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: Receiver Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery enjoys an excellent rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler, who will make his second straight start Sunday in Tampa after missing five games with a sprained right thumb. In Cutler's first game back Halloween night against the Vikings, he connected with Jeffery on four passes for 63 yards and one touchdown—Jeffery's first score of the season.
The Bears star receiver produced 105 and 96 yards in the first two games this year while playing with Cutler and then averaged 63.8 yards in the five contests the veteran quarterback sat out. Cutler likes to give Jeffery a chance to win 50/50 jump-balls against smaller defenders and will try to take advantage of a Buccaneers defense that has allowed 73 points in its last two games.
Asked about his expectations for Jeffery, Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said: "I want him to help us get the ball in the end zone and make big plays for us and block in the run game. It's a one-game season for us. We can't afford to look at anything past that."
Jeffery and Cutler will face a Buccaneers defense that allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to throw for 344 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-28 win last Thursday night in Tampa.
Defense: Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee
After missing the first six games while recovering from offseason knee surgery, McPhee was limited to 19 snaps while making his season debut Oct. 20 against the Packers. He was on the field for 25 plays versus the Vikings and responded with one sack and four quarterback hits.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said that McPhee "just seemed to have an inch or two of better movement, which to me is more of a result of playing in that first game and then getting a week of practice too. That was a big thing. He really didn't have that going into the Green Bay. I think there was just a little more comfortability on his part."
With the bye week and four more practices this week, the Bears are hoping that McPhee takes another step Sunday against the Buccaneers. He brings toughness and a nasty attitude to the defense, saying this week: "I told the guys the main thing was to stay [ticked] off. Guys need to know where we are and where we can go. The sky's the limit. The only thing we've got to do is stay focused."
Offense: Tight end Zach Miller
The Chicago passing game flexed its muscles a bit in the Week 8 win over the Vikings. Quarterback Jay Cutler averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt and didn't turn the ball over once. Cutler also did a great job of stretching the field with big plays; the Bears had four pass plays that went for 20 or more yards. Given the state of the Tampa Bay defense, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Bears air it out once again, which could mean a lot of targets for tight end Zach Miller. Against the Vikings, Cutler threw Miller's way a team-high 10 times. The tight end responded with seven catches for a season-high 88 yards.
Versus the Buccaneers, the passing tandem will have the chance to put up big numbers again. Tampa Bay ranks near the bottom of the NFL in passing yards per game and passing yards per play. The Bucs are also among the league's worst at intercepting opponents' passes. With a knack for finding openings in coverage and exploiting mismatches downfield, Miller is in prime position to have another big day for a rejuvenated Bears passing attack.
Defense: Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman
The Bears defense was a rotating cast of characters during the first half of the season, with 30 different players seeing snaps on that side of the ball through the first eight games. One of the few constants was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman in the middle of the field. Freeman played all eight games and leads the team in tackles, showing to be a force versus the pass and the run. Against the Bucs, he'll have to not only patrol the middle of the field versus running backs and receivers, but Freeman also will keep his eye out for quarterback Jameis Winston, who can tuck it and run with the ball when necessary.
Winston has a strong arm and throws deep often, with an average pass length of 10.05 yards this season, the highest among eligible quarterbacks in the NFL. Freeman may play further from the line of scrimmage than normal as a result, hoping to take away the deep middle area of the field. The linebacker thankfully has good closing speed, in case he needs to come up and cut off the run or shorter throws. As the leader of the Bears defense, Freeman will surely be front and center if Chicago can shut down the Bucs offense.