The Bears are coming off their bye and are hopefully a little healthier as they make the stretch run through the second half of the season.
If last week’s game against the Vikings was any indication, the Bears may have a little hope yet for the final eight games of 2016.
Right off the bat in the second half the Bears go to Tampa Bay (3-5), then go to play the New York Giants (5-3) and then come home to host Tennessee (4-5) and San Francisco (1-7). The next four weeks offer three winnable games.
However, that’s what was said when the Bears had Dallas, Detroit, Jacksonville and Indianapolis coming up in late September-early October.
First things first though:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
SB Nation site: Bucs Nation
Record: 3-5, third in the NFC South
Last week: 43-28 loss to the Falcons on Thursday Night Football
Bears all-time record against: 38-18
Historical match ups: Younger fans might not remember this but there was a time when the Bucs were a division rival of the Bears in the old NFC Central days (pre-2002) so they used to play each other twice a season. Between 1983 and 1988, the Bears actually won 12 straight against Tampa. The Bears clinched their playoff spot in 2001 when they defeated the Bucs 27-3 in Week 14.
Last meeting: 26-21 Bears win in Week 16 last season. Ka’Deem Carey scored two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving).
Key injuries: WR Mike Evans is making his way through concussion protocol, but participated fully Wednesday. The backfield is extremely depleted: RB Doug Martin was limited and Jacquizz Rodgers did not practice. QB Jameis Winston did suffer a knee injury last week but participated fully. Starting guard Kevin Pamphile was held out of Wednesday’s practice as well.
Offense: The Bucs enter Sunday with an offense ranked 14th in yards and 18th in points.
The Bucs rank 17th in passing offense and 15th in rushing but could be without their two main backs.
Winston has proven to be a capable QB, throwing for over 2,000 yards so far this season, 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions. However, his completion percentage is under 60 percent (59.2). WR Mike Evans is highly productive (55 rec./745 yds/8 TDs) and is backed by Adam Humphries (30/337/1), TE Cameron Brate (28/291/4) and Russell Shepard (10/123/2).
With so many of their RBs shelved, Peyton Barber (27 car./122 yds./1 TD/4.5 YPC) and Mike James, who was recently signed, will do the heavy lifting for the Bucs rush game. Martin could make a return this week but that looks to be iffy at best.
Defense: Coming in ranked 28th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed, the Tampa Bay defense is hardly a stout unit.
They are 27th in passing defense and 25th in rushing defense. Their defense has allowed eight rushing touchdowns and 18 passing touchdowns.
The stand out defensive players for the Bucs include linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David as well as defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who leads the team in sacks with 3.5. Rookie DE Noah Spence has added three sacks so far.
While those names are familiar to many, Alexander is the most outstanding player for Tampa this season. He’s registered an interception, two sacks and the only defensive TD the unit has scored.
Cornerback Brent Grimes has played well for them as well, racking up 12 pass deflections and one interception. Rookie Vernon Hargreaves, the CB that Tampa got at the Bears’ draft spot after the latter traded up for Leonard Floyd, has played much like a rookie: some bright spots but also has been burned by WRs like Amari Cooper and Julio Jones.
Key match ups: The Bears offense has a bit of an advantage in this showdown, on paper anyway.
The Bucs are tied for 18th in terms of defensive sacks and their rush defense is lacking as well, meaning the Bears’ OL should be able to get some push and open up running lanes for Jordan Howard and Jeremy Langford.
Jay Cutler should be able to find some guys downfield as Tampa’s secondary is allowing opposing QBs a collective 103.5 QB rating.
While Julio Jones is other-worldly, Alshon Jeffery and Jay Cutler should be excited about the 8 catches, 111 yards and touchdown that the former was able to get against the Tampa secondary last week.
For the defense, the Bears should be able to get after Winston, especially if Eddie Goldman returns to the line up. Winston has been sacked 19 times this season and a couple of their linemen are banged up.
The Bears will have a hard time matching up against Mike Evans, if he clears concussion protocol but outside of him the Bucs don’t have a scary receiving threat.
What to watch for: The Bears need to go with their typical old-school approach: shutdown the run early, force the Bucs to throw and hope Winston starts to force things.
The pass rush and offense can hopefully pick up where they left off last week. The offense needs to establish the run and win time of possession.
This is the Bears’ formula for wins but if they can incorporate some of the elements they used last week, like the play action and bootlegs and things to let Cutler take shots downfield.
Key stats: The Bears have won three in a row in the series going back to 2011.
The Bucs have lost their last six at home and are 3-9 at home since the beginning of last season.
Mike Evans leads the league in TD catches.
Last year the Bears lost coming off the bye to Minnesota 23-20.