Key 1: Get Some Hands On Hester
Already named special teams player of the week two times in the first six weeks of the season, Bears kick returner Devin Hester is someone the Buccaneers will need to pay special attention to.
Hester, who had a kickoff return for a touchdown last week against the Vikings, is averaging 27.7 yards per return on kickoffs and 27.1 on punt returns, including a 69-yard touchdown.
While much is made of Hester’s ability returning kicks, the Bears utilize the former Hurricane's speed and agility on offense also as a wide receiver. On the season the versatile Hester has 17 receptions for 262 yards.
Last week Tampa Bay did a great job in keeping the dangerous Darren Sproles under wraps as Bucs punter Michael Koenen used the directional kick at times to keep the ball out of his hands. The one attempt Sproles had was neutralized by a great open-field tackle by Dekoda Watson.
Key 2: Keep Graham Going
Thirty-one-year old Buccaneer Earnest Graham turned back the clock to 2007 and defied Father Time with a 109-yard effort Sunday to help propel Tampa Bay to victory against the Saints. This week Graham won’t surprise anyone as the film is out there on what the former Gator can still do.
With LeGarrette Blount still nursing a sore knee, Graham and backup Kregg Lumpkin will once again be called on to carry the load on the ground as the Buccaneers have no other running backs currently on the active roster, a risky move in PewterReport.com’s opinion.
The Buccaneers offensive line will need to play particularly well as the Bears defense is loaded with playmakers like Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. But the Bears have been average at best against the run this season, ranking 22nd in the league by giving up an average of 121.8 yards per game.
The Buccaneers should be able to find some room on the ground but will need to stick with the game plan, even if they fall behind early.
Key 3: Gain The Crowd's Affection
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the most popular NFL franchises in England and will certainly have thousands of fans in attendance. But as Paul Stewart, the founder of the largest Bucs fan club in the U.K., told us, the game is more of a celebration of football as opposed to a typical Tampa Bay home game.
Raheem Morris this week described the game in terms of a gladiator-style environment and looked forward to bringing his young team into Wembley Stadium.
“I don’t know if you ever lose home-field advantage coming to London,” Morris said. “Last time we were out here you guys (British fans) were cheering your butts off and we were getting our butts kicks. I really appreciate that. And when we left it was a great learning experience for a young football team. Anytime you can go into a stadium and walk into a gladiator-like atmosphere it's always going to be fun for you.”
The fans will cheer evenly for both teams but if the Buccaneers can strike early or make a dramatic, exciting play, they may win the respect and cheers from the fans that are neutral in their allegiance.
Key 4: Continue To Protect Freeman
So far in 2011 the Tampa Bay offensive line has been excellent in their protection of quarterback Josh Freeman. While there has been pressure at times, the blocking by the offensive line and the running backs combined with Freeman’s ability to scramble has helped keep the former K-State star upright for most of the season.
LT Donald Penn has faced some of the NFL’s best pass rushers (Jared Allen, Dwight Freeney) and at the very least has held his own.
RT Jeremy Trueblood has been solid if not spectacular this year. In addition to his pass-rush success, he has eliminated the silly penalties that plagued his early career.
Guards Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah are both solid pass protectors and even better run blockers. Center Jeff Faine, despite being injured once again, has provided stability in the middle and helped Josh Freeman with the pre-snap calls and adjustments.
After limiting the blitz-happy Saints to no sacks last week, the Buccaneers offensive line will once again be tested as Bears DE Julius Peppers has already collected four sacks through the first six games. As a team the Bears have 14 sacks on the season.
The Bucs' O-line has contributed as much to the team’s 4-2 start as any unit this season and will need another solid effort Sunday.
Key 5: Build A Fort Around Forte
The most important key to victory in Sunday’s game against the Bears may be the Buccaneers' ability to keep running back Matt Forte under wraps.
Forte leads the league in total yardage by running backs with 908 combined (527 on the ground and 381 as a receiver). In the last 10 regular season NFL games, Forte actually leads all players with 1,522 total yards.
The Buccaneers have been successful at times limiting prolific running opponents on the ground, including holding the Falcons, Colts and Saints to less than 100 yards rushing as a team. For the Buccaneers to board their Virgin Airlines flight home Sunday victoriously, they must get 11 hats on the ball and limit Forte and the Bears' ground game.
Final Analysis: Having learned a valuable lesson by arriving in England just two days before their matchup with the Patriots in 2008, the Buccaneers made the wise decision to arrive nearly a week early to help players get adjusted to the five-hour time difference. The Bears chose the Bucs' 2008 route and it may be the difference in the game between two evenly matched teams.
Cooks Final Score Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Bears 20