Lovie's homecoming: Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith coached the Bears for nine seasons and took them to a Super Bowl. Smith has been downplaying the significance of his return to Chicago by saying it's just another game. But deep down, the game is likely to mean a lot to Smith. He's a proud guy and it had to hurt to be fired after a 10-6 season in 2012.
Tampa Bay's running game: If the weather forecast is accurate, it will be critical for Tampa Bay to establish the running game. The forecast is for rain at Soldier Field and the Bucs may have to stay on the ground. That's not an area of strength for Tampa Bay, which ranks No. 28 in the league in rushing. It looks like starting running back Doug Martin will play after missing the last three games with an ankle injury. The combination of Martin, Bobby Rainey and Charles Sims needs to give the Bucs consistency in the running game.
Mike Evans: The rookie receiver has been one of the hottest players in the league the last three weeks. He's had at least 100 receiving yards and at least one touchdown in each of the last three games. Can he continue the streak for a fourth game? The Bears are bound to devote a lot of attention to Evans. That could open things up for receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Tampa Bay's pass rush: The Bucs had a season-high six sacks in last week's victory against Washington. It looks like the defensive line is starting to click. The Bucs have started to get pressure from players beyond defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Defensive end Michael Johnson is getting healthy after playing through an ankle injury and a broken hand and Jacquies Smith has been a pleasant surprise as a situational pass rusher.
Chicago's wide receivers: Alshon Jeffery is 6-foot-3 and Brandon Marshall is 6-4. That's one of the biggest receiving tandems the Tampa Bay secondary has seen this season. There's a misconception that the secondary should be ready to match up with big receivers because the defensive backs have worked against Evans, Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins. But that's not really the case. The first-team defense doesn't practice against the first-team offense. But at least the backups will be ready for the big receivers.
@mikecwright: Good question. It made me have to go through my salary files, which is always a good thing. With the way Matt Forte is performing, I'd say it would be a good idea to try to lock him up for the next three years or so with a new deal that will somehow represent a cap savings in 2015. He certainly hasn't shown any drop-off in play. As it stands, Forte is to make $6.65 million in base salary in 2015, which would count $8.8 million against that year's cap. We have all heard about the decline running backs hit when they turn 30, and next month, Forte turns 29, which is something the organization surely would weigh in any decision it makes. It's cheaper to keep a player when a team locks him up before he actually hits free agency (assuming there is a market for said player). I personally think the Bears would try to get something done with Forte early in the offseason, but the problem I see is the team will probably look into to redoing other contracts such as Alshon Jeffery, whose rookie deal also wraps up in 2015.
@mikecwright: I agree with you, Pierce. I think Josh McCown was a major loss for the offense, because in many ways he was somewhat of a coach on the field during his time with the Bears. McCown also set a positive example with his work habits, which was instrumental in teaching some of the younger players how to be pros. But I also see Jimmy Clausen taking on a similar role now with the Bears. I've been in the locker room when Clausen is on the field after practice, watching him work with some of the younger players, especially rookie quarterback David Fales. I even saw Clausen in the locker room the other day showing rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller how particular offenses are trying to attack him on a down-to-down basis. So, though the loss of McCown was major, I do see Clausen transitioning into that role very quickly.
@mikecwright: That would be a major knee-jerk reaction, and that's not the way the Bears roll. Go through this team's recent history, and see for yourself. There will probably be some firings at the conclusion of the season, but nobody will receive pink slips if the Bears lose Sunday to the Buccaneers.
@mikecwright: Vincent, just walked in from practice, actually, and that's my expectation based on what I saw. Besides that, Chris Williams hasn't practiced all week, and the club declared him out for Sunday's game. That means Marc Mariani gets the call, which should be interesting, considering he made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist in 2010 coming off his rookie season.
@mikecwright: Malcolm, I can't think of any other way to look at it. Phil Emery's first draft consisted of Shea McClellin, Jeffery, Brandon Hardin, Evan Rodriguez, Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy. Only McClellin and Jeffery remain on the team, and it's safe to say at this point that McClellin has been inconsistent at best as a linebacker. Emery followed up his first draft with a 2013 class featuring defenders Jonathan Bostic, Khaseem Greene and Cornelius Washington. Only Bostic has been a major contributor. Emery has said he wants to build the team through the draft, but to do that, you have to hit on your draft picks. I think Emery did a better job selecting defenders in his latest draft by adding Kyle Fuller, Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton and Brock Vereen. But I'm sure Emery would even say he has to do a better job with the draft. He also has to do better in free agency.
