NFC North: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Only the Lions are in the playoff picture heading into the last six weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers can play spoiler and give a damaging blow to the Lions' playoff hopes.
The Buccaneers will try to do that with a rejuvenated defense that caught the eye of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
“They are an extremely talented defense,” Stafford said. “Probably the most talented defense we've played all year.”
ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Pat Yasinskas (Buccaneers) break down Sunday's matchup.
Rothstein: What has happened over the past couple of weeks to turn this Tampa team around?
Yasinskas: The short answer is that the Bucs suddenly have gotten much better at finishing games, a huge problem early in the season. But it goes much deeper than that. Coach Greg Schiano has a reputation for being stubborn and inflexible. But he's changed in recent weeks. His mood has been lighter on the practice field and when he's met with the media. More importantly, he's adjusted some things on the field. He's stopped stunting so much on the defensive line, and that's created more straight-ahead rushes for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Schiano has used cornerback Darrelle Revis in more man-to-man coverage after playing him in a lot of zone early in the season. The Bucs also have been running the ball much better, and that's a tribute to the offensive line.
Speaking of McCoy, he and Ndamukong Suh came out in the same draft, and early on, it looked like Suh clearly was the better player. But McCoy has been outstanding of late. What kind of a year is Suh having?
Rothstein: Suh's actual statistics are fairly pedestrian and wouldn't really stand out to anyone if they were just watching Detroit from afar. But he has faced a lot of double-teams throughout the season and has been somewhat consistent throughout the year. He played his best in the two games against Chicago -- four quarterback hurries in Week 10, two sacks in Week 4 -- but he and the rest of the Detroit defensive line almost inexplicably struggled to reach Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this past Sunday.
Detroit has not blitzed much this season, putting a lot of pressure on the front four, starting with Suh.
That'll lead into my next question -- how has Mike Glennon been progressing this season, and how does he move when he is pushed in the pocket a little bit?
Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise. He was thrown into the lineup when Josh Freeman was benched, and he struggled at first. But Glennon has steadily improved and has been very good in recent weeks. He had only three incompletions in Sunday's victory over Atlanta. He's shown poise and leadership. Glennon's strength is his big arm, and the Bucs are trying to develop more of a deep passing game. They showed signs that's catching on when Vincent Jackson caught two long passes against the Falcons.
I first saw Glennon when I was covering the filming of "Gruden's QB Camp" this past spring. Watching Glennon's college tape, I thought he didn't have the mobility to succeed in the NFL. As it turns out, I was wrong. Glennon is not a running threat, but he's not a statue, either. He's been extending some plays by scrambling.
Speaking of deep passing games, the matchup I can't wait to see is Calvin Johnson against Revis. I saw the Lions-Steelers game, and it seemed like Johnson disappeared in the second half. What was all that about? Revis and Johnson went head-to-head in a 2010 game, and Johnson caught just one pass for 13 yards. Do you see Revis, with a little bit of help, being help to keep Johnson quiet?
Rothstein: It depends on what Tampa tries to do defensively. When teams have tried covering Johnson with single coverage, he's destroyed opponents. It happened a good amount against Dallas and early against Pittsburgh. It goes to the situation most teams have had to face this season -- do you double-team Johnson and give a lighter box to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, or do you play single high to focus on Bell and Bush and put Johnson in lighter coverage?
That said, Revis is one of the best corners in the league -- something Stafford acknowledged Tuesday -- and it should be an intriguing matchup Sunday. Johnson likes going against the top corners in the league and has had some success this season in those matchups, notably against Arizona's Patrick Peterson (six catches, 116 yards, two touchdowns) and Dallas' Brandon Carr (14 catches, 329 yards).
One of the other ways teams have had success against Detroit is to pressure Stafford, which hasn't been easy this season. It goes back to that first question with McCoy, but is he the key to any pressure Tampa might get?
Yasinskas: McCoy is the central piece of the defensive line, and everything feeds off him. But he's not alone in the pass rush. End Adrian Clayborn has some pass-rush skills, and the Bucs have started lining up outside linebacker Dekoda Watson as a rush end. But the Bucs also like to use their linebackers as blitzers, and Lavonte David (five sacks) is a very good pass-rusher. But it all goes back to McCoy. The Bucs rely on him to push the quarterback off the spot, and the other players can clean up.
You mentioned Bush. At least from a distance, it seemed like he got himself in the doghouse by fumbling against Pittsburgh. Is Bush in good graces with the coaching staff, or will we see less of him Sunday?
