TAMPA — Slow starts the past two games have doomed the Bucs, who trailed 14-0 to the Saints and 21-3 to the Rams. That forced offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to abandon the rushing attack in the second half of each game, despite good performances from RB Doug Martin.
"We've got to get off to a faster start," Koetter said of Sunday's game against the Bears. "The last two games, we've ran the ball okay to start the game, we're moving the chains, but when I say get off to a faster start — moving the ball, moving the chains, getting first downs, that doesn't get you points on the scoreboard. We've got to finish drives. We've been playing from behind, and from an offensive standpoint we have to take that on ourselves. 'Hey, get off to a fast start. Let's get the lead and play with the lead.' Come out of the gates and get points on the board sooner."
Defensively, the Bucs have allowed big plays in the passing game, including a 60-yard pass for a touchdown against the Rams and 41-yard pass from the Saints' Drew Brees to Willie Snead. Tampa Bay has produced only one takeaway in the past four games.
"It is a big mountain to climb for us, and it's been like that throughout the league probably. It's about that start," coach Lovie Smith said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't start well. A lot of our guys are excited. When you get to your last home game, you want to play your best ball, and we've practiced that way, so there's no reason why we shouldn't.
"One area we need to improve is taking the football away. I'm going to go to the defensive side. That will help us start an awful lot."
INJURIES: G Logan Mankins (knee) returned to practice Thursday, a good sign that the Pro Bowl alternate will likely play Sunday. "Logan Mankins was able to do quite a bit," Smith said.
S Chris Conte (knee) practiced on a limited basis and looks like a game-time decision. DE Courtney Brown (groin), WR Vincent Jackson (knee) and DT Akeem Spence (ankle) did not participate in practice. It's unlikely they will play in Sunday's game. "They haven't done anything all week, so you kind of know how that goes a little bit," Smith said.
LB Bruce Carter (ankle) has practiced all week, as have George Johnson (calf) and Gerald McCoy (hand). Carter is expected to start at middle linebacker.
CHRISTMAS WISH: Smith said the Bucs would like to keep the holiday celebration alive by defeating the Bears. "Everybody is celebrating. One way to celebrate is for your favorite team to win on Sunday," Smith said.
"We're a better football team. We've been talking about that. But we want to leave a good taste in our fans' mouths. A team like Chicago travels well, that's why it's important for us to play well early on and give our fans something to be excited about the entire game."