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4 things to watch: Bears-Bucs

Posted Nov 12, 2016

Senior writer Larry Mayer identifies four storylines to watch in Sunday's game between the Bears and Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

The Bears (2-6) will look to record back-to-back wins for the first time since last November Sunday when they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:

(1) Can Jay Cutler and the Bears offense build on their Halloween performance against the Vikings versus a Buccaneers defense that isn't as good on paper?

Cutler made a triumphant return to the lineup after missing five games with a sprained right thumb in leading the Bears to an upset win over the Vikings. The veteran quarterback completed 20 of 31 passes for 252 yards with one touchdown and a 100.5 passer rating.

Jordan Howard
Jordan Howard rushed for a career-high 153 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries in Week 8.

The Bears amassed 403 total yards, converted 7-of-14 third-down opportunities and did not commit a turnover against a Vikings defense that led the NFL in yards allowed and takeaways. With another week of practice under Cutler's belt, the Bears offense appears to be primed to have a breakout performance against a Buccaneers defense that has permitted 73 points in its last two games.

The Bears need to have a balanced attack in Tampa just like they did against the Vikings, when rookie Jordan Howard rushed for a career-high 153 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. The Bears enter Week 10 ranked 31st in the NFL in scoring, averaging 16.4 points per game. They've produced more than 20 points in just one of eight contests this season.

(2) How much of a boost will the players returning from injuries give the Bears?

The Bears enter Week 10 as healthy as they've been all season, with only cornerback Deiondre Hall (ankle) and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (back) unable to practice Friday.

Five players who were sidelined against the Vikings returned to practice this week. Pro Bowl guards Kyle Long (triceps) and Josh Sitton (ankle) are no longer on the injury report, while receiver Eddie Royal (toe), nose tackle Eddie Goldman (ankle) and cornerback Bryce Callahan (hamstring) all were listed as questionable after being limited in Friday's workout.

Asked about how Royal looked in practice this week, coach John Fox said: "Real good. You're never really sure when they kind of start getting back into it, but obviously the bye week and that rest and that time off helped him and he had a productive week."

Getting Goldman back would be huge for the Bears defense. The second-year pro is a disruptive force in the middle of the line both stuffing the run and collapsing the pocket on pass plays. Callahan is also key given the drop-off behind him on the depth chart at cornerback.

(3) Will the Bears be able to contain Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans?

Evans is the top playmaker on Tampa Bay's offense. The 6-5, 231-pounder has caught 55 passes for 745 yards and leads NFL receivers with eight touchdowns.

"He's a tough assignment," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "He's got the size/speed/hands combination that is rare. The quarterback (Jameis Winston) feels good throwing to him and the quarterback knows he's got a big catch radius, so he throws it up there."

In Tampa Bay's last game, Evans caught a career-high 11 passes for 150 yards last Thursday night in a 43-28 loss to the Falcons. He was injured while making a one-handed catch in the game, but has been cleared from the concussion protocol and is expected to play Sunday.

The Bears' top cornerback, veteran Tracy Porter, has been hampered by a knee injury most of the season. He was limited in practice this week and is listed as questionable on the injury report.

(4) Can the Bears win back-to-back games for the first time since last November?

The Bears have had trouble stacking wins; they haven't recorded back-to-back victories since beating the Chargers and Rams last November. Since then, they are 0-4 in games following a win.

"This league's all about putting together wins," Cutler said. "If you go win/loss throughout the whole year, you're not going to be where you want to be. So being able to stack two, three, four, five wins and not have back-to-back losses, that's how you make the playoffs and that's how you're successful in this league."

The Bears are 0-4 on the road this season, with their last win away from home coming last Dec. 27 in Tampa. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, have lost six straight home games dating back to last year and are a league-worst 3-17 at home since the start of the 2014 season.