Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday's road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Offense: Running back Jordan Howard
Bears running back Jordan Howard.
The Bears intend to operate a run-oriented offense, which means continuing to rely on Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing last season with 1,313 yards, a Bears rookie record. The 2016 fifth-round pick only had moderate success in last Sunday's season-opening loss to the Falcons, rushing for 52 yards on 13 carries and catching three passes for 14 yards.
Howard led the Bears with seven touchdowns last season and scored their first one this year on a 4-yard run against the Falcons. But the running back also dropped a pass at the 1-yard line in the final seconds of the game with the Bears needing a touchdown to win, though it appeared he would not have scored had he caught the ball.
Howard's availability for Sunday's game in Tampa is uncertain, however, given that he's listed as questionable with a shoulder injury he sustained versus Atlanta. But coach John Fox said early in the week that he was not concerned about Howard's injury and reiterated that stance Friday, reporting that the running back has "had a good week of preparation, albeit limited."
Howard rushed for 100 yards on just 15 carries last Nov. 13 in a 36-10 loss to the Buccaneers in Tampa. It was one of seven 100-yard games during his rookie season.
Defense: Defensive end Akiem Hicks
Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks.
After stints with the Saints and Patriots, Hicks has seemingly found a home with the Bears. On Sunday, he hopes to take up residence in the Buccaneers backfield. The 6-5, 332-pounder signed a four-year contract extension through 2021 last Saturday night and then produced the Bears' only two sacks the next day in their season-opening loss to the Falcons.
Hicks has been one of the Bears' most productive players since signing with the team as a free agent last year. But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thinks that he can continue to improve. "He's gotten better and better," Fangio said. "There are still a lot of things he can do better. But I think he has improved. I expect him to. He's in the prime of his career. He should continue to improve. It always won't result in big numbers. But there are little things he can do better. But overall we're pleased with his play and where he's headed."
Where Hicks is headed this weekend is Tampa, where he will try to help a seemingly improved Bears defense contain a Buccaneers passing game that features quarterback Jameis Winston and receivers Mike Evans and free-agent addition LeSean McCoy.
Offense: Center Cody Whitehair
Bears offensive lineman Cody Whitehair.
Whitehair endured some Week 1 struggles. He was flagged for a pair of penalties, which cost the Bears offense 20 valuable yards, and had a poor snap that caused quarterback Mike Glennon to scramble. There were also problems for the offensive line as a whole. Atlanta had four sacks of Glennon on the day, and the line had issues creating inside running room. The Bears gained just 24 yards on seven rushing plays aimed between the offensive tackles against the Falcons. Not all of that falls on Whitehair, but as the literal centerpiece of the line, he needs to do a better job creating room to run.
The Buccaneers offer a strong opportunity for Whitehair and the offensive line to see improvement. Tampa Bay ranked near the bottom of the NFL in 2016 in rushing yards allowed, giving up more than 117 yards per game. Whitehair will have to deal with All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had seven sacks a year ago. But if the second-year center can just hold his own against McCoy, the Bears offense should be in good shape running against the Tampa defense.
Defense: Inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski
Bears inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski.
Jerrell Freeman's torn pectoral creates a vacancy in the Chicago linebacking corps, as well as an opportunity for Kwiatkoski. After starting seven games last season as a rookie, the Bears were expecting Kwiatkoski to provide terrific depth in 2017. However, with Freeman being placed on injured reserve, Kwiatkoski now returns to the starting lineup. He'll be thrown into a tough task, patrolling the middle of the field against a dangerous Buccaneers passing attack.
Winston has a big arm and plenty of targets, and the expectation is that he'll air it out on Sunday. Kwiatkoski will be asked to patrol the middle of the field and limit the downfield throws, while also keeping an eye on rookie tight end O.J. Howard. It's a tough task to replace Freeman, but if Kwiatkoski can play to his abilities, the defense shouldn't expect any dropoff at all.