By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The Chicago Bears enter Week 4 of the NFL season as the first place team in the NFC North.
Can’t consider this foreign territory but it is certainly unfamiliar, at least in recent times, the Bears have not been even close to this spot in a long time.
Already helping Chicago in staying on top this week was the Vikings losing on Thursday Night Football, but in order for the Bears to control their own narrative they will have to take down an explosive Tampa Bay Buccaneers team Sunday afternoon.
Entering the season, there was belief this could be a good spot for the Bears, maybe even the place where the team would have to pull out their first win — it would be likely that the Bears would be seeing Jameis Winston on the field for the first time after his suspension, in which he missed the first 3 games for an assuredly winless Tampa Bay team. Neither element of that situation played out.
The Bucs changed the story right away in Week 1 when they pulled a shocker by out-playing the Saints in a 48-40 shootout. The offense kept humming in beating the defending champion Eagles in Week 2 and in the second half in a close loss to the Steelers on Monday night. Ryan Fitzpatrick (a.k.a. Fitzmagic) has been great for the Bucs and one of the major stories of the league thus far.
Fitzgerald has set NFL history with three straight 400-yard passing games to open 2018, he stands to test a Bears defense with a number of weapons that puts Tampa Bay’s attack as one of the best in the NFL. There’s a reason Fitzgerald, a career backup, is continuing to lead this offense even as Winston has been made available to the team again this week.
The main event in this contest will be the Bucs’ offense against the Bears’ defense, but the deciding factor might be the winner of the undercard — the Bears’ offense against the Bucs’ defense.
One game separates the Bears from an early season bye week and the close of this one will mean the Bears are already 1/4 into the season. Now is the time for real results to be felt and a victory would keep the Bears on a positive streak and in control of their own destiny in division. Here are the goals the Bears need to meet to go into the bye week 3-1.
Contain Bucs Offensive Weapons — There are differences in these two teams that make this match-up very interesting in spite of their twin unexpected 2-1 records.
The Bears have been pretty good so far defensively, its unit ranking 8th in team defense, including a 2nd-best run defense in the League. Mirroring the Bears’ stout D is Tampa’s offense, which ranks fourth League-wide including the best passing attack (unfortunately only 30th in the run game though). The Bucs also are tied for third best in scoring average in the entire league.
Tampa Bay is a team that lives on its passing game and uses it to set up the run sometimes if at all. Chicago shouldn’t have too much trouble against the Bucs’ run game, but a long day could exist in trying to contain them through the air.
With weaponry lead by Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, the Bucs run deep with an impressive tight end in O.J. Howard and a dangerous slot receiver in Chris Godwin as well. The Bears secondary will have their hands full covering these guys and will especially need help from the pass rush to keep Tampa Bay from functioning like they have in the first three games.
To that end, the Bucs have only given up five sacks so far this season while the Bears lead the league with 14. Something will have to give there and its likely the Bears will have to break Fitzmagic’s 400 game passing streak in order to win this game.
Earn Easy Third Downs — Sort of a continuation of the first goal: in order to contain the passing game and get to the passer, the Bears will have to earn 3rd and long situations with work done on 1st and 2nd down.
The Bucs’ offense is a vertical offense and when Fitzmagic gets in trouble or makes mistakes it is because of an inflicted pass rush due to Fitzgerald having no mobility. Helping the Bears’ cause is Tampa Bay’s lowly run game, so there should be sequences where Chicago could load up on blitzes without being worried that they’ll be exploited on draw plays and the like.
Pittsburgh had some success blitzing the Bucs and it resulted in three first half picks from Fitzgerald and only a 3-of-9 conversion rate on third down. Vic Fangio doesn’t blitz often and will likely blitz the same amount in this game or a little more depending on the pressure generated by the front four. This week will be a big challenge for the pass rush.
If the Bears can earn the right to rush the passer on third down by their work on first and second down, then the Bears will have opportunities to put an end to all the magic in the Bucs offense.
Keep Fitzmagic Off the Field — Looking at the matchup of the Bears offense versus the defense of the Bucs the stakes are pretty straightforward — the Bears will need to put up points and keep Fitzmagic off of the field, to do so the Bears have to do what they have been successful at offensively in the young season.
The Bears have converted on nearly 40 percent of their third downs, good for middle of the pack in the League but their real strength is their average drive time, which is second behind the Rams at over 3:00 a drive. The Bears haven’t put up the points they have needed but they have given their defense breaks at critical times and have gone on drives to flip field position.
Chicago’s ability to move forward on first and second downs, making third downs easier, will be huge. If the Bears can do something similar like they did last week at the Cardinals, when they held the ball almost 13 minutes more than Arizona, then the offense will have done half of its job towards securing a victory this week.
Complete Passes Downfield — On the surface this week will be one of those turnover ratio and return yard type games, mainly because the Bears offense cannot be counted on to push the ball downfield in large chunks. They will have opportunities like they did last week or the weeks prior, but quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has not been able to complete those throws.
When a team cannot push the ball downfield, the little things like turnover ratio or return yards matter more. The threshold for the Bears offense to generate big plays is limited and likely won’t be a drastic improvement this week or anytime soon.
The Bears don’t need to play vertical offense to win this game, but if they aren’t able to hit more than a throw or two downfield then all the little things will be exposed as extra important.
Another advantage for the Bears in this game is the Bucs defense and how poorly ranked it is against the pass. Overall, the Bucs defense is ranked 29th in the NFL (23rd against the pass, 3rd against the run). The Bears will either need to win the ground game or take advantage of the Bucs poor secondary to put up points.
Tampa Bay has been bad at stopping teams from scoring and currently ranks 4th in most points given up at 30.3 per game. The Bears have to put up points to help the defense and to put up points they will need to complete some passes downfield.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR