The Bears will look to snap a three-game losing streak Sunday when they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Here are four storylines heading into the game:
1) Will the Bears be able to contain the Buccaneers running game?
You may remember that coach Lovie Smith's teams get off the bus running, and that hasn't changed in his second season in Tampa. The Buccaneers offense features running back Doug Martin, who ranks second in the NFL in rushing behind the Vikings' Adrian Peterson.
With 1,305 yards, Martin trails Peterson by just nine yards with two games remaining and likely will get plenty of carries with the rushing title within his reach. Nicknamed "The Muscle Hamster," Martin is an explosive back who has had runs of 84, 56, 49 and 39 yards this year.
"Maybe he doesn't have Peterson's breakaway speed, but he's a very tough inside runner who can bounce it outside," said Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "He sees the holes very well. He's got great running instincts in finding the hole and the softness in a defense. The guy has made a lot of big plays."
Kyle Long has had runs of 26 and 35 yards nullified by penalties in the past two weeks.
The Bears limited Peterson to just 63 yards on 18 carries in last Sunday's loss to the Vikings and hope to have similar success against Martin. But they could be playing without their top two tacklers—inside linebacker Shea McClellin (concussion) is doubtful for the game, while rookie safety Adrian Amos (shoulder) is questionable.
2) Will the Bears stop hurting themselves with self-inflicted mistakes?
In losing three straight games, the Bears have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot on offense with penalties, sacks and turnovers. The past two weeks Matt Forte has had runs of 26 and 35 yards nullified by penalties. Forte called the flag that wiped out his 35-yarder on the first play of last Sunday's game against the Vikings a "momentum-killer."
"We'd like to cut down on penalties," said quarterback Jay Cutler. "First and second down, staying more efficient. I feel like as of late we've had a lot of second-and-longs and a lot of third-and-longs. It makes it really hard on the play-caller. It makes it really hard for us to convert some of those things. So if we can cut down on that and give ourselves a chance on third down, hopefully we can be more successful."
The Bears allowed sacks on each of their first three possessions last Sunday against the Vikings, with all three drives not surprisingly ending with punts. Right tackle Kyle Long has gotten beat for strip/sacks that resulted in turnovers in each of the last two games. But Cutler isn't worried about the third-year pro bouncing back.
"He's had his struggles the last couple games," Cutler said. "He's admitted that. He knows that. He's [gone] out and worked on it this week. I fully expect him to rebound and have one of his better games. But I mean you go back and look at the tape, and Von Miller, Khalil Mack, some of these big-time rush guys, and he's blocked those guys well. It's not a thing of if he can physically do it because we know he can do that."
3) Will the Bears pass defense improve against Jameis Winston?
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater looked like Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton against the Bears last week. The second-year pro threw a career-high four touchdown passes, ran for a fifth and posted a 154.4 passer rating that was the highest against the Bears since at least 1960.
A week later, they'll face talented rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft. Winston has passed for 3,422 yards—already the sixth most by a rookie in NFL history—and 20 touchdowns. The former Florida State star has also rushed for five TDs this season.
"He's got a big arm," Fangio said. "He's accurate. He's very athletic in the pocket, moves around well. He's a big guy and when he pulls it down he can run tough and harder than most quarterbacks. I think he's got great pocket sense; where to slide a little bit to buy some time to throw. And he's not afraid to hang in there. He's not looking at the rush. He's looking downfield."
4) Will Deonte Thompson continue to provide a boost on special teams?
Since being promoted from the Bears' practice squad to the active roster Nov. 10, Thompson has averaged 32.0 yards on 11 kickoff returns. He had a 74-yarder late in an overtime loss to the 49ers that put the Bears in position to win in regulation and a 49-yarder on the opening kickoff last Sunday against the Vikings.
"Deonte is giving us a spark there," said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. "He's got really good speed. As we evaluated him before we acquired him, that was the one thing you saw in him was his kickoff return ability. You see the speed on tape and he's just done a really good job embracing that role."
Thompson joined the Bears this year after appearing in 14 games over three seasons with the Ravens (2012-13) and Bills (2014), catching 15 passes for 147 yards and averaging 26.8 yards on 22 kickoff returns.