LAKE FOREST – It’s going to be a hot one.
The Bears return to action this week with a matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. It’s expected to be a high of 89 degrees with humidity over 70%. The heat could be an advantage for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay also is coming off a season-opening win over the Minnesota Vikings. Quarterback Baker Mayfield played mistake-free football, and the Bucs’ defense blitzed the heck out of Kirk Cousins and the Vikings.
The Bears find themselves needing a victory in a bad way. After the Packers ran them out of the building during a Week 1 loss at Soldier Field, the Bears face a 1-0 Bucs team with the Kansas City Chiefs looming a week later. A loss this week would put the Bears in the unenviable position of being 0-2 and needing a win on the road against Patrick Mahomes. Only six teams have made the playoffs after an 0-3 start to the season.
So, yeah, the Bears need a win this week in Tampa. The game kicks off at noon and will be broadcast on Fox. Here’s what to watch for.
1. Can the passing attack rebound?
Justin Fields and the Bears’ offense underwhelmed in the season debut. Fields threw 37 passes, but only four of them went more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Bears used an approach that featured a lot of lateral passes, and it didn’t work.
Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said this week that he felt the plan of attack was fine. It was the execution that let the Bears down, in Getsy’s eyes.
So what will the Bears look like this week against Tampa Bay? It sounds like they could look similar to last week, but the Bucs will dictate that some. Tampa Bay blitzed a league-high 44.7% of defensive plays last week against Minnesota.
Given that, it wouldn’t be surprising if Fields tries to get rid of the ball quickly.
2. Will the Bears pressure Baker Mayfield?
The Bears’ pass rush has to be better. The Bears pressured Jordan Love and the Packers on 16.7% of dropbacks. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue had the only sack. The issue that many thought the defense would have – creating pressure up front – is the problem the Bears had in the season opener. They couldn’t create any pressure when rushing four defenders, and they blitzed infrequently.
“If I’m shooting my gap, the guy next to me has a just as important job,” defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. “If I do my job right, that makes it easier on the guy next to me. It all works hand in hand, especially in those trenches.”
If I’m shooting my gap, the guy next to me has a just as important job. If I do my job right, that makes it easier on the guy next to me. It all works hand to hand, especially in those trenches.”— DeMarcus Walker, Bears defensive end
It wasn’t working hand in hand last week.
Tampa Bay protected Mayfield well last week against Minnesota. The Vikings hit him only twice, with one sack. Will head coach Matt Eberflus and the defense get creative and throw more blitzes at him? Or can the defensive line affect Mayfield while rushing four.
The Bears will be playing this game without defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who is out for a personal reason. Eberflus will call the defense.
3. Can the Bears’ offensive line handle the blitz?
As mentioned earlier, head coach Todd Bowles and the Bucs blitz a lot. Last time he played these Bucs in Tampa, Fields threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles. A lot changes in the NFL over two years, but the Bucs still have what looks like a potent defense.
The Bears’ offensive line looks like it has some kinks to work out. The communication vs. the Packers was not good enough. It has to be better against the Bucs, or Fields will be running for his life.
“Anytime you play coach Bowles, that’s what you have to prepare for,” Getsy said. “He’s as good as anybody in the league at attacking you on offense, being aggressive.”
Right guard Nate Davis and left tackle Braxton Jones have to be better. Both had rough games against the Packers. Jones and rookie right tackle Darnell Wright will be tested in this game. Bucs outside linebacker Shaq Barrett is a handful.
4. How will the Bears’ secondary adjust?
With the lack of pressure up front, Jordan Love had no problem moving the ball against the Bears’ secondary. Days later, cornerback Kyler Gordon went on injured reserve with a hand injury. Gordon will miss at least the next four games. Gordon played the nickel cornerback spot, the fifth defensive back.
As if that weren’t bad enough, backup Josh Blackwell is dealing with a hamstring injury and is doubtful to play Sunday. The Bears could be looking at practice squad call-up Greg Stroman Jr. as their starting nickel or possibly backup Jaylon Jones. Eberflus all but ruled out rookie corner Tyrique Stevenson moving to the nickel.
Eberflus noted it could be Stroman playing if Blackwell is unavailable.
“We’re going to see where it is, and those guys have been with us, so they know the system,” Eberflus said. “They know how to play, and they’ve played in there before. So we feel good about it.”
This could spell trouble for the Bears going up against Bucs receiver Chris Godwin, one of the best slot receivers in the NFL.
5. What happens at running back?
In the season opener, the Bears split snaps relatively evenly between their three running backs. Rookie Roschon Johnson led the way with 29 offensive snaps, while Khalil Herbert was on the field for 27 snaps and D’Onta Foreman for 21.
Johnson led the running backs with 4 yards per carry, while Herbert led the backs with 27 yards. Against a blitz-heavy defense, the Bears will need a running back who can hold his own in pass protection. Johnson, although a rookie, might give them the best effort as a pass blocker. Herbert always has struggled with it. Foreman can do it but doesn’t provide much as a pass catcher.
Johnson has shown a willingness to do anything to get on the field, and he caught a team-high six passes in the season opener.
“He has handled himself as a grown man,” Fields said. “He has come in here and worked. He is always one of the last ones off the field. Every day after practice, every time we need to throw extra, he’s always right there to catch.”