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Sound-Smarter-Than-Your-Friends Guide to Buccaneers-Bears: The most exciting offense vs. the most exciting defense

Tampa Bay and Chicago clash for the fifth straight season. This time, it’ll be worth watching.
 
Bears linebacker Khalil Mack has recorded 20 quarterback pressures this season — about twice as many as any Bucs defender. [Associated Press]
Bears linebacker Khalil Mack has recorded 20 quarterback pressures this season — about twice as many as any Bucs defender. [Associated Press]
Published Sept. 29, 2018|Updated Sept. 30, 2018

For five straight seasons we’ve been at this, the Buccaneers and Bears in the Chris Conte Commiseration Bowl. One turnover-filled snoozefest after another.

But this time is different. And not just because fans won’t have Conte to kick around. (Leave him alone. He’s on injured reserve because of a knee injury.)

Suddenly, these franchises are interesting.

It’s the NFL’s most exciting offense vs. the NFL’s most exciting defense! It’s Ryan “The Beard” Fitzpatrick vs. Khalil “Grave Digger” Mack! Sunday! Sunday! SUNDAY!

No Doug Martin. No Jay Cutler. No John “Let’s Play It Safe and Punt on First Down” Fox.

There’s another reason why this matchup is so compelling, a reason besides whether Fitzpatrick will start over Jameis Winston. (I could tell you that it’ll probably be Fitzpatrick, but I don’t need to end up in a windowless room face-to-face with someone armed with pliers. So, shhhh.)

That reason? Bucs coach Dirk Koetter and new Bears coach Matt Nagy share a unique place in NFL history. Since 1990, there have been only 13 examples of a team hiring an offensive-minded head coach to develop a franchise quarterback in his second or third season, according to Football Outsiders. Koetter-Winston and Nagy-Mitch Trubisky are two of them (though Koetter qualifies on a technicality; he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach). One of those pairings worked: Mike Holmgren-Brett Favre. Another is on its way to working: Sean McVay-Jared Goff.

The game Sunday won’t save or destroy either team’s season, but if the Bucs lose, it will raise an uncomfortable question: What if the Bears, a team that won only three games two seasons ago, have passed the Bucs by?

• • •

What to watch for

Theatricality and deception: I’m not sure that Trubisky is the answer at quarterback for the Bears. Granted, we’re only 15 starts into his career, but the results so far aren’t encouraging. He ranks near the bottom this season in several key metrics — touchdown percentage (30th), yards per pass (27th), passer rating (25th) and defense-adjusted value over average (28th).

Most troubling is his execution from a clean pocket. Quarterbacks usually perform better when kept clean than when under pressure. Trubisky does not. His passer rating when not under pressure (76.6) is in Blaine Gabbert territory. His passer rating when under pressure is marginally better (84.2).

Perhaps Trubisky’s struggles are merely growing pains. Nagy, though, is doing what he can schematically to create favorable situations for Trubisky, as he has integrated several concepts from his tenure as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City. To stress defenses, he’s using a lot of shotgun formations, misdirections and run-pass options (RPOs).

The Chiefs are one of the league’s more pass-heavy teams, so you’d expect the Bears to be as well. That hasn’t been the case, though, at least early on. Overall and in early-game situations (first down in the first half, for example), they run the ball more often than most teams, regardless of whether Trubisky is under center or in the shotgun. In fact, they run the ball out of the shotgun — typically a pass formation — more than a quarter of the time.

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Let’s look at a couple of examples:

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

On this third and 2 against the Packers, Trubisky has the option of handing off to running back to Tarik Cohen or throwing. Green Bay’s defense dictates Trubisky’s decision. The Bears will run to the right side, and here’s why: They have six blockers for six Packers.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

The right tackle and tight end wall off two defenders, creating a lane for Cohen along the sideline.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Here’s a similar play from their Week 3 win over Arizona. Again, it’s a numbers game. The Bears have six blockers for six Cardinals. Chicago pushes the defense left, and Jordan Howard cuts back to the right to pick up 8 yards.

Trubisky on third down: The Bucs allowed opponents to convert an NFL-high 48.2 percent of third downs last season. They’ve cut that rate to 34.3 percent this season. Progress, right? Not so fast.

Quarterbacks are still shredding Tampa Bay’s defense, posting a 130.3 passer rating on third down, by far the highest mark in the league. In the Bucs’ loss to the Steelers on Monday, Ben Roethlisberger completed 6 of 8 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.

Attribute the struggles to the quality of quarterbacks the Bucs have faced so far (two likely Hall of Famers and the reigning Super Bowl MVP) if you’d like. If they struggle again Sunday, however, it won’t be an aberration; it’ll be a problem.

Trubisky has been safe but ineffective on third down. He frequently throws short of the first-down markers, leading to a high completion percentage but relatively little yardage. Of the quarterbacks who have thrown at least 10 passes on third down, Trubisky ranks 25th in yards per pass (5.2) and 17th in passer rating (81.6). Fitzpatrick, by the way, leads the NFL in both categories (10.9 and 143.7).

RELATED STORY: Bucs defense is raising red flags

• • •

Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was under pressure on about half of his dropbacks in Monday's game against the Steelers. [Associated Press]
Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was under pressure on about half of his dropbacks in Monday's game against the Steelers. [Associated Press]

Key matchup: Bears linebacker Khalil Mack vs. the Bucs — all of them

Too obvious? Let’s not complicate things. There’s a ton of talent on the Bears defense, but Mack is the type of player a team builds a game plan around. In three games, he has recorded four sacks, forced three fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown.

“Whenever you’ve got a game-wrecker type player, you’ve got to know where he’s at at all times and do everything in your power that he doesn’t change the game because so far he has,” Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said this week. “So far, he’s been a weapon, so it’s our job to figure out a way he isn’t that type player against us.”

Mack has recorded 20 pressures (a hurry, hit or sack) this season — twice as many as anyone on the Bucs and almost as much as everyone on the Raiders (Mack’s old team) combined. The more you hear Mack’s name, the worse the afternoon is going for Tampa Bay.

The Bucs' pass protection was solid in the first two weeks but overwhelmed against the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s ability to disguise blitzes and bring pressure from several angles created chaos up front and led to numerous blown blocks. The pressure resulted in 13 hits and two interceptions, one of which the Steelers returned for a touchdown.

Given that the Bears’ defensive front is even deeper — Chicago also has Akiem Hicks, Aaron Lynch and Leonard Floyd — Fitzpatrick likely will spend the night sleeping in a bathtub full of ice.

RELATED STORY: Look what the Steelers did to Ryan Fitzpatrick

• • •

Prediction

Fitzpatrick has accomplished more than anyone expected this season. He beat the Saints in New Orleans and the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles and nearly rallied the Bucs from a 20-point deficit against the Steelers. If he gets the start Sunday against the Bears — shhhh — and beats them in Chicago, it might be his most impressive feat yet.

This defense is legit, good enough to keep the Bears in contention for the NFC North title despite a work-in-progress offense. They’re stout against the pass (lead the NFL in sacks), can shut down the run (haven’t allowed a single rushing touchdown) and swarm around the ball (are tied for second in takeaways). And they do it without blitzing much at all (an NFL-low 10.4 percent). Tampa Bay’s offense depends on explosive chunk plays, but Chicago isn’t likely to allow very many. The pick: Bears 24, Bucs 19.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.