The Chicago Bears have a chance to put together their first winning streak since September when they host the 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Soldier Field. Both teams are coming off much-needed wins. The Bears downed the Vikings 21-13 in Week 11 while the Bucs went to Washington and scored a 27-7 upset.
So what can we expect Sunday?
We asked Roy Cummings, who covers the Buccaneers for the Tampa Tribune, for his candid personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know about the Bucs before Sunday’s kickoff.
1. Lovie Smith’s defense has failed him so far this season.
You remember all of those tenacious, confident, intimidating defenses Smith put together during his nine seasons as Bears head coach. The Bears got after things, known best for their ability to cause turnovers. They produced 310 of those during Smith’s 144 regular season games in Chicago.
Well, the Bucs aren’t quite that opportunistic. Not yet anyway. In a disheartening 2-8 start, Tampa Bay has 15 takeaways total. Equally troubling, they have produced only 20 sacks -- and six of those came Sunday against Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The Bucs rank 30th in the league in pass defense, allowing 266.1 yards per game. They’ve also had difficulty getting off the field on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 45 percent of their third-down chances.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is still the focal point for opponents up front, drawing his share of double teams. But the rest of the D-line has been unable to win one-on-ones consistently enough to create an imposing pass rush.
“It’s taken a lot longer than a lot of people thought it would for the players here to understand this defense and what their role in it is, what their marks are and things like that,” Cummings said. “All those little details add up.”
The victory over the Redskins offered hope, with the Buccaneers forcing three turnovers and pressuring Griffin all afternoon.
“They were really rallying to the ball,” Cummings said. “Last week was really the first game where it seemed like everyone within the defense understood what they were doing. Prior to that, everything was very methodical. You can almost see guys thinking a lot. ‘Am I supposed to go here? Should I stop here? What am I doing?’ It hasn’t come as naturally as you’d expect.”
Part of last week’s defensive success may have stemmed from the Charles Tillman highlight montage that Smith showed his players in an attempt to get them to fully understand what he’s after.
“Everybody saw that and said, ‘Wow. That’s how it’s supposed to be,’” Cummings said. “It inspired those guys to be a little bit more takeaway-oriented.”
2. Josh McCown’s struggles have been pronounced in his five starts at quarterback.
You can find a variety of reasons for McCown’s dip in productivity. But first and foremost, he’s struggled to protect the football. After throwing just one interception in 224 pass attempts last season with the Bears, McCown has thrown six picks in 134 passes in Tampa Bay. He’s also been sacked 11 times – equaling his total from last season.
McCown has had plenty of adversity to work through. He’s had to cope with the loss of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, whose heart issues required him to leave the team just before the start of the regular season, turning the play calling over to quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo. McCown also suffered a severe thumb sprain in Week 3 that pushed him out of the starting lineup for six weeks. And the Bucs’ non-existent running game hasn’t done much to alleviate the pressure either.
On top of all that, the two-year, $10 million contract that McCown signed in March added an element of pressure that he hasn’t always dealt with well.
“Early on there were signs he was pressing,” Cummings said. “I think he was maybe trying too hard at the beginning of the season to be the guy that everybody expected him to be. He didn’t just go out there and try to win games. It seemed like he was pushing to show that he could be the guy he was a year ago. He’s certainly capable of being that. But at times, he’s been trying too hard to prove that instead of just playing the game free and easy.”
Still, McCown is coming off a 288-yard, two-TD, no-turnover effort in Sunday’s win in Washington. And after shedding tears of frustration after the Bucs’ Week 10 loss to the Falcons, McCown showed his teammates that his emotional investment could provide a jolt of purpose, too.
“The way Josh carries himself, it doesn’t take long to see that he has leadership running through his veins,” Cummings said. “Even when he broke down at the podium, you could tell it was genuine. That’s Josh. It showed how much he cares. And the other players see that. It resonates. And I think that boosts them too.”
3. The Bears’ secondary will have their hands full with receiver Mike Evans.
Drafted No. 7 overall out of Texas A&M in May, Evans has big-play potential, a physical receiver whose future seems very bright. In Sunday’s win, he exploded for seven catches and 209 yards, including TD grabs of 36 and 56 yards.
Evans' size (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) will present a major challenge to Bears cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Tim Jennings. And his budding confidence is worth taking note of.
“Early on, you could tell he wasn’t quite comfortable. Whether it was this offense, his new surroundings, the league, the speed of the game. But now he’s starting to settle in,” Cummings said. “Now he’s playing with a little more swagger.”
Evans remains raw and needs to refine his route running and understanding of the position. But he’s learning quickly under the tutelage of veteran Vincent Jackson. And Evans’ breakout against the Redskins offered glimpses into his ultimate potential and his developing chemistry with McCown.
4. The Bucs’ shaky offensive line and mediocre running attack leave them vulnerable.
An overhaul up front hasn’t paid dividends in Tampa Bay with the Bucs’ starting five of left tackle Anthony Collins, left guard Logan Mankins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, right guard Patrick Omameh and right tackle Demar Dotson struggling to jell.
Mankins, acquired in an August trade with New England, has been incosistent and, at times, has seemed disinterested. The Bucs haven’t consistently opened holes in the running game and, as a team, have put up more than 100 yards rushing just once since Week 2.
The team’s leading rusher, Bobby Rainey, averages 4.3 yards per carry and has 392 rushing yards for the season.
“The line has been nowhere near as strong as they thought it would be,” Cummings said. “No one’s been very good up there individually. And as a group, they haven’t been very good. So we’re now at a point where you wonder can they be any good.”