It's funny to remember in hindsight, but when the Chicago Bears were coming off of a well-timed bye week last season before a visit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they were seemingly the most confident 2-6 NFL team of all time. Of course, they fell 36-10 in humiliating fashion to the Buccaneers, as all of that peaking conversation went out the window.
A year later, as the Bears gear up for another visit to Tampa Bay - the fourth consecutive year these two teams will meet - the conversation has shifted dramatically for both squads.
The Bears are a team rife with defensive talent looking to prove themselves as a quarterback controversy brews with former Buccaneers legend Mike Glennon and No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay, fresh off of an off-season full of hype as a preseason darling, is merely making the effort to live up to everyone's expectations. Week 2 is still early enough for most squads to maintain hope.
Before last year's contest between these two rivals ended in a rout, the story of the game logically should've been a dominant Bears pass rush. Chicago pressured Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston on 16 out of 37 drop backs according to Pro Football Focus's numbers and sacked him four times. That's incredulously dominant. That's eye-popping. Most of that ransacking was done with a four man rush, as the Bears only blitzed on six of those pass plays.
Ultimately, it wasn't enough, as proven by the final score and a multitude of other lackadaisical factors for Chicago on both offense (turnover ratio) and defense (finishing plays). A year later and ideally a year wiser, the Bears' pass rush will again define their success against Tampa Bay, provided they're prepared to maximize the multitude of opportunities they're sure to receive.
What was noted by many is how often Bears' outside linebackers such as Leonard Floyd, dropped back into coverage instead of getting after Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Week 1.
Atlanta's offense is predicated on efficiency, quick releases, and using it's two-headed monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman as a multi-purpose weapon out of the backfield. The retreat plan worked, even despite big play breakdowns to Austin Hooper, as both Freeman and Coleman together couldn't top 100 yards overall from scrimmage. Defensive versatility and athleticism won the day, or at least, kept the Bears in the game until the very end.
As the ledger of history and offensive tendencies will show, the Bears' game plan against the Buccaneers will and should be dramatically different regarding it's pass rushers.
That's because the Winston-Buccaneers are a deep shot, slow developing play action offense. The entire focus of this attack is to have Winston use his cannon of an arm as much as possible to unleash bombs to superstar receiver Mike Evans. That's evidenced by 67.8 percent of Winston's 4,078 yards in 2016 coming through the air (very limited yards after the catch) - second only to ironically, the Bears' Matt Barkley. With one of the NFL's best deep threats in DeSean Jackson added in the off-season, as well as new first-round stud tight end, O.J. Howard, expect this trend of deep shots to only continue.
While the Buccaneers prefer to proliferate Winston's talents as a passer, it leaves him susceptible to hits for the incredible lack of efficiency it demands - and naturally the turnovers he's bound to produce (his 18 interceptions in 2016 were the second-most in the NFL). It's a Tampa Bay big play offense that takes a lot of risk that leaves the quarterback quite vulnerable for defenses to enjoy relative success. (Aside: let it be known that if the Bears can't get a few takeaways of off of Winston, they probably won't do it to many other quarterbacks this season.)
In any event, all that is proven by an interesting juxtaposition: Winston had an average of 2.89 seconds to comfortably throw last year, tied for sixth-highest in the NFL. In direct effect, 54.3 percent of his passes took over 2.6 seconds to develop and be released - also sixth-highest in the league. Naturally, that time figure points directly to deep, big chunk plays in the passing game, as Winston's average depth of target at 10.8 was third-highest in the league. 46.9 percent of his passes traveled 10 or more yards in the air. Never, ever shying away from the big play.
What you have here in Winston is essentially a gunslinger with no regard for the defense in front of him - by design. Those cannons firing off at Raymond James Stadium are an accurate depiction of the Tampa Bay offense.
This is partly why some of the Bears' dynamic pass rushers were able to enjoy such success against Winston and the Buccaneers last year. From 12 quarterback hurries in total (four from Floyd) to four sacks and four quarterback hits, Bears defenders might as well have been asking Winston for his lunch money any time they saw him in the backfield with how they were bullying him.
The reason Tampa still put up 36 points on a hapless Bears team is as mentioned, careless turnovers (for example a pick-six of Jay Cutler by Chris Conte) and poor finishing of crucial situation plays - most notably by Chicago's prized defensive piece in Floyd. Apologies for the incoming post traumatic stress disorder.
Jameis Winston will be talking about this one for a long, long time. https://t.co/TK8LamBlAv— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@TBBuccaneers) November 13, 2016
If you're going to come free the way Floyd does there, that has to be a sack. Bar none. If you're going to have a second shot to bring down Winston in the same sequence, that has to be a sack, bar none. But it wasn't, and what sholud've been a routine play at the very start of the third quarter, instead became an early dagger to Evans.
Three individual and careless plays essentially washed away a dominant effort by the Bears' front seven to pressure Winston. Given past trends though, the Bears will have a similar shot to again abuse the 23-year-old Winston. When it happens this Sunday, there needs to be a better presence of discipline across all levels.
This high-risk, high-reward offense is simply who the Buccaneers are. In offensive totality - Tampa's game against the Bears included - Winston was under pressure on 38.3 percent of his drop backs in 2016 - 12th highest in the NFL. While under pressure, he only completed 47.8 percent of his passes - just 17th in the league.
Combine the factors of a merely okay offensive line, an offense designed around Winston sitting in the pocket waiting for matters to develop, and you have the recipe for Floyd, Akiem Hicks, and company to redeem themselves and put on another masterful pass rush show. If there were ever a game to breakout, you'd have Sunday circled in bright red.
The Bears are almost certain to call the dogs on more often than they did against the Falcons and get quite a few cracks at Winston yet again this time around. They'd be mistaken not to. The likely key to this game will be making every hit and chance in the backfield count - or else.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.
*All numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus