TAMPA — It has been a long wait for the 2017 Bucs season to start, but at 1 p.m. today, a week later than expected, Tampa Bay takes the field to begin pursuit of its first playoff appearance in a decade. Here are things to keep an eye on as the Bucs try to beat the Bears for the second year in a row:
One reason Chicago had a chance to win in the final minute last week was that it held the Falcons offense to one touchdown in three red-zone trips. Finishing drives has been a major focus for the Bucs offense in the offseason, but it didn't show up in the preseason.
The Bucs ranked 20th in red zone success last year, getting touchdowns just 51.9 percent of the time. Chicago ranked ninth in red zone defense, holding opponents to 52.5 percent success; the Bucs defense, by comparison, ranked 24th, allowing 58 percent.
DOMINATE TURNOVER MARGIN
The Bucs defense forced four turnovers in the Bears' first six drives last year. S Chris Conte's pick-six resulted in the game's first points, and another takeaway came when Chicago was at the Bucs 4-yard line.
Defensive takeaways might be where these two teams were most different last year. The Bears matched an NFL record low with only 11 takeaways in 2016, while the Bucs had the third-highest total in the league with 29. Chicago also had 31 giveaways, so its minus-20 turnover margin matched the Jets for the NFL's worst.
Turnovers can make other things trivial. Chicago had outgained the Bucs 215-164 in the first half last year (50 yards on a last-second desperation touchdown throw) but trailed 14-10 because the Bucs dominated with takeaways.
GET THOSE TIGHT ENDS GOING
Chicago gave up an 88-yard touchdown pass to Falcons TE Austin Hooper last week, along with a 40-yard catch, thanks to coverage breakdowns that left him wide open. Cameron Brate's career high in catches (seven) came in last year's Bears game — on seven targets, no less — and his 84 yards that day for the Bucs were two shy of his career high as well. Add rookie O.J. Howard making his NFL debut and the Bears being without LB Jerrell Freeman, who had 10 tackles last week but tore a pectoral muscle and is out, and you could see QB Jameis Winston having a good day throwing to tight ends.
BUSY DAY FOR LINEBACKERS
Today should be a day to shine for Bucs linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, knowing how much the Bears leaned on running backs Jordan Howard and rookie Tarik Cohen last week.
Cohen was targeted 12 times with eight catches, including a 19-yard touchdown, and he had a 46-yard carry to set up another score before halftime. Howard rushed for 89 yards in the first half last year before suffering an ankle injury, so the Bucs' defensive goal will start with containing him to set up third-and-long situations.
Don't forget rookie LB Kendell Beckwith as part of this equation. The Bucs should be in base defense more as the Bears won't have a ton of three-WR looks, so he'll play a big role in run stopping in his NFL debut.
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The Bucs aren't the only team that beat up on the Bears last year. Washington won 41-21 on Christmas Eve in Chicago, and WR DeSean Jackson had a 57-yard catch against the Bears secondary as part of a 114-yard day.
That 57-yarder is longer than any play the Bucs offense had last season. Tampa Bay will want to establish that deep ball today so future opponents feel compelled to account for that as they prepare defensively.
One player QB Jameis Winston should be mindful of is Bears CB Marcus Cooper, who has four interceptions since the start of the 2014 season. Two of them came with Arizona in last year's rout of the Bucs, including a deflected screen he returned 60 yards for a touchdown.
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.