Much has changed since Tom Brady forgot which down it was and the Bears beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season at Soldier Field.
For one, the Bucs gelled down the stretch and won the Super Bowl. A 44-year-old Brady is playing as well as he ever has and is setting records with every pass he completes. The Bears drafted a rookie quarterback, while Brady nemesis Nick Foles has remained on the bench.
Nevertheless, the Bucs (5-1) take on the Bears (3-3) at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Brady is two touchdown passes short of becoming the first quarterback ever with 600 career touchdown passes. If Brady completes at least 17 passes and throws at least three touchdowns Sunday, he would become the third quarterback ever to throw for 200 completions and 20 touchdowns in the first seven games of a season. The others to reach that mark were Peyton Manning in 2013 and Andrew Luck in 2018.
This will be a tall task for rookie Justin Fields and the Bears. Here’s what to watch for Sunday.
1. Strength vs. strength
The Bucs protect Brady. It’s as simple as that.
Tampa Bay is No. 1 in the NFL at protecting the quarterback. Brady has been pressured on just 13% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced stats. He has allowed only nine sacks, tied for sixth fewest among quarterbacks who are attempting at least 14 passes per game.
The Bears’ strength right now is their pass rush. It will be strength vs. strength in this game. Can the Bears get to Brady enough to disrupt his timing? Can they do it without Robert Quinn, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list?
2. Deceiving numbers
Don’t be deceived by the Bucs’ apparent lack of effectiveness in the run game. Their 85.3 rushing yards per game ranks them 28th out of the NFL’s 32 teams. Lead back Leonard Fournette has yet to reach 100 yards in a game.
All of that is scheme related. The Bucs use their short passing attack as their run game. They rank 27th in total rushing attempts. They lead the NFL with 270 pass attempts.
One look at Tom Brady’s quarterback chart on NFL Next Gen Stats illustrates this. Last week against Philadelphia, he completed 11 passes behind the line of scrimmage (going 11-for-11 on such passes). He was 18-for-19 on passes between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards out.
Fournette caught six passes last week for 46 yards. He looked a lot better running the ball than his numbers indicated, too.
3. Run stoppers
Everybody is struggling to run the ball against the Bucs. They are allowing a league-best 54.8 rushing yards per game. That’s a full 24.2 yards fewer than the next-closest defense. Nose tackle Vita Vea anchors things inside for the Bucs.
Once again, it will be strength vs. strength. In all their victories, the Bears have run the ball well. They will put that to the test this week, and it will likely be with rookie running back Khalil Herbert yet again.
The Buccaneers could become the fifth team since 1950 to limit their opponents to fewer than 60 rushing yards per game through their first seven games of a season. Only the 1995 49ers (49.9 yards), the 1991 Saints (52.1), the 2000 Ravens (57.9) and the 2010 Steelers (58.9) have accomplished that.
4. Fields and the passing game
It feels likely that the Bears could be playing from behind at some point in this game. The question will be whether their offense can keep up. Against Green Bay last week, Fields attempted a season-high 27 passes.
The Bucs defense is allowing 280.8 passing yards per game (which ranks 27th among defenses). This is an exploitable secondary. The Bears are going to need to throw the ball well to beat the Bucs, particularly if they fall behind. Fields and the 2021 Bears offense have yet to do that with any consistency.
5. Tampa’s weapons
The Bucs will be playing without receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who are both dealing with injuries. Brown is one of three Bucs receivers who is already over 400 receiving yards on the season. The others are Mike Evans (420) and Chris Godwin (409).
Brady has ample weapons with which to attack the Bears. Eddie Jackson and the Bears secondary need to be at the top of their game in this one. They did a good job of limiting Aaron Rodgers a week ago. Now they have to do it again against Brady.