The Bears (3-3) will battle the defending Super Bowl champions Sunday when they visit the Buccaneers (5-1) in Tampa. Here are four storylines to watch in the contest:
(1) How will the Bears defense fare against Buccaneers superstar quarterback Tom Brady?
The G.O.A.T. is playing arguably the best football of his illustrious 22-year NFL career at the age of 44, and that's saying something special given that he's won seven Super Bowls and has thrown for an NFL-record 81,268 yards.
This season, Brady leads the league in passing yards with 2,064 while throwing for 17 touchdowns and three interceptions with a 108.0 passer rating. With the future Hall of Famer guiding a juggernaut offense, the Buccaneers rank third in the NFL in scoring at 32.5 points per game.
The Bears beat Brady for the first time in six career meetings last Oct. 8 when they recorded a 20-19 win over the Buccaneers at Soldier Field. But Tampa Bay has been a different team since its Week 13 bye last season, winning 13 of 14 games. That includes all four of its postseason contests last year, capped by a 31-9 drubbing of the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
Asked what impresses him most about Brady, Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai said: "Just his overall command of the offense. I mean, you see it on tape. He's so calm. He's seen everything from a coverage standpoint, a front structure standpoint to a pressure standpoint. He hasn't played this long and not seen everything, so he's got all the answers built in.
"The one thing that is pretty amazing is how fast he processes things from when he gets to the line of scrimmage to getting the snap. There's a lot of things going on and the game seems so slow for him."
The Bears entered Week 7 tied with the Vikings for the NFL lead with 21 sacks, but Brady has been sacked just nine times in six games. It's difficult to get to him because he unloads the ball so quickly.
(2) Will the Bears be able to move the ball on the ground against the NFL's No. 1 run defense?
A revitalized running game has helped the Bears create an identity on offense. They've produced their three highest rushing totals of the season the past three weeks, with 188 yards in a win over the Lions, 143 yards in a victory over the Raiders and 140 yards in a loss to the Packers.
Yards figure to be much more difficult to compile Sunday in Tampa against a Buccaneers run defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL, allowing an average of just 54.8 yards on the ground per game. That's 24.2 yards fewer than the second stingiest run defense in the league, the Saints (79.0).
"That will be a true test for us," said Bears coach Matt Nagy. "They're a stout run defense. They've got a lot of great players on that front line, the second level with their linebackers. The amount of respect that I have for Todd Bowles as a defensive coordinator and what he does is real. So, that combination of how he schemes and then the players they have, I think there is a reason why they are that good."
Tampa Bay's run defense is anchored by mammoth 6-4, 347-pound nose tackle Vita Vea.
"[He does] just such a great job holding the point in the run game," said Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. "It's hard. Usually when you double-team someone, you feel like at least we can get a little bit of movement. We can control him. But he can destroy double teams so well that it's hard to get off for the linebackers, and then in the pass game he has a rare ability to push the pocket."
The Bears received some good news Saturday, when veteran running back Damien Williams was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list. With David Montgomery set to miss his third straight game, Williams is expected to rejoinKhalil Herbert in the Bears backfield. The two formed a dynamic 1-2 punch in a win over the Raiders two weeks ago, combining to rush for 139 yards on 34 carries.
(3) Will the Bears be able to produce explosive plays in the passing game?
The offense generated two impressive 80-yard touchdown drives in last Sunday's loss to the Packers. But on the Bears' other six possessions in the game, they failed to score or even advance beyond Green Bay's 30.
Rookie quarterback Justin Fields had three completions of at least 20 yards in the contest, and they all came on the two TD drives—a 20-yarder to Allen Robinson II in the first quarter, and a 21-yarder to Cole Kmet and 20-yarder to Robinson in the fourth period.
The Bears know that they must generate more big plays in the passing game because it's difficult to consistently put together 10- or 12-play drives, especially against a defense as talented as the one they'll face Sunday.
The Buccaneers have been depleted at the cornerback position; Sunday will feature their seventh different starting tandem in as many games this season. Opening day starters Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting remain on injured reserve, while recent signee Richard Sherman has been ruled out of this weekend's contest due to a hamstring injury.
It won't be easy to produce chunk plays, however. The Buccaneers blitz as much or more than any other NFL team and figure to test Fields with a steady diet of pressure.
"They make it difficult because they give you different looks," Nagy said. "I go back to schematically with what coach Bowles does with his players and how he changes things up. He doesn't have a lot of tendencies. That's always been his M.O. He is an aggressive-type personality."
(4) Will Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack continue to excel?
This season, the six-time Pro Bowler is showing why he's considered one of the NFL's top pass rushers. Mack leads the Bears with 6.0 sacks—his highest total after the first six games in his eight-year NFL career. He also enters Week 7 with sacks in each of his last five contests, the league's longest active streak. In last year's win over the Buccaneers, Mack registered a season-high 2.0 sacks of Brady.
Mack's consistent performance is even more impressive given that he's been dealing with a foot injury since the Bears' Week 3 game in Cleveland. Over the last four weeks, he's practiced on a limited basis if at all.
The Buccaneers no doubt will pay a lot of attention to Mack, especially with fellow veteran outside linebacker Robert Quinn on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Mack (6.0) and Quinn (5.5) have combined for 11.5 sacks this season, the most by any two teammates in the NFL.