It’s been unusually cold in Chicago for quarterback Rex Grossman. Despite his 14-5 mark as a starter heading into last Monday’s game against St. Louis, many were calling for his job.

He worked his way out of the doghouse somewhat, throwing for 200 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Rams. His 114.4 passer rating was considerably higher than his season average of 74.5.

More importantly, all his completions went to players with a Bears jersey on.

A developing propensity to throw interceptions over the last month put Grossman on the hot seat, a place he will likely remain unless or until he delivers Bears fans a Super Bowl.

“You know, everyone I ran into on the street was actually pretty good. Everyone would say, ‘We still believe in you,’ and things like that,” Grossman said in a media conference call. “That’s a compliment, but at the same time, it’s a realization, just another reminder, that things aren’t going well. And I just wanted to get back on the right track.”

The week before the St. Louis game, Grossman was 6-of-19 for 34 yards and three interceptions, bailed out of a game against Minnesota, 23-13, thanks to a defensive touchdown and a special teams punt return score.

That performance heated up discussions over whether back up Brian Griese should assume the starting role. Bears head coach Lovie Smith vehemently defended his quarterback in a post-game press conference. In his conference call with the media on Wednesday, Smith declared ‘It’s all about production’ and took a stand for his man once again.

“Very few quarterbacks go through an entire season and have great games each week,” Smith said. “You have to just get through some of those tough times. You find out a lot about yourself when you do go through times like that.”

While the coach’s empathy for his quarterback is not an unusual gesture, the Bucs defense does not feel the need to abide by the same compassionate standards.

“Definitely, if we can get him rattled early, that would be good,” Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips said. “He has had some unfortunate situations this year, but the coach’s sticking by him has to give him some confidence. I don’t think his confidence is shattered but if we can go out there and rattle him a little bit, and not give him the throws he wants to throw, then some good things can happen for us.”

Things began to go downhill for Grossman in a Monday Night game at Arizona on Nov. 16, in which he threw four interceptions. In his six starts following that game, he handed out another 10. Against the Rams, it appears he stuck to safer throws and paid more attention to taking care of the ball.

He doesn’t believe the Arizona game got in his head, but is resolute in saying he doesn’t feel like he can relax at all because, as an NFL quarterback, your favor can vary so much from week to week.

SQUEEZE THE BEAR
Coach Lovie Smith elected to stay with Grossman because, despite his mistakes, the team was scoring points and winning. He couldn’t find enough reason for change.

Chicago is second in the NFL in point differential, outscoring its opponents by 183 points over the first 13 games. The team’s win over the Vikings in Week 13 helped capture the NFC North division title for the second year in a row, the third time in six seasons.

With Grossman’s psyche still considered somewhat fragile, putting pressure on him early is essential.

“It’s very important that we stop the run first of all,” defensive end Greg Spires said. “Then we have to hit him on passing downs and put pressure on him, because we’ve seen in the past, he will make a mistake when he’s got pressure in his face. But if you sit back there and let him throw, he can pick us apart.”

Getting pressure on the passer hasn’t come as easily for the Bucs this season as it has in the past. The defense ranks 30th in sacks per pass play. Grossman isn’t untouchable, evidenced by the fat that he has been sacked 17 times this season. The question is, who is going to get to him?

“It’s the old Al Davis saying, ‘The opposing team’s quarterback must go down and he must go down hard’,” linebacker Ryan Nece said. “And there’s a reason for that. That guy has the ball in his hands every time and if you can take him down early and often, all the sudden holding that ball doesn’t feel as comfortable.

“So if you can create discomfort by applying pressure, I don’t care if its Rex Grossman or Tom Brady, they’re not as effective.”

Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin has always been able to get pressure on the quarterback, but this season, it’s proven to be a more difficult task . The starters on the Bucs defensive line have 10 sacks combined. There are 11 defensive linemen in the league that have 10 or more sacks individually.

Without a great push from the front four, Kiffin has been forced to incorporate more creative ways to get to the quarterback as of late, primarily blitzing more often.

Nece says he’ll take it. Anything to help get a pair of hands on the quarterback.

“It’s refreshing because they trust us to go out there and [blitz],” he said. “It’s not like [the coaches] think we don’t have the players to do that, we do, so lets try it.”

TWO ON TWO
It’s called the Tampa 2 defense. The brainchild of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. But like a hot CD, it’s been tossed around and copied more times than a Grateful Dead bootleg.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who began his coaching career in Tampa Bay, coaching linebackers (1996-2000), packed it in his travel bag, unrolled it when he landed in Chicago and has spent the last three seasons making it one of the most productive defenses in the league.

Chicago’s defense ranks among the NFL’s top five in yards per game (3rd – 280.7), points per game (2nd -13.6) and passing yards per game (3rd – 175.4). Perhaps most impressive is the league-leading 40 turnovers that the Bears have created. By comparison, only two other teams have 30 or more, Baltimore (32) and Minnesota (31).

Tampa has only 14 takeaways.

“They get people to the ball,” Jon Gruden said. “It’s not everybody getting solo tackles, it’s you know, you hold him up, I’ll finish him off and I’ll rip the ball out of his chest. And they do a hell of a job playing team defense. They have a contagious edge right now that I think they all have caught. They’re fun to watch.”

“They play the system very well,” linebacker Ryan Nece said. “They run to the ball, they hustle, they do the things that we embedded in this system a long time ago. Coach Kiffin instilled in a lot of players and in a lot of coaches; you run to the ball, you try to create turnovers, you try to create pressure on the quarterback and you can be successful.”

The Bears have one of the stingiest defenses in the league and the Bucs have the worst scoring offense at 11.6 points per game, so Sunday’s meeting is looking more and more like an uphill battle for Gruden and Co.

Points have come at a premium in the last three meetings between the Bucs and Bears. Neither team has broken 20. In a 13-10 victory at Raymond James Stadium last season, Chicago’s lone touchdown came on a one-play, 1-yard drive. Quarterback Kyle Orton hit tight end John Gilmore for the Bears only touchdown a play after Bucs quarterback Chris Simms was stripped of the ball by defensive end Alex Brown.

With the players in place to run the Tampa 2 to its maximum potential, Chicago’s defense has been nothing less than dominating over the last two seasons. The Bears have held 13 of their last 29 opponents to 10 points or less. At home they are even better, holding 11 of their last 14 regular season opponents to 10 points or less at Soldier Field.

The Bucs finished the 2005 season with the league’s top rated defense, but with the type of success the Bears are achieving, the Tampa 2 scheme may only be Tampa Bay’s in name now, a fact that safety Jermaine Phillips says irks him a little.

“Of course, it’s the Tampa 2 defense. We’re Tampa, we’re supposed to live up to that standard,” Phillips said. “We haven’t played to our standard this year, that’s the bottom line, no excuses.”

INJURY REPORT
Cornerback Phillip Buchannon (groin) returned to practice on Thursday. He is listed as probable for Sunday’s game.

CB Juran Bolden (quadriceps), LB Shelton Quarles (knee/ankle) and DT Ellis Wyms are listed as questionable.
 


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