The Bucs (5-1) return home to Raymond James Stadium to play the Bears (3-3) Sunday afternoon. Tampa Bay is coming off a 28-22 win at Philadelphia on Thursday night. Chicago lost last week to Green Bay, 24-14.
SR’s Fab 5 returns next week, but here are my four matchups to watch on both offense and defense. These matchups usually appear in each week’s SR’s Fab 5 column.
4 Matchups To Watch: Bucs Offense vs. Bears Defense
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Bucs RB Leonard Fournette vs. Bears ILB Roquan Smith
Bucs RB Leonard Fournette – Photo by: USA Today
Smith is having quite a season as a playmaking inside linebacker for Chicago. His 62 tackles (35 solo) is nearly twice the next Bears defender (inside linebacker Alec Olgetree, 32 tackles). Smith has two sacks, two pass breakups and a 53-yard pick-six for the Chicago defense. Despite not being the biggest linebacker at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, the former first-round draft pick has plenty of speed and good instincts. The 24-year old is definitely living up to his draft status in his fourth year in the league. He’ll have his hands full defending Fournette, one of the hottest running backs in the NFL right now.
Fournette has posted three 100-yard games in a row in terms of total offense, and he’s scored a total of three rushing touchdowns over the last two games. The Bucs’ big back is playing with a lot of confidence right now. Fournette has had a run and a reception of over 15 yards in each of the last three games. He’s doing a great job of breaking tackles with his power or evading tackles with his ability to juke defenders. Fournette will have to continue to be stout in pass protection, as the Bears will blitz Smith up the middle on occasion. ADVANTAGE: Push
Tampa Bay RT Tristan Wirfs vs. Chicago OLB Khalil Mack
Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Mack is dealing with rib and foot injuries and missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday. The veteran could be a questionable game time decision, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him play. Mack leads the Bears with six sacks in six games, and also has a fumble recovery. It’s a shame that Mack is not at full health because this rematch from a year ago would be epic with both he and Wirfs at their best. The fact that Mack has been ailing over the last couple of weeks may tip the scales in Wirfs’ favor.
It’s amazing to think that Wirfs, the Bucs’ first-round pick last year, surrendered only one sack during his rookie season. That came against Mack, a perennial All-Pro and Pro Bowler, in Week 5 in a 20-19 loss at Chicago. Mack also threw Wirfs to the ground like a rag doll on national television to add insult to injury. Still, there is no shame in surrendering just one sack in Wirfs’ first 26 NFL games to a future Hall of Famer. But you can bet that Wirfs is itching for revenge and will be looking to shut Mack out on Sunday. ADVANTAGE: Wirfs
Bucs RG Alex Cappa vs. Bears DE Akiem Hicks
Bucs RG Alex Cappa – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Hicks is battling a groin injury that could make him a game-time decision on Sunday. The 6-foot-4, 335-pound defensive lineman missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday. It would be a big blow to Chicago’s defense if Hicks can’t go. Hicks got his first full sack last Sunday and has 1.5 on the year, but he hasn’t been much of a pass-rushing force since 2018 when he had 7.5 sacks. Hicks has slowed down a bit at age 31, but he’s still a load to move off the line of scrimmage in run defense.
Cappa is in a contract year and is playing well. He’s only surrendered one sack this year after not allowing any last year prior to breaking his ankle in the Bucs’ wild card win at Washington. Cappa, who is in a contract year, has also been flagged just once in the 2021 campaign. He’ll have his hands full going against a powerful interior defensive lineman like Hicks, who has given the Bucs fits in the past. If Hicks can’t go, Cappa will face Angelo Blackson, who has 18 tackles, half-a-sack and an interception on the season. ADVANTAGE: Push
Tampa Bay WR Mike Evans vs. Chicago CB Jaylon Johnson
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
With Antonio Brown’s status in doubt for Sunday’s game, there is a reasonable chance that Johnson could be matched up against Evans. The Bears don’t have any cornerbacks that can match up size-wise with the 6-foot-5 Evans. Johnson is the biggest at 6-0, 196 pounds, and he’s also playing the best right now for Chicago. He hasn’t allowed a touchdown yet, and has six pass breakups and one interception. If Brown plays, Johnson will be tested by his speed. If he doesn’t, Johnson will be tested by Evans’ size and massive catch radius.