“He’s worked hard this week and he’ll be returning for us, both punts and kickoffs,” Trestman said. “He’s had a reliable week and picked things up in the return game. I think all of us feel good about that.”
The Bears signed Mariani to a two-year contract on Tuesday after Chris Williams suffered a hamstring injury presumably in the 21-13 victory over Minnesota.
Williams has been officially ruled out for Sunday.
Mariani earned a trip to the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season as a member of the Tennessee Titans, but hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2011. Mariani broke his leg in 2012 and missed all of the 2013 season with a shoulder injury. The Titans cut Mariani in late August.
“I’ve had some time off but I’m really excited about this opportunity,” Mariani said. “I feel very confident I can go out there and help this team win. I’ve been waiting for this shot, and I’m going to make the most of it. [I’ve] just been working my [tail] off. I was hoping the call would come and I was preparing for it every week. So I knew it would happen fast, and it’s happening real fast. I knew I had to be ready when my number was called. I’ve been waiting and trying to stay as best prepared as I possibly can. I’m excited for Sunday.
“It’s what I love to do. I feel like standing under punts is the greatest feeling in the world. I enjoy that. I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. But just to have those game day butterflies again is a beautiful feeling. I’ve had way too many Sundays on the couch this year. I’m ready to go.”
Weather is expected to be a factor on Sunday. Local forecasts predict a 100 percent chance of precipitation when the Bears and Bucs kickoff at noon CT. Luckily for Mariani, he feels past experiences have prepared him to handle returns in slick conditions.
“I’ve returned in some very poor conditions,” Mariani said. “Playing [college ball] at the University of Montana, I’m no stranger to the cold, the outdoors, the rain or the wind. But I have never been to Soldier Field so that will be part of my preparation; to get there and check it out and check out the wind. From what I’m told when the ball goes up it flies around [at Soldier Field]. I’m going to do my best to prepare. Everything is new to me this week. The more I prepare, the more I will be ready for Sunday.”
The club ruled out defensive end Trevor Scott (knee), receiver Chris Williams (hamstring) and linebacker Darryl Sharpton (hamstring), while listing right tackle Jordan Mills (ribs), guard Eben Britton (illness), and cornerback Demontre Hurst (knee) as questionable.
Rookie defensive tackle Ego Ferguson (illness) is also probable.
Williams’ absence against the Bucs will set the stage for Marc Mariani to take over as the club’s primary kickoff and punt returner.
“He’s worked hard this week and he’ll be returning for us, both punts and kickoffs,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “He’s had a reliable week, picked up things he needed to pick up to get us going in the return, and we’re all feeling good about that.”
Mills’ availability, meanwhile, remains in question. If Mills can’t play against the Bucs, Michael Ola will replace him at right tackle. Mills has missed two of the team’s last three games, including last week’s win over the Minnesota Vikings.
“Right now we’re just going to see where he’s at,” Trestman said of Mills. “We’re not going to get into that point right now, just see where he is and make that determination over the next 48 hours.”
During his tenure in Chicago, Smith gained a reputation for being able to motivate his players to play for him. The same should be expected of Smith in Tampa Bay. So the Bucs’ 2-8 record shouldn’t be a major consideration in this game.
The Bucs are coming off a road win at Washington and are just two wins out of first place in the NFC South.
The Bears, meanwhile, are allowing a league-worst 29 points per game, and let’s remember this team hasn’t allowed fewer than 20 points in consecutive games since 2012. With Cutler targeting Brandon Marshall 78.9 percent of the time over the last two games, look for Smith to take away the receiver.
Defensively, Chicago’s secondary will struggle to match up against Tampa Bay’s big receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.
Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Bears 17.
It's interesting to read all the different takes on Smith from our local media.
" Naturally, with Smith coming to town, the inevitable comparisons would be made between the former Bears coach and the current coach. As down as folks seem to be about Marc Trestman, it’s important to remember we’re just in Year 2 of his tenure. Perhaps it’s too early to count out Trestman? Either way, colleague Michael Wilbon provides his take on Smith and Trestman here.