Rothstein: Doghouse? No. But he needs to work on protecting the ball better and hanging on to it, period. He's struggled with drops all season and lost fumbles two of the past three weeks. He's too big a weapon for Detroit to move away from him -- especially at home -- but if he continues on this trend, Bell might steal some of his snaps.
What it means: The Bears finished their first seven games in 2010 with a 4-3 record, and ended up advancing all the way to the NFC title game. So in addition to giving themselves an opportunity to potentially gain a game in the divisional standings on Detroit, the Bears surely see this victory as a positive omen of what could come after the bye.
No jet lag: The Bears didn’t necessarily put forth a vintage performance, but the team didn’t appear to show any signs of suffering from jet lag.
The Buccaneers arrived early on Monday to get themselves acclimated to the time difference. The Bears, meanwhile, didn’t show up until Thursday night.
It didn’t matter.
Led by a strong performance from Matt Forte, the Bears built a 14-5 halftime lead. Quarterback Jay Cutler completed 8-of-14 for 95 yards in the first half with a touchdown and an interception.
Strong start for OL: The Bears continued their tactics of shorter drops, tight end help and running backs staying in on passes to chip block, with the team benefiting in the first half.
The Buccaneers significantly pressured Cutler in the first half, but the quarterback used his mobility and throwaways to avoid sacks.
Tampa Bay’s Adrian Clayborn zipped into the backfield in the third quarter to finally sack Cutler for a 2-yard loss. The Bears have allowed just one sack in each of the past two games. The team has also given up only one sack in three of the past four outings.
Unlucky 14th: Kicker Robbie Gould came into Sunday’s game having made all 13 of his field goal attempts on the season, but missed a 41-yard try in the third quarter.
Gould is now 50-of-69 in his career on field goal attempts from distances of 40 to 49 yards.
Williams finds end zone: Bears receiver Roy Williams made up for dropping a ball early in the game when he hauled in a 25-yard pass with 7:49 left to play in the opening half. The touchdown was Williams’ first as a Bear, and broke a lengthy scoring drought for the receiver.
Before the game Sunday, Williams hadn’t caught a touchdown pass in 371 days. Williams last scored a touchdown on Oct. 17, 2010, (as a Dallas Cowboy), when the receiver pulled in two scoring grabs against the Minnesota Vikings.
What’s next: The Bears take the week off and are idle next Sunday before travelling to Philadelphia for a Nov. 7 clash against the Eagles on "Monday Night Football."
How would Chicago's season have turned out in 2008 had it not lost fourth-quarter leads at Carolina and against Tampa Bay during successive September weekends? If the rest of the season played out with no changes, the Bears would have won the NFC North with an 11-5 record.
ESPN Stats & Information offers a statistical comparison that could assuage that concern. Newly-acquired quarterback Jay Cutler had a 94.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter last season, more than 30 points higher than the Bears' combination of Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman. Here are the figures, courtesy Allison Wachs:
After reading the Black and Blue post below, make sure you check out the AFC West blog of our colleague Bill Williamson. (Thanks to Alex of Minneapolis for the suggestion for top-to-bottom readers.)
According to Williamson, the four most serious teams in the Jay Cutler sweepstakes are Washington, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and -- yes -- the Black and Blue's own Chicago Bears. The Redskins are getting most of the public attention right now because they could include quarterback Jason Campbell and possibly cornerback Carlos Rogers in the deal, but the Bears do have a better complement of draft picks to offer if it comes to that.
Also, as we discussed Wednesday, the Bears could send Kyle Orton to the Broncos as at least a short-term solution. Campbell has probably performed better than Orton during their short careers, but not by a dramatic margin. (Campbell's career passer rating is 80.1. Orton's is 71.1.)
So I think it's fair to say the Bears are seriously considering this opportunity. Will they ultimately pull off the deal? If they do, they'll have to overcome the most aggressive owner in the NFL. Washington's Dan Snyder doesn't usually get outbid when he wants to make a deal.
Rounding up a few items of note on Wednesday in the NFC North:
- Minnesota re-signed defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, whom they originally added late last season during the Williams Wall/StarCaps saga. Once again, Kennedy will give the Vikings veteran insurance if the four-game suspensions of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams -- currently tied up in a Minnesota courtroom -- are ultimately upheld.
- Free-agent linebacker Angelo Crowell visited Detroit. Crowell missed all of last season after undergoing a procedure in September to improve a kneecap condition known as chondromalacia, but is expected to make a full recovery in time for training camp. Crowell visited Tampa Bay earlier this week, according to NFL.com. His older brother is former Lions receiver Germane Crowell, who played in Detroit from 1998-2002.
