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OPPONENT: Chicago Bears
WHERE: Soldier Field
WHERE THE BEARS STAND: The Bears are 11-2 and in first place in the NFC North division. Chicago also has the best record in the NFC. BEARS HEAD COACH: Lovie Smith
BEARS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Knapp
BEARS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ron Rivera
BEARS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Dave Toub
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 31st (255.5 ypg) RUSHING: 29th (92.5 ypg) PASSING: 29th (163.0 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 16th (330.3 ypg) RUSHING: 18th (120.0 ypg) PASSING: 17th (210.3 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … Chicago is 5-1 at home and undefeated in the NFC (9-0) this season?
SCOUTING THE BEARS
Quarterbacks Rex Grossman is Chicago’s starting signal caller, but he’s on a short leash. A former first-round pick out of Florida, Grossman got off to a hot start, but has since cooled off. Grossman has a strong arm, but he’s completed just 54.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,624 yards and tossing 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. The most disturbing part about Grossman’s game, which has featured too many turnovers and missed throws, is the fact that Chicago’s offense has a potentially potent ground attack and an offensive line that’s giving him time to hit receivers. In fact, Grossman has been sacked just 14 times this season. That means the Bucs defense doesn’t necessarily have to pressure Grossman early and often in order to throw him off of his game. If Grossman struggles against Tampa Bay, Chicago could pull him in favor of former Bucs QB Brian Griese, who signed with Chicago this offseason via free agency.
Running Backs Although Tampa Bay’s defense has been playing much better against the run as of late, expect Chicago to come out pounding the rock early. Former Bucs RB Thomas Jones has carried the ball 258 times for 1,053 yards (4.1 avg.) and five touchdowns this season. However, the Bears have been featuring more of second-year RB Cedric Benson lately. He’s carried the ball 114 times for 436 yards (3.8 avg.) and five touchdowns. Neither Jones nor Benson is a great receiving threat, but Benson has been better in terms of breaking tackles and cutting the ball to the outside, which might explain why Benson, a 2005 first-round pick, has been getting more involved in Chicago’s offensive game plans. Tampa Bay must have good gap control and be on its game in terms of tackling in order to limit Chicago’s ground attack Sunday.
Wide Receivers Grossman’s favorite target in the passing game is former Carolina Panthers WR Mushin Muhammad. He’s hauled in a team-leading 50 passes for 687 yards and five touchdowns through 13 games. Muhammad will go up against Bucs three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, who is familiar with Muhammad from his playing days with the Panthers. Barber needs just one interception to tie Donnie Abraham’s franchise record of 31, and it would help the Bucs if No. 20 picked of a pass or two in this game. Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon might have played well enough last Sunday to earn himself the opportunity to start again this week. If he does start, Buchanon will be matched up with Bears WR Bernard Berrian, who has caught 39 passes for 682 yards and five touchdowns. Berrian has impressive speed and is Chicago’s deep threat, evidenced by his 17.5-yard per catch average. Tampa Bay might feel more comfortable leaving CB Juran Bolden in as the nickel corner and leaving Buchanon in to cover Berrian since the newcomer has the speed to cover Chicago’s speedy receiver deep. Grossman will also try to work tight end Desmond Clark into the passing game. Clark is an excellent blocker, but he’s also got soft hands. He’s hauled in 35 passes for 465 yards and four touchdowns this season. Tampa Bay’s linebackers, particularly Derrick Brooks and Ryan Nece, and strong safety Jermaine Phillips, must account for Clark, who knows how to find the soft spots in zone coverage against the Tampa 2, which is the same defensive scheme Chicago’s defense operates.
Offensive Line Chicago’s offensive line is big and athletic. It is one of the main reasons why the Bears are rushing for nearly 120 yards per game and have allowed just 17 sacks this season. This unit, which features left tackle John Tait, left guard Ruben Brown, center Olin Kreutz, right guard Roberto Garza and right tackle Fred Miller, is completely capable of opening up big holes for Jones and Benson in the running game. The Bears like to run both players off of the right side of the line, where the 320-pound Miller and Garza have done a nice job of dominating in the trenches. The Bears are also known to pull Kreutz, who is quite athletic. Bucs defensive end Greg Spires and Jovan Haye, Jon Bradley and Julian Jenkins, all of whom have been playing on a rotational basis at the under tackle position, must find a way to plug up running lanes and force Grossman to pass in this contest. On the left side, Bucs DE Dewayne White and nose tackle Chris Hovan will go up against Tait and Brown, respectively. That will not be an easy task. Hovan will be more concerned with fending off double teams and stopping the ground attack. White, however, will attempt to attack Grossman’s blindside, but Tait is one of the best pass-blocking tackles in the league. Tampa Bay’s defense simply can’t afford to let Chicago gain big yardage via the ground game on first and second down. The Bears are converting nearly 39 percent of their third downs this season, and that percentage will increase if the Bears offense is working out of third-and-short more often than not.
