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Merry Christmas to all you who acknowledge that holiday and a happy Friday to everyone else. The Bears could use some Christmas cheer to get off the schneid and win a game.
Sunday's game isn't exactly a marquee matchup, with two teams that were eliminated from contention but each team will want to win. Tampa has lost two straight and Chicago has lost its last three.
The similarities between the two teams don't with their loss streaks. Both their QBs have played well and share similar stat lines. Rookie Jameis Winston comes in with 3,422 yards, 20 TDs, 12 INTS while Jay Cutler has 3,258 yards, 18 TDs and 8 INTs. The Bucs offense averages 22.2 and the Bears average 20.6. Their defenses rank one spot apart in yards allowed per game: 11th for Tampa (339.5) and 12th for Chicago (342.1) and nearly the same points per game, 25.2 and 25.1 respectively. Tampa's pass game is one spot behind Chicago's as well (21st for Chicago and 22nd for TB).
The stats would suggest that this will be a close game between similarly matched teams.
The Bears then, need to play with an urgency and discipline that has sadly lacked the past three games. Slow starts have doomed the Bears and lagging offense has only compounded things.
Wth such evenly matched teams, the Bears will need both sides of the ball to play at their best to win. The key for the defense will be slowing down Doug Martin and the Bucs' rushing attack. Their ground game ranks fourth in the league and it's well known how Chicago struggles against the rush (rank 16th, 125.9 YPG) so that will be difficult but imperative. In the pass game, Winston has Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson to target, as well as tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate.
On offense the Bucs rank ninth in rush defense and 19th against the pass. It should be obvious then, how to best attack Lovie Smith's Tampa 2. Lavonte David is a LB Bears fans would kill for on their subpar unit and he's flourishing under Smith's tutelage, entering the match up with 73 tackles, 12 pass deflections, three INTs, a forced fumble and two sacks.
With all this in mind, here are my picks for key players:
Jay Cutler, QB - Sure the most important position on the field is always a key player but against a weaker passing defense he will be definitely be key for a victory. I'd love to pick a receiver like Alshon Jeffery but who knows his status? It's up to Jay to target whoever is on the field and get the offense and pass game in a rhythm. It's going to be rough going against a great rush defense to get the already struggling ground game going but they will have to use it enough to be able to use play-action effectively and keep them honest. Cutler is also going to have to shoulder the load of being able to dodge pressure and not fumble when he is hit behind a line that has suddenly become worse than suspect.
John Timu, LB - It says a lot about the state of this team when I have an undrafted player listed as a key and he's only making his second start. Such is the situation for the defense but they need a playmaker to help slow down Martin and the other TB RBs. Timu led the team in tackles last week and ideally he can pick up where he left off. Shea McClellin has struggled with tackling (as has much of the defense) but it will be important for at least one of the LBs to slow Martin down at first contact.
Willie Young, LB - I'm putting two linebackers on here because the defense is going to have to play a lot better to win this game. With Pernell McPhee slowed by his nagging knee problems, Young has become the defensive difference maker who has picked up the most slack. The Bears have only one turnover in the past three games and need to change that in order to get back in the win column. They have also allowed the opposing QB to rush for a TD the past three games. Winston is as much of or more of a rush threat than Kirk Cousins, Blaine Gabbert or Teddy Bridgewater are. Young (and the other OLBs) need to get after the QB consistently and not let Winston get outside of the pocket. I feel that Young is the best equipped of the defenders to rush Winston, contain him and possibly help force a turnover.
Which players do you think will be key to a victory Sunday?