- Chicago released guard Terrence Metcalf, which was no surprise following the free-agent signing of Frank Omiyale. Metcalf lost his starting job last season to Josh Beekman after suffering a knee injury and then serving a four-game NFL suspension.
Punch-drunk with playoff fever, many of you have asked what it would take for Minnesota to secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff picture and a first-round bye.
There have been plenty of scenarios presented in various comment sections of this blog, so let's bring them all together and provide a definitive look. Every scenario requires the Vikings to win their final two games and is aided by the current top seeds, Carolina and the New York Giants, facing off Sunday night at Giants Stadium.
Let's look at the two primary possibilities:
1. Vikings win out. Carolina loses out. Both teams finish 11-5. New York Giants take No. 1 seed. Vikings take No. 2 seed based on head-to-head tiebreaker with the Panthers. (Minnesota 20, Carolina 10 on Sept. 21.)
2. Vikings win out. Carolina wins at least one game. Giants lose out. Vikings and Giants finish 11-5. Carolina takes No. 1 seed. Vikings take No. 2 seed based on head-to-head tiebreaker with Giants. (In order to win out, the Vikings will have to defeat the Giants on Dec. 28.)
There is one complication, however. Carolina hasn't yet secured the NFC South title. Tampa Bay (9-5) or Atlanta (9-5) could win out and overtake the Panthers for the division title.
If the Buccaneers win the division, they would take the No. 2 seed because of a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings. (Tampa Bay 19, Minnesota 13 on Nov. 16.) The Vikings and Falcons square off this weekend, so if Atlanta wins the division, that means the Vikings would have lost at least one of their final two games and would not be a factor for the No. 2 seed.
Hope that makes sense. There will be a quiz on Friday.
Bit of an unusual weekend here at the Black and Blue. We'll be heading down to New Orleans in a few hours for the big Monday night affair between Green Bay and the Saints. As a result, we won't be at a Sunday game.
The division's three other teams all have 1 p.m. ET kickoffs, so check back here Sunday evening for a few thoughts on each of the games. (If you have some thoughts, send 'em here.)
For now, let's take a Sunday stroll around the division:
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune takes a look at each position in the Tampa-2 defense to find out how they mesh with the Bears' personnel.
- The Bears should run right at St. Louis rookie defensive end Chris Long on Sunday, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Sunday's game at the Edward Jones Dome features two teams whose expertise -- defense for Bears, offense for the Rams -- has been tarnished, writes Nick Hut of the Northwest Herald.
- Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune looks for reasons why Minnesota has only six interceptions this season, including two on the road. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier suggests opponents aren't throwing downfield as much because of the Vikings' improved pass rush.
- Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune examines the mentality that inspires players to stay on the field with painful injuries. "If you're 50-50, you can go," offensive lineman Artis Hicks said. "That's the mindset that you have to have."
- Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press gets the last word on the Mike Tice-Brad Childress story line: "Tice did more with less while Childress has done less with more."
- Beating Tampa Bay last season was special for ex-Buccaneers assistant Rod Marinelli, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
- After getting fired as Green Bay's quarterbacks coach after the 1999 season, Mike McCarthy spent multiple nights at a Kinko's in Green Bay working on a plan to be the next offensive coordinator in New Orleans. He got the job, an important turn in his career, writes Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal.
- The Packers changed their in-season weight-training regimen from circuit to basic training after a bye-week self-scouting exercise, according to Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
It appears the Chicago Bears are making a bold move to improve their return game after 10 weeks of decidedly average performances.
Danieal Manning is expected to replace Devin Hester as the primary kickoff returner Sunday at St. Louis, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper reported that "nothing is set in stone" but noted Manning has worked as the top returner throughout practice this week.
Manning replaced Hester in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 37-3 loss at Green Bay, part of a series of moves to use backups for mop-up duty. Coach Lovie Smith said earlier this week that he liked what he saw from Manning last Sunday, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times, the first indication the Bears were considering a change.
Manning has a career average of 24.9 yards per kickoff return and averaged 44.2 yards during the preseason. Hester has gone without a touchdown return this season, either on kickoffs or punts, but Manning said his job is more basic.
"They're not asking me to return and score every time I touch the ball," Manning said. "It's all about field position, ball security. And that's what I do."
Good for the Bears if they follow through with this move. Hester has appeared overwhelmed at times as he returns kickoffs, punts and plays receiver full-time. Earlier this week, former Bears great Gale Sayers said Hester looked "afraid." You could make an argument that reducing Hester's responsibilities as a receiver might be better for everyone, but at least the team isn't willing to stand pat indefinitely.
