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NFL Preview - Chicago (3-3) vs. Tampa Bay (4-2)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers make a return visit to the city of London for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, they'll be hoping for a much better trip than their first voyage overseas.
The Buccaneers also played at Wembley Stadium, which will be hosting an NFL regular-season contest for the fifth consecutive year as part of the league's International Series venture, in 2009 with a game against the New England Patriots. A young and rebuilding Tampa squad wound up being overmatched that afternoon in a 35-7 loss that was one of many low points of what turned out to be a 3-13 campaign.
Tampa Bay has certainly made significant strides since that outing, putting together a surprising 10-win season in 2010 and getting this year's schedule off to a good start as well. The Buccaneers head back to England tied with New Orleans for first place in the rugged NFC South after topping the formidable Saints by a 26-20 score this past Sunday.
The Bucs bounced back strongly from a dismal performance in San Francisco the previous week, when the team was dealt a 48-3 trouncing by the resurgent 49ers that matched the most lopsided defeat in franchise history. Quarterback Josh Freeman, who threw two interceptions that contributed to that loss, also came through with a much sharper effort against the Saints, with the third-year standout compiling a season-high 303 passing yards and two touchdowns without a turnover.
Freeman, Tampa Bay's first-round selection in the 2009 draft, made his official pro debut with a short relief stint during the Buccaneers' last appearance in London. The 23-year-old has started every one of the team's games since and has played a major role in the playoff hopefuls' resurgence.
"That first year was a very trying year -- a lot of new pieces, the first year for [Buccaneers head coach] Raheem [Morris], first year for me, first year for a lot of guys," said Freeman about Tampa Bay's 2009 London experience. "We still have a young team, but [now] we have a lot of confidence about what we're doing. That year was a rough year, but we expect to go out and win now."
The Bears earned their share of victories in 2010, beating out eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay for the NFC North title with an 11-5 regular-season record and advancing to the conference championship game. Though success has been a little harder to come by so far in 2011, Chicago showed more of a resemblance to last year's outfit by putting forth a dominating display in its Week 6 clash with spiraling Minnesota.
Chicago's previously-struggling defense particularly rose to its prior standards in the 39-10 rout of the Vikings, limiting its longtime rival to just 286 total yards and a mere 53 on the ground. The Bears had surrendered 382 yards or more in each of their first five games of the season and were gashed for 169 and 181 rushing yards, respectively, in showdowns against Carolina and Detroit that preceded last Sunday's win.
This game will be the first held in London that will pit opponents presently sporting .500 records or better, and none of the other four matchups at Wembley Stadium contained teams that had both won the week earlier. The Buccaneers will also become the first club to participate in this series for the second time.
The Bears hold a 35-18 lead in their overall series with the Buccaneers and had won two straight games in the set before sustaining a 27-24 overtime loss to Tampa Bay at Soldier Field in 2008. The teams also went to overtime in a 2006 encounter in Chicago, with the Bears prevailing by a 34-31 count in that contest. The Bears also came out on top in a 13-10 squeaker with the Bucs in Tampa during the 2005 season.
Chicago and Tampa Bay had two scheduled meetings against one another as co- members of the NFC Central between 1978 and 2001.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who oversaw linebackers as a Buccaneers' assistant under Tony Dungy from 1996-2000, is 2-2 against his onetime employers during his tenure in Chicago, while Morris has never previously faced either the Bears or Smith in his present occupation.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago has shelved the pass-oriented philosophy the offense undertook over this season's early stages for a more balanced approach, and the overall results have improved following the switch. Running back Matt Forte (527 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 2 total TD) has averaged over 21 carries and 136 rushing yards over the past three weeks, highlighted by a 205-yard outburst in an early October victory over Carolina, and the Bears have gone 2-1 over that span. Coordinator Mike Martz's greater emphasis on Forte has also benefited quarterback Jay Cutler (1476 passing yards, 8 TD, 4 INT) and helped offset the protection issues of a shaky offensive line as well, with the group permitting just five sacks during that three-game stretch after Cutler was taken to the turf 14 times over the first three weeks. The strong-armed Chicago signal- caller has only thrown one interception in that time period and is coming off a sharp 21-of-31, 267-yard, two-touchdown showing against the Vikings. Forte is also the Bears' leading receiver and tops all NFL backs in receiving yards (381) in addition to amassing a league-best 908 yards from scrimmage, with wideout and return dynamo Devin Hester (17 receptions, 1 TD) becoming Cutler's best downfield option as of late. The offense should also get reliable slot receiver Earl Bennett back from a chest injury that's kept him out of the last four games, though rookie Dane Sanzenbacher (17 receptions, 3 TD) had been doing a decent job in his place.
