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What to Watch For: Bears vs. Buccaneers

September 30, 2018

Big plays will occur Sunday on both sides of the ball when the Buccaneers’ No. 1-rated offense faces off with the Bears’ havoc–wreaking defense, and whichever 2-1 team makes more will most likely remain in first place in its respective division.

The Bucs’ 14-year veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is riding an unprecedented hot streak, having thrown for more than 400 yards in an NFL-record three straight games, during which he’s fired 11 TDs, while completing 70.3 percent of his passes. But Monday night in the Bucs’ first loss, 30-27 against the Steelers, Fitzpatrick showed the streaky side that has followed him throughout his NFL career. He tossed three interceptions in a six-minute span. That didn’t prevent him from rallying his team from a 30-10 halftime deficit, though.

Especially on a Bucs team that is nearly devoid of a run game, Fitzpatrick will keep firing. But, as the Steelers proved, he can be hurried into making mistakes in bunches when pressured. If he’s given time, though, Fitzpatrick will do major damage with a slew of weapons, including WRs Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, both of whom are averaging over 100 yards per game; and No. 3 WR Chris Godwin. Each of the three has three TD catches. The Bucs also boast one of the league’s best TE-combinations in the freakishly talented O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

The Bears will face this array of weapons with a secondary expected to be without starting CB Prince Amukamara and veteran backup CB Marcus Cooper, which means undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver will face a major test. But Fitzpatrick will not be able to exploit any advantageous matchups if he’s running for his life, which is a concern against a Bears defense that leads the NFL with 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles.

OLB Khalil Mack leads the rampage with four sacks, three forced fumbles and a pick-6. He has elevated a very good defense to elite status, but Mack isn’t doing it alone. DL Akiem Hicks and ILB Danny Trevathan each have two sacks, and six other players have at least one. That’s a combination of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio bringing pressure from multiple areas and also the residual effect of opponents overcompensating against Mack to prevent him from taking over the game. Five different Bears also have interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

While the Bucs’ offense vs. the Bears’ defense is strength vs. strength, it’s quite the opposite when the Bears have the ball and the Bucs are on defense. Tampa is being trashed for an average of 433.3 yards per game (31st in the league), including 362.7 passing yards (tied for last). But the Bears have struggled to move the ball, especially in the red zone. They’re averaging 293.7 total yards per game, 26th in the NFL; and they’re 28th with just 178 passing yards per outing and 27th in touchdown percentage in the red zone.

Bears coach Matt Nagy has said repeatedly that struggling QB Mitch Trubisky is not expected to run a seamless operation after just three games in a new scheme. But the new coach expects more from an offense that has relied too heavily on its defense.

“We’re getting first downs, but we need to understand that first downs don’t help win ballgames,” Nagy said. “We’ve got to put points up. In this case, when you’re dealing with maybe the No. 1 offense in the league, they’re going to put up points. Offensively, you’ve got to hold up your end of the bargain. If you don’t get touchdowns, and you get field goals (instead), you won’t win the game.”

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