Wilbon writes: We can't be revisionist to the point of thinking that Smith's tenure, while it resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl, was problem-free; the mistakes made hiring and firing coordinators alone surely cost the Bears a trip or two to the playoffs. But his teams in Chicago never seemed rudderless, as is the case now. And Arians-coached teams in both Indianapolis and Arizona have shown a combativeness that has been absent on the Bears.
The only way to change that narrative is for Trestman to rally his team in a way he's mostly been unable to do, especially because quite a few men on his roster performed with so much more passion and success for his predecessor.
" Just in case you missed it, ESPNChicago.com’s Jon Greenberg takes it a step further here.
Greenberg writes: While the Lovie love stories this week have resulted in sentimental longing from some fans, I'm thinking toward the future. I'm reading "Collision Low Crossers," Nicholas Dawidoff's book about spending the 2011 season with the New York Jets. So, I'm thinking about Rex Ryan with the Bears, and not as defensive coordinator.
I know, I know. Too easy. Too meatball. The woeful Jets are 2-8 this season, having just ended an eight-game losing streak.
But you always go with opposites when it comes to coaching changes, right? And Rex is not just a personality. He's a defensive guy. For all his recent struggles and concerns about his outsize persona, Ryan did take the Jets to consecutive AFC Championship Games, and he is more than just Buddy Ryan's son. Imagine Rex Ryan, who isn't long for his job with the Jets, winning in Chicago.
Ah, I'll save that for next month, when Trestman's seat could be red hot.
We've got six weeks left in this season, plenty of time to daydream about the future. For now, let's live in the past. Lance, pass the ribs and tell me another Lovie story.
" David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune takes a look at Smith here, and calls him a good, but not great coach. That’s probably the best way to describe him.
Haugh writes: He never won a championship but never embarrassed the organization. He talked down to the media but spoke to players like men. He preferred to avoid the spotlight and controversy in the NFL's second-largest market but led with quiet strength that made players never want to let him down.
As one of his biggest critics from 2004 to 2012, I can say without hesitation that the positives outweighed the negatives during Smith's time as Bears head coach. The one prediction that came true from the day the Bears introduced Smith was that he indeed was a good hire — good, not great.
" Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune writes that the Bears gained some confidence on defense from their performance in last Sunday's win over the Minnesota Vikings.
" Arthur Arkush over at Chicagofootball.com writes that Jay Cutler wants to utilize his mobility more, the way the club used him last week against the Vikings.
When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Soldier Field, Chicago TV: Fox
The records scrub away some of the shine for Sunday's matchup at Soldier Field between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears, but the storylines involved remain interesting for what should be a competitive contest.
First off, there's the obvious with Lovie Smith coming to town to coach against his former team, which is led by former Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown. But even with the Bucs owning a 2-8 record, they're just two games out of first place in the NFC South.
The Bears, meanwhile, are looking to win back-to-back contests for the first time this season since Weeks 2 and 3.
Remember, the Bears fired Smith after a 2012 season in which he led the team to a 10-6 record. The club hasn't recorded a double-digit win season since, and doesn't appear to be on the way to doing it this year, either.
Bears reporter Michael C. Wright takes a look at the matchup with Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinkas:
Wright: Pat, the Buccaneers are coming off a big road win at Washington, and I've long thought they were a much more talented team than the record indicated. Obviously, it's probably too late to save the season. But how's the atmosphere out there coming off this win, and what's the next step for the Bucs?
Yasinkas: The atmosphere is a lot better than you would expect from a 2-8 team. That's mainly due to the fact the Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South. And, you're right, this is a talented team. If the Bucs can put that talent together down the stretch, they could end up being a playoff team. It may sound crazy, but they're not far off the pace in the NFC South.
I thought last year's strong finish by Chicago would carry over into this season. But it hasn't. What's gone wrong for the Bears?