Defensive Line Chicago’s defense, which plays a defensive scheme that’s similar to the Tampa 2 the Bucs run, is strong up front, but injuries have left this unit somewhat vulnerable against the run, where the Bears are giving up an average of 105 yards per game. Bears under tackle Tommie Harris, who had notched five sacks this season, is out for the year with a torn hamstring. That’s a big blow to the Bears, who will now rely on Alfonso Boone, who has one sack this season. Boone is bigger than Harris by nearly 20 pounds, but he’s not as athletic. Bucs rookie right guard Davin Joseph should benefit from facing Boone as opposed to Harris. Chicago nose tackle Tank Johnson is also injured, which means backup Ian Scott could start in his place and face Bucs left guard Sean Mahan and center John Wade. Tampa Bay is concerned about how offensive tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Anthony Davis will hold up in this contest. Trueblood, a rookie, could arguably have the toughest matchup of all against Bears LE Adewale Ogunleye, who has recorded 6.5 sacks. On the right side, Davis will attempt to protect rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski’s blindside against DE Alex Brown, who has recorded six sacks and two interceptions this season. Brown has a knack for getting his hands up to defend passes, which means Gradkowski must be careful not to telegraph his throws. Tampa Bay must establish the ground game with Cadillac Williams, Mike Alstott and Michael Pittman in order to give itself a reasonable chance of picking up first downs in third down situations. Putting itself in third-and-long situations could be catastrophic for Tampa Bay as Chicago backup DE Mark Anderson has thrived in these obvious passing situations, evidenced by his team-leading 10 sacks and three forced fumbles. If the Bucs are forced to throw on third down, you can bet Pittman or Williams will be left in the backfield to help pick up the rookie speed rusher.
Linebackers Chicago’s linebackers won’t make running the football easy for Tampa Bay’s offense, which has gone 11 straight quarters without scoring a touchdown. Bears OLB Lance Briggs is Chicago’s version of Bucs weakside LB Derrick Brooks, and he’s doing a pretty good impersonation of the nine-time Pro Bowler. Briggs is second on the team with over 100 tackles, and he’s used his speed to record one sack, two interceptions and nine passes defensed. Briggs is a tremendous playmaker that the Bucs must account for. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is the heart and soul of Chicago’s defense, which ranks No. 3 overall in the NFL. He leads the team in tackles and has notched one forced fumble, three interceptions and seven passes defensed. Urlacher is exceptional when it comes to shedding blockers and getting to ball carriers. Cadillac Williams must do a better job of securing the football as Chicago’s defense has forced 22 fumbles this season. Tampa Bay might try to attack the right side of the field and Bears OLB Hunter Hillenmeyer, who isn’t known as a playmaker and is considered the weakest link of Chicago’s linebacker corps. The Bucs would also like to get tight end Alex Smith matched up with Hillenmeyer in the passing game.
Secondary Passing the ball against Chicago’s defense won’t be easy for Gradkowski and the Bucs. The Bears are allowing opposing offenses to convert just 28.7 percent of their third down attempts. While the Bucs will attempt to run the ball first, Gradkowski has got to do a better job of taking care of the football when he does drop back to throw. Tampa Bay currently has a turnover ratio of minus-11, which ranks 30th in the league. Chicago, on the other hand, has a plus-11 turnover ratio. The Bears defense is tough, but the Bucs should be able to move the ball against this unit. Gradkowski and Co. are, after all, used to facing the Tampa 2 scheme. Chicago’s secondary is also a bit banged up. Bears RCB Nathan Vasher is injured. He’s notched two interceptions this season, and if Vasher can’t play the Bears will likely have Ricky Manning Jr. cover WR Joey Galloway. Galloway is Tampa Bay’s deep threat and could find himself in some favorable matchups Sunday with Vasher ailing and Bears strong safety Todd Johnson also injured. If Johnson can’t go, Cameron Worrell likely would start in his place. Galloway has the ability to get himself open deep against Chicago’s backups, but Gradkowski has to be able to deliver the ball to him when he’s open, and the passes have got to be accurate as Manning Jr. has five interceptions this season. On the other side of the field, Bears CB Charles Tillman will be matched up with WR Ike Hilliard. Gradkowski wouldn’t be wise to throw to Hilliard too often, as Tillman is quite the playmaker, evidenced by his five interceptions and 12 passes defensed. Chicago might ask free safety Danieal Manning to help cover the deep part of the field on Sunday.
Special Teams Tampa Bay can’t just concern itself with Chicago’s ground game and defense. Its special teams unit is just as dangerous. Bears rookie defensive back Devin Hester has taken the league by storm, averaging a whopping 35.1 yards per kickoff return and taking two of those attempts back for touchdowns. He’s equally dangerous as a punt returner, where he’s averaged 14.4 yards per attempt and taken three punts back for touchdowns. Hester has great speed and cutting ability, and Tampa Bay’s coverage units must take the proper angles and be on top of their game in terms of tackling in order to contain Hester. Bears kicker Robbie Gould is arguably the NFC’s best. He’s made 26-of-29 (89.7 avg.) of his attempts, including 11-of-13 from 40-49 yards out. Punter Brad Maynard is averaging 44 yards per punt with a net of 37.4. He’s pinned 17 of his 54 attempts inside the 20-yard line this season. Tampa Bay’s return men, PR Ike Hilliard and KR Michael Pittman or CB Torrie Cox, must find a way to establish good field position for the Bucs offense, which could benefit from working with a short field against the Bears defense.