For the fifth straight season, Tampa Bay and Chicago are set to face off on the field in an intra-conference NFC matchup. Both teams enter this game at 2-1 yet present distinct qualities that have made them successful.
For the Buccaneers, the headliner in the early going has been Ryan Fitzpatrick, as the 35-year-old journeyman quarterback has helped his team light up the scoreboard while filling in for the suspended Jameis Winston. Meanwhile, the Bears have leaned heavily on their defense, which has made things tough on quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and most recently, Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen.
As impressive as Tampa Bay's offense has been (34.0 points per game, fourth in the NFL), the defense has been a concern, as the Bucs had to win shootouts to beat New Orleans and Philadelphia, and fell short in another tight game vs. Pittsburgh on Monday night. Tampa Bay has scored 102 points but has given up 91.
On the other side, Chicago's offense is still searching for its true identity. The Bears are averaging just 294 yards per game (26th), as second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is still finding his way. Somewhat surprising is the fact that new head coach Matt Nagy has put the ball in the hands of his quarterback more instead of running the ball (104 pass attempts vs. 85 rush) even though this offense has been more effective on the ground (115.7 rushing ypg, 12th) in the early going.
As a result, Chicago is middle of the pack in scoring (21.0 ppg, 19th) but sits at 2-1 because the defense has been stingy (18.3 ppg, tied for eighth). The other key to success has been turnovers. The Bears have a plus-three turnover margin thanks to eight takeaways, which is tied for second in the league. But the downside is that Trubisky has five turnovers (three INTs, two fumbles) in three games.
This game will be a battle of wills as the Bucs' offense hopes to find holes within the Bears' defense. Tampa has won the last two games against Chicago by a combined score of 65-17. This time, however, it won’t be so easy.
Tampa Bay at Chicago
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Bears -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Who starts at quarterback for the Buccaneers?
As of Thursday, Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter had yet to announce his starting quarterback for this game. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first three games while Jameis Winston was suspended. Fitzpatrick has put up big numbers in the first three games, as the 14-year veteran took full advantage of the opportunity to start. He is among the league leaders in passing yards (1,230), touchdowns (11), completion rate (70.3 percent), and passer rating (124.8). Even after throwing three interceptions in the Monday night loss to Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick has done nothing to show that he should be benched in favor of Winston.
That said, Winston was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft as Tampa Bay believed he would be their franchise quarterback moving forward. Yes, he is coming back from a three-game suspension and has dealt with some other off-field incidents, but the team also has to find out if he's still the guy they want to build around. For football reasons solely, it doesn't make sense to bench Fitzpatrick while he's playing so well. Not only did Winston’s suspension keep him from playing but it also prevented him practicing and working out with the team. He’s not completely behind the curve but he’s also not in complete game shape either. Sticking with Fitzpatrick appears to be a no-brainer. But the only opinion that really matters belongs to Koetter.
2. The Bears' defense has been practically unstoppable
Chicago enters this game ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense. While Khalil Mack's arrival has certainly provided early dividends, don't forget that the Bears finished last season ranked 10th in yards allowed per game. Outside of the second half of the season-opening loss in Green Bay, Chicago has made things really difficult on opposing offenses.
The Bears have been solid against both the run (65.3 ypg, second in NFL) and pass (223.7 ypg, ninth) and have yet to allow a rushing touchdown. With Mack leading the way (tied for league lead with 4.0 sacks), Chicago has already collected a league-leading 14 sacks in just three games. This pressure has helped create turnovers, as the Bears have picked off five passes and forced three fumbles. And for good measure, both Mack and cornerback Prince Amukamara (questionable for this game with a hamstring injury) have already returned an interception for a touchdown.
Tampa Bay's offense has been plenty productive, but Chicago's defense presents a different kind of challenge. The Buccaneers have had trouble running the ball (72.7 ypg, 31st), but a pass-happy attack could play right into the Bears' (particularly Mack's) hands. Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken may have to get creative with the play-calling to give Mack and company some different looks in an effort to keep them off balance.
3. Defense can’t bail you out every week
While having a strong defense is a nice security blanket, the offense does need to find the end zone more frequently. Trubisky may be completing 69 percent of his passes (72-of-104), but they're not going very far. He's averaging just 5.7 yards per completion, one of the reasons why leading receiver Allen Robinson is averaging 11.4 yards per catch. Trubisky also has more interceptions (three) compared to touchdown passes (two), has been sacked nine times and is near the bottom of the rankings in passer rating (77.8, 25th). The second-year signal-caller has not yet taken that next step forward that many expected under new head coach Matt Nagy's tutelage. Against what has been a generous Tampa Bay defense, maybe this is the game that Trubisky builds some confidence, which he can do by completing some deeper throws and leading the offense on sustained drives.
One thing that could help take some pressure of Trubisky is to establish the running game early. The Bears finally got the ground game going in Arizona last week with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen combining for 114 yards on 30 carries, including Howard's first rushing touchdown of the season. The Buccaneers haven't given up a lot of yards on the ground (70.7 ypg) but teams have scored four rushing touchdowns. And most teams have opted to throw the ball (362.7 ypg, tied for last) against Tampa Bay in part because of the Bucs' own success on offense. As great as it would be to see Trubisky break out with a big game on Sunday, Chicago needs to make a concerted effort to run the ball. If anything that will help keep Tampa Bay's offense on the sidelines.
Tampa Bay may be solid on offense but defense is another story. Forget about how well the Buccaneers have fared against the run. They are tied for last against the pass, have surrendered seven touchdown passes and are giving up more than 30 points per game. Chicago's offense has struggled to sustain drives and get into the end zone, but the defense has been as good as advertised, if not better. Regardless of who starts at quarterback for Tampa Bay, the Bears' defense will be too much to handle. The offense will do just enough as Chicago defends home field and heads into its bye week in first place in the NFC North with a 3-1 record.
Prediction: Bears 28, Buccaneers 20
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of www.chicagobears.com)