring) were all listed as questionable on Friday's injury report, though all three participated to some degree in the final full-scale practice of the week.
The Bucs made a handful of roster moves during the week, prompted by the end of one league suspension and the beginning of another.
After sitting out the first two weeks of the season on the reserve/suspended list, tight end Jerramy Stevens was eligible to be activated this week. The Bucs chose to do just that, and thus had to release tight end Ben Troupe in order to make room on the 53-man roster.
The Bucs have received good production out of their other two tight ends so far this season — Alex Smith and John Gilmore have combined for six catches, 80 yards and a touchdown, and have blocked well in the running game — so Stevens will likely be eased into the offense slowly.
That was the case last year, too, when Stevens had 10 of his 18 catches and all four of his touchdowns in the last month of the season. The sixth-year veteran is simply happy to be back in the mix with this teammates.
"I think it is just about knowing your role," said Stevens. "Everyone is going to have different roles week-to-week and year-to-year. I know what I am being called on to do, so I just have to go out there and add my little two cents to the team and hopefully I can help us win."
Chances are, Gruden will find a way to work the talented pass-catcher into the offense sooner or later.
"He's a good player," said Gruden. "He helped us out a lot last year late in the season. When Ike and Joey and Maurice were hurt, he was clearly a guy that helped us. He stayed in great shape; he did have a very good training camp. I'm just happy for Jerramy, though. Everything's behind him now and he's done exactly what we've asked him to do. Off the field, he's obviously been through some tough times. But all this is behind him now. He's got a chance to be a great man, a great Buccaneer and a real contributor for us, and we're excited to have him back."
Not long after activating Stevens, the Buccaneers learned that rookie cornerback Elbert Mack had been suspended for one game. That created an empty roster spot, and with Talib also a question mark, the team chose to fill it by promoting first-year cornerback Marcus Hamilton from the practice squad. Hamilton, a seventh-round pick out of Virginia in 2007, spent all of his rookie season on the Bucs' practice squad and is thus very familiar with the defense.
A Serious Test
Despite losing to Carolina, 20-17, last weekend, the Bears held the Panthers to 216 yards of total offense. Even the high-flying Indianapolis Colts managed just 293 yards against the Bears. After slipping to an uncharacteristic 28th-place spot in the NFL's defensive rankings last year, Chicago's defense appears to be back to its usual form in 2008.
Not only are the Bears getting results on defense, they're doing it as aggressively as ever. Gruden said it sometimes appears as if every defender on the field is about to storm the backfield at once.
"The Bears have taken their one-gap over-under scheme and it looks like an 11-up defense every snap," said Gruden. "[Lance] Briggs and [Brian] Urlacher and all the linebackers and safeties are on the line of scrimmage. They have had tremendous success. It's the rave of the league right now; everybody's talking about them and they are great talents, too."
Center Jeff Faine, who usually is tasked with blocking defensive tackles, knows he will have his hands full with Urlacher this week.
"I should see him at least every other play," said Faine. "These days, centers and Mike linebackers, it is something you just deal with week-in and week-out. I have been playing him quite a bit over the years with the Saints and the Bears, and I saw him a couple of times in Cleveland. We are pretty familiar with each other and I am excited to play him again."
The Bears have five sacks through two games, and so far only one of them has gone to a player not on the defensive line (safety Mike Brown). But Faine says the pressure can come from any spot on the defense, much as one might usually expect from a 3-4 front. Athletic linebackers like Urlacher and Briggs and instinctive safeties like Brown allow that sort of approach to work.
"They have pretty good athletes all the way around and they have a couple of wrinkles that are a little different that what we have been seeing all camp," said Faine. "It is going to be a pretty good challenge for us up front.
"I definitely think they are playing better this year. A big plus for them is having Mike Brown back; he is a great, great safety. Then with Tommie Harris being healthy and ready to roll, it is going to be a pretty good challenge. It is one of those things when you have health all the way around and you have all your guys back, all the guys are there that you are used to playing next too, I think that is a big advantage."
The Buccaneers left the NFC Central in 2002 to help form the NFC South. Hovan, the former Minnesota Viking, left the division three years later; by then it was called the NFC North but still contained the other four original Central teams and still featured a lot of very physical, hard-fought intra-division games.
Both the Bucs and the Bears of 2008 would feel right at home in the old, rugged NFC Central. Hovan is looking forward to the type of game those two teams are likely to play on Sunday.
"It's going to be a smash-mouth game," said Hovan. "I remember playing Chicago when I was up in the Central and then in the North division, the black and blue. It's going to be a black-and-blue type of game. They're going to run the ball. They ran the ball 36 times in the last game, so we know they're going to try to run the ball, play great defense, try to control the clock and really try to put it in their quarterback's hands. If they can try to not make mistakes, and just go out there and play great Buc defense right now."
Other topics on the Bucs' minds this week:
LB Derrick Brooks on playing against one of his former coaches in Lovie Smith: "Years ago it was very special. It still is to a certain degree, but we've faced each other so many times since Coach Smith left here. But even more impressive is how he's weathered the storm. His character is really all over that football team these past years, not just him but Jerry Angelo, who was here. They've gone up there and really got Chicago back in their winning ways. Playing against their defenseâ€¦and our defenseâ€¦it's really going to come down to which one of our defenses steps up and makes plays on Sunday."
WR Michael Clayton on receivers helping to establish the running game: "We've had a lot of success. Earnest Graham is one of the top backs in the league. We added Warrick Dunn, who's a great asset to this offense, and it's amazing what he can do in the hole. As wide receivers, it's our job to turn those 14-yard runs in touchdowns, as we did last week. Antonio Bryant had a great block down the field and sprung Earnest for over 60 yards. We're just looking forward to doing our part, really putting the load on the safeties so we can split some runners."
QB Jeff Garcia on the approach he must take to prepare for this game: "The same way I prepared last week, just prepare myself physically and mentally to be there in a support role and also if the opportunity presents itself again, be ready to play."
Former Bears TE John Gilmore on playing with Chicago QB Rex Grossman: "If there is anybody's back you have on this team it's the quarterback. You have to take a lot of pride in that; nobody is going to mess with your quarterback. Whether it's on the field or off the field, we definitely surrounded and rallied around Rex when he was dealing with what he had to deal with."
DT Chris Hovan on the Bears not making mistakes on offense: "They're playing really fundamentally sound offense. They're doing great on the offensive line, really picking up blocks as a unit, pass-protecting and really not giving up a big play to the defense — sacks, interceptions and so forth. We're going to have to go out there and play technique-sound, fundamentally gap football."
T Jeremy Trueblood on Chicago's defensive line: "Their defensive line is athletic, they get after the ball and they get after the pass rusher; they're everywhere. They have a lot of good players, but I think we do too. I think it will be a good game."
DE Greg White on getting more pressure on the quarterback against Atlanta: "We are getting better, but I am not going to say we did that great of a job, we still have 14 more games left so talk to me at the end of the year."