8:20 PM EST, FOX/NFL Network – Line: Buccaneers -3, Over/Under: 44.5
A pair of playoff hopefuls meet tonight in the windy city, as the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to Soldier Field to battle the surprising Chicago Bears on Thursday Night Football. No team made a bigger statement in the Offseason than the Buccaneers (3-1, 1st in NFC South), who served as one of the few legitimate suitors and eventual destination for Tom Brady (65.2%, 1,122 YDS, 6.84 NY/A, 11 TD, 4 INT, 63.3 QBR), who ended his 20-year marriage with the New England Patriots. It was indeed a bold move for Tampa Bay, who hasn’t made the Playoffs since 2007 with the past thirteen years mired by a myriad of coaching changes, and busts in both the NFL Draft and Free Agency. In fact, arguably their most notable bust has led directly to the acquisition of Brady; back in 2015, the club selected Jameis Winston with the No. One Overall Pick with every intention of the former Heisman and National Champion serving as their Franchise Quarterback for the next decade plus. However, Winston spent the majority of his tenure with the Bucs making noise off the field and leaving the majority of those within the organization scratching their heads due to his play on it; since being drafted, no Quarterback has tossed more interceptions than Winston (88), including a league-worst THIRTY last season, which would indeed be his final campaign with the team the club.
With that said, even with a league-worst forty-two turnovers as a team, the Buccaneers still managed to finish a respectable 7-9 behind an Offense that ranked third overall in both points (28.6) and total yardage (415.5). Winston aside, that’s a testament to the quality that can be found on this side of the football, as well the Coaching Staff, led by venerable Head Coach, Bruce Arians, and Offensive Coordinator, Byron Leftwich. Receivers, Mike Evans (17 REC, 230 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 5 TD) and Chris Godwin (11 REC, 143 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 1 TD), were both selected to the Pro Bowl, with each reeling in over 1,000 receiving yards on the season. With that kind of firepower, it became a legitimate argument as to what this group could accomplish with a Quarterback less mistake-prone than Winston, who also tossed thirty-three touchdowns in 2019. Enter Brady. The three-time MVP has never thrown more than fourteen interceptions in a season during his illustrious career, with a career interception percentage of 1.8%, which is night and day in comparison to that of his predecessor (3.5%). Sure, at the ripe old age of forty-three Tampa Bay is taking a risk on him, but by all means this is a calculated one, with the team going all in on the six-time Super Bowl champion over the duration of his contract (2 years/$50 million). In an attempt to bolster his supporting cast, the Bucs increased his protection along the Offensive Line, drafting athletic Tackle, Tristan Whirfs (13th Overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft, signing Tailback, Leonard Fournette (24 CAR, 123 YDS, 5.1 Y/C, 2 TD), following his release from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and even managed to coax Brady’s old BFF from New England, Rob Gronkowski (9 REC, 88 YDS, 9.8 YR, 0 TD), out of early retirement. However, due to COVID-19 the entire league suffered from a lack of a traditional Offseason of preparation, which was all the more important for teams welcoming in a new Quarterback, particular one such as Brady, who now had to shed two decades of operating out of the same playbook, for a completely new one, along with teammates who he would be allowed scarce time to build chemistry with. So with four games in the books, how has the experiment proceeded down on the Gulf Coast? After an initially slow start, it’s really starting to build steam, with Brady starting to get the hang of Arians’ scheme and vice versa; the future Hall of Famer has thrown for 666 yards with eight touchdowns in comparison to just one interception over the last two games, while taking only two sacks, as the Offense has averaged 33.0 points on 418.5 total yards in the pair of victories. Furthermore, they’ve increased their total offensive output with each passing week, starting with 310 in the Season Opener to a whopping 484 last weekend.
“We knew we had played poorly. It was just a show of character. I can honestly say that if this had been last year, we would have gotten beat by 20… This team has a ton of character and playmakers and we started making plays. You can see that when we don’t beat ourselves, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach
When we last saw the Buccaneers, they were forced to rely upon their veteran Quarterback to bring them back from the jaws of defeat, as Brady led a vintage rally to earn a thrilling 38-31 victory at home against the Los Angeles Chargers. Following an excellent opening drive traveling seventy-five yards in ten plays culminating in a touchdown from Brady to Tight End, Cameron Brate (1 REC, 3 YDS, 3.0 Y/R, 1 TD), the visitors responded with twenty-four unanswered points, including a n interception of Brady returned seventy-eight yards for a score. After that opening drive, Tamp Bay’s ensuing five drives went as such: an interception, a pair of three and outs, a missed field goal, and another three and out. However, trailing 24-7 Brady & Co would respond as expected, leading the home side to four consecutive touchdown drives, bringing his total of scores to five on the day, with five different players finding themselves on the receiving end. When it was all said and done, Sunday’s victory was headlined by vintage Tom Brady, completing 30-of-46 passes for 369 yards, five touchdowns and an interception, with the aforementioned Evans hauling in seven receptions on eight targets for 122 yards, while Ronald Jones (57 CAR, 253 YDS, 4.4 /C, 1 TD) rushed for 111 yards on twenty carries. The Defense also played a role in the win, with former All-Pro Defensive Tackle, Ndamukong Suh (12 TKL, 2 TFL, 5 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 FF), forcing a crucial fumble inside the Chargers’ 10-yard line which set up Brady’s touchdown to Evans just before Halftime, turning the tide of the affair. Tampa was without the aforementioned duo of Godwin (hamstring) and Fournette (ankle) with various injuries, with their availability for tonight’s affair in the Windy City up in the air on such a short turnaround.