Continuing around the NFC North on a chilly Saturday morning in the upper Midwest:
- The Bears believe the controlled environment of the Edward Jones Dome could help them get their passing game back on track, writes Nick Hut of the Northwest Herald.
- Green Bay receiver Donald Driver returned to practice Friday after spending several days visiting his hospitalized father in Houston. Driver said his father is doing "fair" after an incident with police following a traffic stop, writes Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Packers left tackle Chad Clifton, 32, wants to play at least three more seasons, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Chip Scoggins and Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune report that a decision on the fate of defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams won't be made until the first week of December at the earliest. If that timetable plays out, both players will be available for a critical Nov. 30 game against Chicago.
- The Vikings are expecting Jacksonville to test their run defense Sunday, writes the Star Tribune's Zulgad.
- New Detroit fullback Moran Norris deserves some credit for the recent success of rookie tailback Kevin Smith, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika and Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
- Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia completed a whopping 37 of 45 passes last season against the Lions, but his two fumbles played a big role in Detroit's 23-16 victory. Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com looks at Sunday's rematch between the two teams.
Minnesota had four possessions in the fourth quarter Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Here's how they ended:
- Punt (from Tampa Bay's 39-yard line)
- Loss of downs
Based on that rundown, it's no surprise that Tampa Bay made two fourth-quarter field goals hold up in a 19-13 victory. The Vikings played tough in a historically difficult venue for them, but ultimately they didn't give themselves a chance when it counted.
The loss dropped the Vikings into a three-way tie for first in the NFC North, but it was particularly damaging when you consider it might be their last full-strength game for a while. Defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams are scheduled to appeal their suspensions this week; if the punishments are upheld, they will miss four of the Vikings' final six games.
For that reason, you would have to consider the Vikings the least likely of the division's top three teams to emerge as champion.
It's taken a while, but it looks like former Minnesota defensive tackle Chris Hovan has grown up during his time with Tampa Bay.
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|Chris Hovan is in his fourth season with the Bucs.|
Hovan, who will face his former team Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, left Minnesota after one of the more inexplicable meltdowns in that era of the Vikings. On the cusp of the Pro Bowl in 2002, Hovan got caught up in his persona as a John Randle clone and grew highly frustrated when double teams and other obstacles limited his production. A bizarre, one-sided feud with Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre was also hard to understand.
Hovan fumed and pouted at the same time, leaving the Vikings no choice but to bench a player they once believed would be a centerpiece of their defense for a long time. Hovan signed in 2005 with Tampa Bay, whose one-gap defense proved more appropriate for his style, and abandoned his efforts to play at a high weight. (Ironically, the Vikings switched to the same one-gap style in 2006.)
Instead of playing a step slow at 320 pounds, Hovan is at about 305 pounds. He has started for the Bucs ever since, and according to this story by Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune, Hovan has cooled his volatile personality. He is now married, has three children and understands the mistakes he made with the Vikings. He called his slip in Minnesota "a slow drift" and added:
"If I could do it all again, I wish I had been drafted by Tampa, because it's been such a good fit. When I left Minnesota, I did a lot of soul-searching and then I found my soulmate. I guess life throws you curveballs once in a while."
Chicago Bears (5-4) at Green Bay Packers (4-5), 1 p.m. ET
What a huge game this will be for the Packers, no matter how the day unfolds. A victory, combined with a Minnesota loss. suddenly makes the NFC North a three-way fight over the final six weeks of the season.
On the other hand, a Bears victory at Lambeau Field would leave the Packers two games out in the division and in a tiebreaker disadvantage with the Bears. It would also turn their current slump -- five losses in seven games -- into a more serious downturn.
The Bears are hoping Kyle Orton will start at quarterback, but the bigger issue is their defensive mismatch against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his array of weapons. If Tennessee's Kerry Collins can approach 300 yards against them, what will Rodgers do?
Detroit is hoping to be more competitive in Daunte Culpepper's second start since joining the team, but the truth is they have started from scratch. Backup Drew Stanton will continue to have some sort of role as well, possibly on the goal line. We challenge you to come up with many recent examples were NFL teams have consistently won with a pre-determined quarterback rotation. There aren't many.
The Lions' best bet is to hope for self-destruction from the Panthers, who struggled last week at Oakland but have played well at home this season. They're 6-0 at Bank of America Stadium -- well, 5-0 at this moment. But it seems like 6-0 is just a formality.