Evans is off to a hot start on the year with 31 catches for a team-leading 420 yards (13.5 avg.) and a team-high four touchdowns. Evans is on pace to reach 1,000 yards receiving for an eighth straight year to start his NFL career. He’s the current record holder with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Evans has done most of his damage at home, catching six passes for 113 yards (18.8 avg.) and two touchdowns against Miami two weeks ago at Raymond James Stadium. Before that he had five catches for 75 yards (15 avg.) and two TDs against Atlanta in Week 2 at Ray-Jay. ADVANTAGE: Evans
4 Matchups To Watch: Bucs Defense vs. Bears Offense
Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett vs. Bears QB Justin Fields
Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett and Eagles QB Jalen Hurts – Photo by: USA Today
Fields, the 11th overall pick in the draft last April, has been viewed as the messiah in Chicago – albeit prematurely. The Bears are 2-1 in his last three starts, but that’s mostly due to the play of their defense and not the rookie QB. Fields has completed just 53.5 percent of his passes for 632 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Despite being a fast athlete, Fields has been sacked 18 times this year, including 16 times in his four NFL starts. The reason is because the game has not slowed down for Fields and he’s having trouble going through his progressions and reading coverages in the NFL.
Barrett needs to take advantage of Fields holding onto the ball and get the rookie on the ground. Tampa Bay’s top pass rusher leads the team with 4.5 sacks through six games, in addition to a forced fumble and an interception. Barrett will have to get through left tackle Jason Peters and right tackle Elijah Wilkinson first. Last year, while Wilkinson was in Denver, Barrett tormented him for a pair of sacks and could have similar success this year. Barrett should have a few more sacks, but has struggled to get some quarterbacks on the ground. He’ll have to use great form and force to get the athletic Fields down. ADVANTAGE: Barrett
Tampa Bay DT Ndamukong Suh vs. Chicago LG Cody Whitehair
Bucs DT Ndamukong Suh and Falcons QB Matt Ryan – Photo by: USA Today
Whitehair, a former second-round pick, has not played up to expectations this season. The 6-foot-3, 316-pound guard has already surrendered a team-high three sacks and six quarterback pressures through six games in 2021. Whitehair is a better run blocker than pass protector, but will be going up against one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in Suh. And Chicago is without its top two running backs and will have to turn to rookie Khalil Herbert for its ground game on Sunday.
Suh has had a quiet to start to the 2021 season. After recording six sacks a year ago, Suh has 1`only one so far. With six tackles in the first three games of the season, Suh has notched just two tackles total in the last three games and has one fumble recovery. Still, he’s been a vital cog in helping the league’s top-ranked run defense, but it’s okay to ask for more splash plays from the Bucs’ $9 million man. He’ll have the chance to win some favorable one-on-one matchups against the struggling Whitehair. ADVANTAGE: Push
Bucs NT Vita Vea vs. Bears C Sam Mustipher
Bucs NT Vita Vea – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
At 6-foot-2, 332 pounds, Mustipher is one of the bigger centers in the NFL. And he could be a sizable challenge for Vea just due to his frame. But Mustipher isn’t very good. He’s given up one sack and six quarterback pressures thus far and has committed one penalty. Mustipher is the lowest-graded offensive lineman on Chicago by Pro Football Focus, earning a 44.7 grade.
Vea has been coming on as a pass rusher, notching half a sack in each of the last two games. The 340-pound nose tackle has spearheaded Tampa Bay’s top-ranked run defense the last three years. Vea has spent the year overwhelming smaller centers, especially on passing downs. He’ll get his first formidable challenge against a bigger center this week that may not have much skill, but has plenty of size to contend with. ADVANTAGE: Vea
Tampa Bay CB Jamel Dean vs. Chicago WR Darnell Mooney
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: USA Today
Mooney – not Allen Robinson II – is the Bears’ leading receiver so far with 25 catches for 306 yards and one touchdown. Chicago’s offense lacks explosiveness, and Mooney might be the only explosive player on the team right now. His 12.2 average leads all Bears players and his 64-yard touchdown catch is the only passing play longer than 30 yards. Fields has a strong arm and connected with Mooney on that big throw against Detroit three weeks ago. Mooney will try to get open deep for Fields again in Tampa.
Dean is the Bucs’ fastest defensive back and has the speed to keep up with Mooney – as long as his technique is sound at the line of scrimmage. After struggling at the start of the season, Dean has recorded interceptions in back-to-back games and is playing better. While he had four pass breakups last week at Philadelphia, two of those could have been called penalties, and Dean did have a 45-yard pass interference penalty. He’ll have to keep a close eye on Mooney, who can slip past coverage and go deep on any play. ADVANTAGE: Push
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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