The Bears will look for their third straight win when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:
(1) In a matchup of two of the best units in the NFL on their respective sides of the ball, will the Bears defense be able to contain the Buccaneers offense?
A resurgent Bears defense has dominated at times early in the season, entering Week 4 leading the NFL with 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles. After allowing two first-quarter touchdowns to the Cardinals last Sunday, the unit shut out Arizona over the final three quarters while generating takeaways on four straight possessions to help fuel a 16-14 comeback victory.
The task gets tougher for the Bears defense Sunday at Soldier Field against an explosive Buccaneers offense that ranks first in the NFL in total yards and passing yards. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 14-year veteran, has become the first player in league history to pass for at least 400 yards in three straight games and ranks second in the NFL with a 124.8 passer rating.
"These guys are really good," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "They've put up the numbers and I think what gets lost in it a little bit is who they've put it up against. They've put it up against three teams (the Saints, Eagles and Steelers) that most people had in their bucket as Super Bowl contenders, and they've gone out there and played really, really well, set some records, some personal records. They're throwing it around and moving the ball on offense really, really good."
(2) Will the Bears offense have a breakout performance against a Buccaneers defense that has struggled early in the season?
First-year coach Matt Nagy has stressed from Day 1 that with a new scheme and young quarterback, the Bears offense would experience some growing pains and take some time to gel. That's exactly what's happened early in the season; while the unit has shown flashes, it has scored only four touchdowns in the first three games.
On paper, it appears that the offense has an excellent opportunity to excel Sunday at Soldier Field against a Buccaneers defense that ranks 29th in the NFL in points allowed and 31st in total yards. The unit is trying to overcome key injuries in the secondary—cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and safety Chris Conte are on injured reserve—but boasts a strong front seven led by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander.
"We haven't peaked as a team yet," said receiver Allen Robinson. "We haven't put it all together yet. The defense has played outstanding. Offensively, we've played good at times and gotten points when we've needed, put together drives when we needed to. But we haven't really put it all together. Once we're able to put it all together, I think it's going to be special."
(3) Will Khalil Mack continue to make game-changing plays as he's done in each of the first three games of the season?
Mack is garnering early consideration for NFL defensive player of the year honors with a dominant start to his first year with the Bears. The fifth-year pro is tied for the NFL lead with four sacks and tops the league with three forced fumbles. He has a strip/sack in each of the first three games and returned an interception for a touchdown in the season opener against the Packers in Green Bay.
The Buccaneers no doubt will put multiple players on Mack, which should free up some of his teammates. "There was one play with three of them on him," linebacker Danny Trevathan said after last Sunday's win over the Cardinals. "I'm like, ‘All right, who's going to block me? Let me go eat then.' You've got to keep an eye on him when he's in there. If you block him, somebody else is going to make the play. If you don't block him, he's going to make you pay for it. He's a dog out there. He's a fighter. I've seen him get through three, four, five people. Young guys see that and the team's buying into that and we're all happy to have him on this side."
(4) Will the Bears offense improve in the red zone after scoring only one touchdown on three trips inside-the-20 last Sunday against the Cardinals?
Focusing on their red-zone offense was a top priority this week in practice for the Bears, who are determined to score touchdowns and not settle for field goals on drives deep in opponents' territory. Last weekend against the Cardinals, Cody Parkey missed a 46-yard field goal after quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was sacked for a 15-yard loss. Later in the game, the Bears were forced to settle for a short Parkey field goal after having first-and-goal at the 4.
"The problem with us right now is we need to make the routine plays routine," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. "That obviously is magnified at the quarterback position and the blame and the praise is maybe unfairly put on that position and it always will. But [Trubisky] needs to make layups. Our right guard, left guard whoever it is that happens to have had a couple breakdowns in certain situations, we just need to make routine plays."
"I think we could be more efficient [in the red zone]," Nagy added, "more productive, and that in turn, if you start getting touchdowns and helping your defense out and getting points on the board, then it'll cover up some of the other stuff that's getting magnified because we're not producing points in the red zone, so I'd like to get better in the red zone."