Wright: Where do I start? I think people put too much faith in the offense, expecting it to perform at the same level or better than it did in 2013. But what folks don't understand is the Bears sort of caught teams by surprise last season because opponents didn't know exactly what to expect out of a Marc Trestman offense. Opponents adjusted in 2014 to what the Bears put on film in 2013, and they've had trouble coming up with a sufficient counterpunch. On the other side of the ball, the Bears revamped the front four, but haven't received the production commensurate with the investment. The Bears miscalculated what the staff would be able to get out of the linebacking corps, which has struggled, not to mention the secondary.
Surely, there's quite a bit of disappointment about Tampa Bay's record, especially when considering how the Bucs have squandered fourth-quarter leads five times this season. Why haven't the Bucs been able to hold leads, and overall, what's the thought out there regarding the job done so far by former Bears coach Lovie Smith?
Yasinkas: The Bucs have had their share of disappointing losses. They've blown five fourth-quarter leads and the reasons for that are collapses by the defense and an inability by the offense to protect a lead. That has been very disappointing and you can make a strong case that the Bucs should have a much better record than they do. Fans aren't very pleased with what Lovie Smith has done so far. He has been stubborn, sticking to a Tampa 2 defense that may be antiquated and an offense that's conservative. But the Washington game was a good example of what "Lovie Ball" can be when it works properly. Smith's record isn't very good, but he's not on the hot seat. Ownership believes he can show some promise down the stretch and turn things around with another offseason.
There has been a lot of talk about Jay Cutler's future in Chicago. Does he have one?
Wright: Boy, that's a good question that I'm not sure I can answer at this point. Obviously with the contract, Cutler is sort of handcuffed to the team for the next couple of seasons. But if Cutler doesn't improve down the stretch, I could see the Bears looking for ways to cut ties (a trade perhaps?). The Bears gave Cutler a $126.7 million contract, and he certainly hasn't produced at the level you'd expect a player making that type of money. So if the arrow isn't pointing up for Cutler at the conclusion of the season, it certainly wouldn't surprise me if the Bears entered 2015 with an open competition at the position or looked to trade him in the offseason.
Speaking of quarterbacks, when Josh McCown left Chicago to sign with the Buccaneers, it seemed like an ideal match, especially when considering how he performed in 2013 as the fill-in for Cutler. Can you give me a rundown as to why has McCown struggled this season?
Yasinkas: McCown admitted recently that he was pressing too much in the first three games. He was trying to make something happen out of nothing and that led to some mistakes. But McCown got five games to sit back and watch while he dealt with a thumb injury. In the past two games, he has been much more efficient. The Washington game was similar to what he did in Chicago last year. If he can continue to do that the rest of the season, the Bucs will be very happy.
I know it's only Year 2, but this league doesn't have much patience anymore. Is Marc Trestman on the hot seat?
Wright: Similar to Cutler's situation, I think it all depends on how the team performs down the stretch. At this point, I don't think general manager Phil Emery is inclined to fire Trestman in part because of the investment in Cutler. Prior to Trestman's arrival, Cutler had played for three different offensive coordinators in three different systems over four seasons. So for Emery, gaining some level of stability for Cutler was important, which is what the GM believed he did in bringing aboard Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. Remember, the Bears signed Cutler to a seven-year contract, and Emery doesn't want his quarterback playing in yet another system for another coach. So unless the Bears totally nose dive over the last six games, Trestman's job is safe. Certainly, there will be scapegoats let go at the conclusion of the season regardless of what happens. But I don't think Trestman is on the hot seat. He'll get another season unless things go totally awry.
“They’re similar to our defense now, too, with that Cover 2-type defense,” Forte said. “Obviously, they try to get pressure on the quarterback with their front four, and then they play takeaway football. That’s all they preach is takeaway, takeaway; especially when he was here. So I know he’s been teaching the same thing to them. The key is to guard the ball at all times.”
Despite Smith’s reputation for preaching the importance of taking away the ball, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently tied for 16th in the NFL in takeaways (15). The Bears are ranked fourth in the league in giveaways (20).
Tampa Bay forced three takeaways last week in its victory over the Redskins.
During Smith's tenure in Chicago, the Bears led the NFL in takeaways (310), three-and-out drives forced (485), three-and-out drive percentage (26.4), third-down percentage (34.1) and red-zone scoring efficiency (79.3). Under Smith, the Bears returned 34 of their 310 takeaways for touchdowns, including 26 interceptions returned for touchdowns, which tied for the most in the NFL during the coach’s tenure.