Meanwhile, the Bears (3-1, 2nd in NFC North) too find themselves at 3-1, though their record carries with it a very different feeling than that of their opponent tonight. After last season’s disappointing 8-8 finish, Chicago entered 2020 on the verge of blowing it up and starting over, though that is what can be expected when you regress following you’re first postseason appearance in eight years. Significant investments had been made via Trade, Free Agency, and the Draft to build this group into a sustainable contender, but that simply hasn’t been the case as Matt Nagy’s outfit has been anything but convincing for the past year and some change. Of course, the biggest issue has been at Quarterback, where Mitchell Trubisky (63.2%, 3,138 YDS, 5.24 NY/A, 17 TD, 10 INT, 42.6 QBR) just hasn’t developed into the Franchise caliber player that the club envisioned when they traded up to select him at No. Two Overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. After struggling mightily as a rookie, he improved by leaps and bounds as a Sophomore, only to take a number of steps backwards in 2019. He completed averaged a meager 5.24 net yards per attempt, was sacked thirty-eight times (6.9%), while accounting for only seventeen touchdowns opposed to eleven turnovers, as the Offense sank with him as a result, ranking twenty-ninth in both points (17.5) and total yardage (314.4). Oh, and be drafted ahead of talents such as Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson have only made his performance even more damning, with General Manager, Ryan Pace, looking all the worse for his selection.
Granted, the supporting cast around Trubisky wasn’t necessarily the greatest either, what with an injury-riddled Offensive Line providing him with less than stellar protection while also effectively neutering the running game, but at the end of the day the Quarterback bore the brunt of the criticism, from within and without, which was certainly evident with the moves made this past Offseason. You can tell what Nagy thought of his signal-caller, for sensing his job could very well be on the line with another mediocre campaign, he petitioned Management to find him an alternative, eventually settling upon Nick Foles (59.2%, 437 YDS, 5.96 NY/A, 4 TD, 2 INT, 42.1 QBR). To say that it’s been an interesting career for Foles would be an understatement, with the 31-year old finding himself on his fifth different team in six years, oftentimes straddling the line between starter and backup. However, his stint with the Philadelphia Eagles earned him widespread notoriety as he led the team to it’s first Super Bowl championship in franchise history, ironically besting them same man who he will be lining up against tonight. With that said, the veteran journeyman has never really been able to parlay these stretches of brilliance into consistent periods of time, evidenced by how he flamed out after just four starts in Jacksonville after receiving a hefty contract in Free Agency. So with the Bears needing a capable backup and Foles needing a home, the Quarterback reunited with Nagy, with the two having worked together in Kansas City back in 2016, with the latter serving as the former’s Offensive Coordinator. Without the benefit of a proper Offseason, it was viewed as a genuine surprise that Nagy selected Trubisky to be the starter on Opening Day, though most believed that this was the organization mandating one last opportunity for him to prove himself, with Foles simply biding his time. Well, all it took was two and a half games for Nagy to make the change; even with Chicago 2-0, Trubisky made way for Foles shortly before the Fourth Quarter against the Atlanta Falcons, trailing 26-10. The former was 11-of-22 for 128 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but the Offense was stalling dead in the water, and a spark was needed, which is where Foles arrived to work his familiar magic. In just over six minutes of play, the former Super Bowl MVP went 16-of-29 for 188 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception, inspiring the Bears to a shocking 30-26 victory to move to 3-0. To the surprise of absolutely no one, he was named the starter moving forward, with the Trubisky experiment effectively over and done.
“I have to be better, I have to be more crisp and it’s as simple as that.. I look forward to improving.”Nick Foles, Chicago Bears Quarterback
When we last saw the Bears, they looked to extend their unbeaten run at home against the surging Indianapolis Colts in what turned into the kind of defensive struggle that we’ve long associated with the franchise. However, they would not be the victor in this matchup, a 19-11 defeat in which both teams were relegated below 300 total yards. Though he performed well against Atlanta’s beleaguered Defense the week prior, Foles had all manner of problems against Indianapolis, completing 26-of-42 passes for 249 yards, a touchdown and an interception, with a nonexistent running game (28 YDS) making it difficult to sustain drives (4-of-14 on Third Down), in addition to eight penalties for a loss of 103 yards. Seven of Chicago’s first nine drives ended with a punt, before their tenth was finished off with an interception. Foles did manage to drive the hosts ninety yards downfield inside of four minutes finding Allen Robinson (25 REC, 331 YDS, 13.2 Y/R, 2 TD) for a touchdown, but it was simply a case of too little too late as they failed to recover the ensuing onside kick. It was an Offense that noticeably lacked any sense of rhythm on Sunday, with Nagy & Co needing to build that requisite chemistry on short week against what is becoming a prolific opponent. Fortunately, the Defense remains one of the league’s best, and should keep them in tonight’s affair; Chicago ranks seventh and eighth overall in points allowed (20.3) and total defense (345.3) respectively, along with third on third down (34.4%) and first in the red zone (37.5%).