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Lovie Smith focused on fixing Bucs, not Bears reunion

Lovie Smith has fond memories of his time with Bears as he prepares to bring his Bucs to Soldier Field.

TAMPA, Fla. — It was 35 degrees warmer and Lovie Smith's hat and sweatshirt had different colors and logos after Wednesday's practice at One Buc Place, but if you closed your eyes, you pictured him at Halas Hall delivering the same message.

His glass is perpetually half-full and he's staying the course with the Buccaneers 2-8 entering Sunday's game at Soldier Field.

Losses have piled up quicker than expected, but coming off a 27-7 victory over the Redskins, maybe things are beginning to settle. Predictably, he's not treating his return to Chicago as special.

"I got paid by four schools in one calendar year so I have a lot of former places I have been through," said Smith, who coached 13 players remaining with the Bears. "It's always fun playing people you know but no more than that.

"My memories of my time are in Chicago are all great. I have lifetime friends from Chicago. I don't have many bad memories on any place I have ever been. We won a lot of games. That is what I remember. And the fans there were awesome when we were winning all those games."

A multitude of factors have dragged Tampa down. The Bucs have held a lead in the fourth quarter of five losses. The defense ranks 30th in points allowed and 27th in yards. That's not Smith's brand of football and neither is what the Bears have played since he departed.

"I was invested in a lot of the players there so it was disappointing they were struggling some," he said of watching the team last season.

The Falcons bombed the Tampa for 56 points in Week 3, and the Bucs surrendered 153 points in a five-game losing streak before Sunday's victory at FedEx Field. In Week 9, the Browns converted three third-and-longs leading to two field goals in the Bucs' 22-17 loss.

They were supposed to be good on defense as Smith inherited under tackle Gerald McCoy and weak-side linebacker Lavonte David, maybe the best at their respective positions in the NFL.

The Bucs made a splash in free agency, ramping up expectations. They dumped cornerback Darrelle Revis because they didn't want to pay him $16 million. The money was spread out, but the buys haven't exactly paid off. Defensive end Michael Johnson, slowed by a high ankle sprain and hand injury, cornerback Alterraun Verner and left tackle Anthony Collins have struggled.

"It takes a while to get your system in and us all to get on the same page," Smith said. "You just kind of add up how we've played since the bye week, there is marked improvement in every area."

McCoy, who is second among NFL defensive tackles with 61/2 sacks, echoed things you heard when Smith put down roots at Halas Hall a decade ago.

"If everybody does their part at a high level, this is a very scary defense as you have seen in the past," he said. "We still don't have it, but I think last Sunday (six sacks, three takeaways) was a sign of what could be if we put it all together. It works when we put it all together.

"Guys trust it but at times are trying to do more than what they are asked. But in this defense you only have to do your part. Discipline is what it takes on every level."

The offense has issues. Smith's handpicked coordinator, Jeff Tedford, took a leave of absence for a heart procedure after the third week of preseason right after the Bucs rolled the Bills, jumping out to a 24-0 lead at halftime with the starters in place. Sure, it was only preseason, but things were clicking.

With Tedford gone and not returning, the offense was turned over to 34-year-old Marcus Arroyo, the quarterbacks coach and a career college assistant who was the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss last year. In some games, the Bucs simply couldn't move the ball. Quarterback Josh McCown, before a hand injury sidelined him, was pressing and a revamped line bolstered with a late-August trade for guard Logan Mankins struggled.

"It was tough," McCown said. "You've got Marcus in his first job in the NFL and it's, 'Oh, by the way, you've got to call plays too.' That's not an easy task for anyone, but nobody has complained. I think we're catching up now."

It puts Smith in a position where he will likely be seeking his sixth offensive coordinator in 11 seasons to begin 2015. Maybe the team will be in position with one of the top picks in the draft to claim a quarterback because while the Bucs talk about Mike Glennon, a third-round pick a year ago, being the quarterback of the future, he would be playing right now if he were that guy.

There are six games remaining with room to grow, and wide receiver Mike Evans, a first-round pick, is a candidate for offensive rookie of the year after catching 25 passes for 536 yards and five touchdowns in the last four games. The Bucs hope third-round pick Charles Sims can be a multidimensional running back similar to Matt Forte.

It's a building process, one that leads Smith back to a team he built pretty well for a stretch.

"Lovie has never wavered," McCoy said. "He has never gotten off his path and he comes in every day with a smile even when he doesn't want to. It makes you want to go to work. If your coach comes in angry and fussing and yelling, it would make it tough. We get it. We've got to win for this guy."

bmbiggs@tribpub.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

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