Minnesota Vikings (5-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3), 1 p.m. ET
The Vikings' recent history in Tampa has drawn the interest of a few skeptics this week. And yes, it's true the Buccaneers have won the past five games at Raymond James Stadium and eight of the past 10 between the two in Tampa.
But the bigger obstacle for Minnesota might be the Bucs' quick-hitting pass game, which can take the legs out of a good pass rush. Tampa Bay quarterbacks have only been sacked 10 times this season, and the Vikings might not get many hits on quarterback Jeff Garcia. If the game plays out that way, Minnesota will be robbed of one of its most valuable game-changing strengths.
There is also some curiosity about what Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin might come up with after two weeks to prepare for tailback Adrian Peterson and quarterback Gus Frerotte. Tampa Bay has 12 interceptions this season, and Frerotte has been more than willing to serve them up of late. It's a bad combination for the Vikings.
It appears Madieu Williams' consecutive games streak will end at two this weekend. The Minnesota safety is doubtful for Sunday's game at Tampa Bay because of a left shoulder injury, one that apparently occurred Wednesday during the Vikings' special teams practice.
Williams missed the first seven games of the season because of a neck injury. But he had played well since his return -- intercepting a pass in the end zone Nov. 2 against Houston and tackling Green Bay receiver Donald Driver short of a first down on the penultimate play of last Sunday's 28-27 victory over the Packers.
Coach Brad Childress said he will give Williams another 48 hours before making a final decision on his status. And it should be noted that defensive end Jared Allen played against the Packers after being designated as doubtful on the injury report. By definition, however, there is a 75 percent chance that Williams won't play against the Bucs.
Speaking to Minnesota reporters, Williams said he took a "nasty" fall while lunging for a ball during the special teams practice.
After losing nickel back Charles Gordon (ankle) for the season, the Vikings are on track to enter Sunday's game without two of their top five defensive backs. Rookie Tyrell Johnson would replace Williams in the starting lineup, while veteran Benny Sapp will take over in the nickel for Gordon.
They've tried just about everything. One year, the Minnesota Vikings held a players-only dinner in Tampa the night before a game against the Buccaneers, hoping to promote unity while protecting players from the usual large contingent of visitors at a game in Florida. Another time, they arrived a day earlier than normal to acclimate to warm weather and give players a chance to let loose on a Friday night before things got serious on Sunday.
None of it has worked. For reasons no one can really explain -- other than the Bucs' apparent superiority -- the Vikings have lost five consecutive games against their former division rivals. They last won at Tampa Bay in 1997 and overall have lost eight of their past 10 games there since the start of the 1993 season.
They'll get another chance Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, where they've gone winless since the structure opened in 1998. In preparation, coach Brad Childress has acknowledged one alteration to the weekly routine -- raising each player's hydration standards -- but otherwise said he didn't feel compelled to examine the series' history for common threads.
"Not unless there was an eclipse of the sun, an earthquake or a plane had to crash-land," Childress said. "I don't think there was anything of biblical proportions that happened there, aside from getting beat. I'm more worried about getting us ready for Tampa Bay, the 2008 team."
In the three most recent games, the Bucs' margin of victory has averaged 23 points. Vikings center Matt Birk, who has been with the team since 1998, noted the Vikings fell behind early in all three of those games but said he could think of no other common themes.
"I guess the sun there isn't good for white, pale-skinned people like me," Birk said, laughing. "But if we knew what the problem was back then, we would have fixed it. You also have to take into account that Tampa Bay has been a pretty good team for a long time. Give them some credit."
Game-time temperatures Sunday are expected to hover around 70 degrees, a relatively cool temperature in Tampa Bay. Nevertheless it's about 40 degrees warmer than the Twin Cities this week. To compensate, Childress said he has asked players to "take the part of keeping that battery full."
He added: "That's something that they can take on them with a little help from a friend, whether it's some Gatorade in their room or what have you. There's no sense in being low. I always say, 'Take care of things that take no talent.' I takes no talent to think and take a drink from a bottle of water."
Maybe that will help.
Interesting move today in Bearsland. Chicago released receiver Mark Bradley, a former second-round draft pick who at one point seemed to have the inside track on a starting position, and claimed cornerback Marcus Hamilton on waivers from Tampa Bay.
Hamilton made his NFL debut against the Bears last Sunday at Soldier Field, finishing with two defensed passes. The Buccaneers waived him Monday, probably hoping they could sneak him onto their practice squad.
Bradley's career was never the same after he tore an ACL during his rookie year in 2005. Some hoped he could replace Bernard Berrian in the starting lineup this season, but he had a quiet training camp and was only on the field for one snap in three games, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' weekly playing time analysis.