A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Buccaneers on Oct. 23, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Buccaneers defense
The Bears surprised many last week with their decision to keep extra blockers in to help protect Jay Cutler in the passing game. The result was a more efficient offense that allowed Cutler to look down the field rather than resort to checkdowns under heavy pressure. His first two passes were a 17-yarder to Roy Williams and a 48-yard touchdown to Devin Hester. The Buccaneers don’t have a fearsome pass rush by any stretch — just 10 sacks on the season (ranked No. 22) — but the Bears should continue to use max protection to try to give Cutler more time in the pocket because it’s amazing what he can do with a little time. Tampa Bay has been a bit better stopping the run than the pass but they’re not particularly good at either. Matt Forte should have a busy game and we should see Mike Martz continue to call a balanced game plan as he has for the past three weeks. Earl Bennett is listed as probable after missing the last four games with a chest injury, but there have been conflicting reports as to whether he’ll suit up this week or if the Bears will wait until after the bye week. He would give the Bears offense an extra weapon with reliable hands. Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is listed as questionable with an ankle injury and will be a game-time decision. If he can’t go, that’ll be a big loss for the team. The Bucs have a pretty solid secondary where veteran Ronde Barber lines up at one corner opposite Aqib Talib. Barber and Talib each have one interception on the season as does free safety Tanard Jackson. Strong safety Sean Jones leads the team in tackles. Aside from the veteran Barber, the Bucs have a very young defense and the Bears could take advantage of it especially if the youngsters fail to adjust to the London experience.
Bears defense vs. Buccaneers offense
Last week’s effort against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings run game had you scratching your head and asking where that had been all season. To hold arguably the NFL’s best running back to 39 yards after allowing an average of 135.6 yards on the ground in the previous five games was a monumental feat. The Bears’ fortunes may be picking up a little this season as they likely will not have to face Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount, who is listed as doubtful with a knee injury. Earnest Graham filled in well last week with 109 rushing yards against the Saints, but he does not inspire fear and there’s nothing special about him. He only becomes dangerous if the Bucs jump out to a big lead and let him wear down the defense in the second half. Where the Bears will face their biggest test is against Tampa Bay’s passing attack. Josh Freeman is an up-and-coming quarterback with a big arm and good mobility in the pocket. He’s only been sacked eight times, tied for sixth-fewest in the league. The Bears faced a similar quarterback in Week 4 against Carolina when Cam Newton passed for 374 yards and did not get sacked once despite constant pressure from the defense. Freeman has some talented young receivers at his disposal in Mike Williams, Preston Parker and Arrelious Benn to go with veteran tight end Kellen Winslow, who leads the team in receptions. Benn is a big threat down the field and is averaging 16.2 yards per reception. Graham, like Forte although not as versatile, is a good receiver out of the backfield for the Bucs and is third on the team in receptions. The Bears defense is mostly healthy for this game. After some initial reports that Major Wright’s status for the game was uncertain due to a hip injury, he’s been listed as probable on the last injury report. It’ll be interesting to see if Chris Harris suits up or not with the Bears knowing that Wright is nursing an injury.
Preston Parker handles the punt and kick return duties for the Buccaneers. He’s averaging 9.7 yards per punt return with a long of 23 yards and 21.3 yards per kickoff return with a long of 39 yards. He’s not a player who requires additional game-planning and he’s certainly no Devin Hester. Reports out of London say that the locals are excited to see Hester and one fan even questioned NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about why they changed the spot of the kickoff because it hurt teams with good kick returners like the Bears. Fortunately, despite the high number of touchbacks this year, Hester has still gotten the opportunity to return 14 kickoffs and he’s averaging 27.7 yards per return, fourth-most in the league among returners with at least 10 attempts. Punter Michael Koenen, in his first year with the Bucs, handles the kickoff duties and he ranks 16th in the league with 14 touchbacks. He also ranks fourth in the league in net punting with a 42.5-yard average. Adam Podlesh is not far behind with a 40.2-yard average. Koenen, however, has been one of the best coffin-corner punters in the league this year with 12 punts downed inside the 20. Robbie Gould has had a great season for the Bears, connecting on all 13 of his field goal tries, including on five kicks from beyond 40 yards. Tampa Bay’s Connor Barth has missed two of his 14 field goal attempts.
The Bears are fortunate to be playing this game at a neutral location as they have not performed well on the road this season. No one is sure what kind of crowd will show up at the game. The Bears have a good following everywhere they go, but Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer also holds controlling stakes in Manchester United. Who knows if there is any cross-sports allegiance between the two teams. Honestly, I’ve only watched part of a couple London games since the NFL started the tradition, so I can’t say objectively what the crowd noise will be. Are the fans going to be on the quiet side because they most likely don’t understand the NFL game to the fullest? Or will they be rowdy as most sports fans overseas tend to be? The reason I bring this up is because the noise, or lack thereof, will obviously play a factor into whether the Bears offensive line has any more false start penalties. Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris is a good young coach at age 35 and he leads a football team that is one of the youngest in the league. At 4-2, they sit atop the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints. They’ve had this London experience before so that could work out to their advantage. They also decided to spend the week in London to adjust to the time change but will it be a distraction for these young players? I had my doubts prior to last week’s game against the Vikings whether the Bears had much left in the tank but it appears they still have some fight left in them. I think if they maintain their offensive game plan from a week ago and also shut down the run for the second straight week, they should pull off the victory.
Final Score: Chicago 24, Tampa Bay 20