“As much as we know about the Chicago Bears, they know about us,” Smith said. “It’s not like we’re changing defenses or anything like that. We’re both familiar with each other, but that’s kind of the case in the league a lot. You play teams that you’re both familiar with each other, but it’s about what happens after the ball is snapped and that’s what it comes down to.”
The Bears fired Smith at the conclusion of the 2012 season, after the team finished with a 10-6 record. So while the revenge factor “probably plays a little bit into it,” according to Forte, what makes the Bucs a serious threat despite their 2-8 record is the way they’re coached.
“Just from the experience of him being here, me being on offense and watching the defense play, they want to stop the run and get turnovers,” Forte said. “That’s what they want to do, force us to try to throw the ball, and then get strips, interceptions and sacks. If we can stay out of the way of that and control the game by running the ball and converting third downs, it’ll be advantageous to us.”
Marshall and Jeffery participated in a limited capacity, but neither is expected to miss Sunday’s matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Soldier Field.
Other limited participants included right tackle Jordan Mills (ribs) and guard Eben Britton (illness). In other injury news, the Bears held out cornerback Demontre Hurst (knee), defensive end Trevor Scott (knee), receiver Chris Williams (hamstring) and Darryl Sharpton (hamstring).
The Bears also held out veteran defensive end Jared Allen, but his absence wasn’t injury related.
Rookie defensive end Ego Ferguson (illness) returned to the practice field Thursday after being held out Wednesday, and receiver Josh Morgan (shoulder) participated fully Thursday after working Wednesday in a limited capacity.
Cutler and Smith meet again Sunday when the Bears host the Smith-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Soldier Field.
Cutler was complimentary regarding his relationship with Smith.
"I think anytime you’re with a head coach as long as Lovie was here and I was here, there’s definitely a relationship," Cutler said.
The team’s struggles to field a consistent offense during Smith’s nine-year tenure played a role in the team’s decision to fire him. Despite having a Pro Bowl receiver in Brandon Marshall and other strong supporting cast members such as Cutler and running back Matt Forte, the Bears finished 2012 ranked No. 28 in total offense.
Despite the organization firing him, Smith spoke highly of the Bears and Cutler.
"Jay’s been a great quarterback in the league for a long time," Smith said. "Things that bother you as a defense: a quarterback that can make all his throws with mobility that can move around in the pocket, of course, Jay has all that. When he looks to throw the ball, he has some great targets. I think every opposing team that comes in will say the same thing."
So don’t expect the quarterbacks to place any friendly wagers on Sunday’s matchup between the Bears and Buccaneers at Soldier Field.
“I wish him well except for this week,” Cutler said of his former backup. “We’ll go at it head to head and see what happens.”
Filling in as the starter for five games while Cutler was injured last season, McCown threw 13 touchdown passes and only one interception. Both quarterbacks combined for five 300-yard passing performances in 2013, which tied a franchise single-season record established in 1954 and tied in 1999.
The synergy between Cutler and McCown in the meeting room resulted in both quarterbacks excelling.
“I think Josh is good for a lot of people,” Cutler explained. “I think you could pair him up with probably most of the people in this room, and he’d find a way to help make you better. He’s not going to make you worse. I know that. He’s just one of those types of people. So I know he’s doing good things for that quarterback room in Tampa, just like he did for us.”
So why did they click?
“He’s played the position at a lot of different places,” Cutler said. “So we were coming into a new system [in 2013]. He had been through a lot of new systems like I had. We helped each other learn. His journey and as many places as he’d been, he’s been through some ups and downs. So he knew what the position was about, what it took to play the position. So he could relate really well.”
Bears general manager Phil Emery and Trestman have also been complimentary of McCown’s time in Chicago, with both expressing happiness when the quarterback signed a two-year deal in free agency to join the Buccaneers.
“It’ll be fun to see the guys and all that, but at the end of the day our focus is on going up there and getting a win because we need it for our team,” McCown said. “When you’re 2-8, you need wins. So that’s my focus. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s fun. I have so much love for all those guys up there, and anytime you get to do that -- against guys you know -- it just makes it more fun because you know how they’re going to prepare, and you know they’re going to give you their best. So I’m looking forward to that.”