Provided his front line can manage to keep him upright, Cutler should have opportunities to attack a Tampa defense that's permitting an average of 276 passing yards per game (26th overall) this year and was shredded by 383 yards through the air by the Saints' Drew Brees a week ago. The Buccaneers did intercept the Pro Bowl quarterback three times, however, including a game- saving pick by linebacker Quincy Black (13 tackles, 1 INT) in the end zone with under 3 1/2 minutes left, while ends Michael Bennett (21 tackles, 2 sacks) and Adrian Clayborn (10 tackles, 2 sacks) were able to generate consistent pressure up front despite the team not registering a sack. The secondary also got an instant boost from the return of previously-suspended safety Tanard Jackson, who notched five tackles, an interception and a pass breakup last week in his first game action since Week 2 of the 2010 season. A run defense headed up by young linebackers Geno Hayes (34 tackles) and Mason Foster (32 tackles, 2 sacks) has held the opposition to 70 rushing yards or less in three of the last four weeks, with a 213-yard output by San Francisco two Sundays back the lone exception.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Tampa Bay got excellent games out of both Freeman (1459 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) and backup running back Earnest Graham (193 rushing yards, 25 receptions), who totaled 109 yards on just 17 carries subbing for ailing regular LeGarette Blount, in last weekend's big win over the Saints, and Graham will get a chance to try to duplicate those strong numbers with Blount almost certain to sit out again with a sprained knee. Freeman hasn't been quite as steady as his sophomore breakthrough of 2010, as his six interceptions over the first six games are already as many as all of last year's total, but the highly-skilled youngster was able to connect on several big plays last Sunday, most notably a 65-yard touchdown to wide receiver Arrelious Benn (15 receptions, 2 TD). The second-year pro brings a deep threat to a pass-catching corps that's often lacked one this year, as 2010 rookie sensation Mike Williams (25 receptions, 1 TD) is averaging under 10 yards per grab and tight end Kellen Winslow's (27 receptions) playmaking potential has been sapped by recurring injuries over the years. An overlooked offensive line has yielded a sack on only 4.3 percent of the Buccaneers' pass attempts this year -- fifth-best in the NFL -- and Freeman wasn't taken down once by New Orleans.
The Chicago defense was stifling against the punchless Vikings this past week, but that hasn't been the norm for the unit over the course of this season. The Bears enter Wembley ranked 28th in total defense (397.3 ypg), 25th against the pass (275.5 ypg) and are averaging a league-worst 5.4 yards per rush attempt allowed, though the team did hold Minnesota factor back Adrian Peterson to a modest 39 yards on 12 totes in Week 6. Chicago also racked up five sacks against the Vikings, with difference-making end Julius Peppers (15 tackles, 4 sacks) affected none whatsoever by a knee injury sustained the week before by accumulating two of those takedowns. The five-time All-Pro is the ringleader of a deep defensive line that contains three other solid pass rushers in end Israel Idonije (19 tackles, 3 sacks) and tackles Henry Melton (8 tackles, 3 sacks) and Amobi Okoye (11 tackles, 2 sacks), while the back seven has a trio of impact players in the accomplished linebacker duo of Brian Urlacher (36 tackles, 2 INT) and Lance Briggs (49 tackles) and cornerback Charles Tillman (42 tackles, 4 PD).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Chicago's running game. The Bears have been more efficient and far less predictable on offense over the past three weeks, mainly because Smith has placed a greater emphasis on ball control and called for greater utilization of Forte. Containing him will be critical to the Buccaneers' chances of success, as they've generally done well this year when the run defense has been stout. Tampa Bay has allowed just 87 rushing yards per game in its four victories, and 169.5 per game in its two losses.
Pressuring the passer. Chicago has been rather hit-or-miss in that department this season, with 11 of the team's 14 sacks coming in its three wins. Neither of these participants possesses anything that remotely resembles a shutdown secondary, so it's vital that the front four of each can disrupt the timing of the two capable quarterbacks that will on the field Sunday.
The Hester factor. The prolific return man has the ability to single-handedly change the outcome of a game, as he did by ripping off a 69-yard punt return during Chicago's five-point win over Carolina back in Week 4, and Hester also came through with a back-breaking 98-yard kickoff runback for a score in last Sunday's triumph over the Vikings. The Buccaneers do own a quality punter and kickoff man in Michael Koenen and have been good in coverage this year. With a close contest expected, that needs to continue for Tampa to have its best opportunity to win.
The fans in London should be treated to a very competitive game, as these two teams appear pretty evenly-matched and have enough strengths and weaknesses for those trying to pick a winner to make a good case for either side. The difference could come from the varied way each has prepared for Sunday's bout. The Buccaneers, perhaps influenced by their unsuccessful prior appearance at Wembley Stadium, chose to fly to England on Monday and conduct their entire practice schedule overseas, while the Bears treated the contest like a normal road trip and arrived on Friday. While that extra acclimation time could give Tampa Bay an advantage, the Bucs' better balance on offense and greater consistency on defense than their opponent may turn out to be the true deciding factor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 20, Bears 16
10/20 13:14:21 ET