Sunday Matchups: Bears-Bucs
October, 23, 2011
By Michael C. Wright | ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO BEARS (3-3) VS. BUCCANEERS (4-2), 12:00 p.m. Sunday at Wembley Stadium on FOX
|Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman ranks among the best young quarterbacks in the league. Eight of his 17 career wins have come by way of fourth-quarter/overtime comebacks, including five last season (the most in the NFL). Thanks to improved protection, Chicago’s Jay Cutler is riding a hot streak in which he’s thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions over the past two games while posting passer ratings of at least 99.6.|
| Matt Forte is just 92 yards shy of reaching 1,000 all-purpose yards. So Forte could walk out of Wembley Stadium with yet another major accomplishment. Tiki Barber (1,100 yards) and Priest Holmes (1,017) were the last two players to reach 1,000-all purpose yards in the first seven games of a season back in 2004. Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount is a force, too. Blount, however, won’t play because of a knee injury. He will be replaced in the starting lineup by Earnest Graham.
| Considered a 2010 draft steal, second-year Buccaneer WR Mike Williams set the franchise record as a rookie with 11 receiving touchdowns. He is complemented by tight end Kellen Winslow (team-high 27 catches) and former Illinois star Arrelious Benn (team-best 16.2 yards per catch, and team-high 2 TDs). The possible return of Earl Bennett could considerably improve Chicago’s receiving corps, which has shown signs of progress in recent weeks.
| The Bears will utilize the same combinations of starters in consecutive games for just the second time this season; it appears the club has come up with a formula (keeping tight ends in on passes, and chipping from running backs) to adequately protect Cutler. Tampa Bay used eight different lineup combinations up front last season, but the protection hasn’t missed a beat. Having surrendered nine sacks, the Bucs are tied for fourth-fewest sacks allowed in the league.
| The Bucs are in the midst of a rebuilding process along the defensive line with the club having used four high picks over the last two drafts on defensive linemen. Of the team’s 10 sacks, six have come from the young defensive line. Chicago’s front four, meanwhile, features a mix of youth and experience, and is led by arguably the most talented defensive lineman in the game in Julius Peppers. The addition of Amobi Okoye and rookie Stephen Paea makes the Bears’ interior more active.
| Lance Briggs leads the Bears with 61 tackles, followed by Brian Urlacher, who hasn’t put forth a double-digit tackle performance since Oct. 2. Nick Roach rebounded last week after a one-tackle game in the loss to the Detroit Lions. Tampa Bay’s young, active linebacking corps is led by rookie MLB Mason Foster, who leads all rookies in tackles (42), and Chicago native Quincy Black.
| Buccaneers corners Aquib Talib and Ronde Barber combined for nine interceptions in 2010. So far this season, all but one member of Tampa Bay’s secondary has picked off at least one pass. Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman has been the most consistent member of a Bears defensive backfield that hasn’t performed up to standards due to shoddy play from the safety position.
| With the best return man in the NFL in Devin Hester, the Bears face one of the league’s most dominant special-teams units in terms of kickoff and punt coverage. The Buccaneers are limiting teams’ starting field position after kickoffs to the 18.8 yard line, and kicker Michael Koenen has the third-most touchbacks since 2005 (120), in addition to landing 162 punts inside the 20 over that same span.
| Raheem Morris’ fiery disposition contrasts sharply with Lovie Smith’s stoicism. Still, Morris has produced results over a short period. Last season, the Buccaneers became the first team since the 1970 merger to start 10 or more rookies and finish the season with a winning record (10-6). Strong coaching plays a major role in that success. The Bears are attempting to navigate crisis after crisis, ranging from contract issues to relationships between the quarterback and offensive coordinator. But if any coach can handle such a challenge, it’s Smith, who hopes to come out of this game in the same position the club was in last season (4-3), when it went on to reel off five straight victories on the way to an NFC Championship Game berth.
| The absence of Tampa Bay running back LaGarrette Blount could loom large over the Buccaneers, considering their reliance on the rushing attack. But Chicago’s decision to travel to London on Thursday night might come back to haunt this team. The Bears’ roster features 12 players age 29 or older, and the club faces the league’s youngest team (average age of 25), which will be better rested after arriving in London on Monday. Don’t underestimate the significance of the travel arrangements made by these teams. The fatigue from long travel and the time difference will be a factor.
|PREDICTION: Buccaneers 21, Bears 20.|