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NFL at Wembley: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Chicago Bears preview

The NFL returns to the UK on Sunday with its fifth regular season game at Wembley Stadium. This year sees a clash of two previous Super Bowl winners, as the Tampa Bay Bucccaneers (who won Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003) host the Chicago Bears (winners of Super Bowl XX in 1986).

The Bears come to Wembley with a 3-3 record, having trounced NFC North rivals Minnesota Vikings 39-10 last weekend. The Bucs (4-2) are tied for the lead in the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints, having held off a late Saints’ rally 26-20 last Sunday.

Let’s take a look at both teams, and the key players to watch out for on Sunday.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If the Bucs can be summed up in one word, it would be ‘young’. They are the youngest team in the league, with only two players on the roster aged over 30, and led by the NFL’s youngest head coach, Raheem Morris, who at 35 is already in his third year.

On offense, quarterback Josh Freeman, running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receivers Mike Williams, Preston Parker and Arrelious Benn are all aged 24 or under.

Graham will again replace the injured Blount as the featured running back (image courtesy of buccaneers.com)

Third-year passer Freeman has already developed a reputation as a level-headed leader adept at producing come-from-behind victories (he has eight already, including two this season). Surprisingly mobile for a man weighing close to 250lbs, he will have good memories of Wembley, having taken his first snaps as a pro in the fourth quarter of Tampa’s previous visit to Wembley, a 35-7 rout at the hands of the New England Patriots.

Blount is the normally Bucs’ featured runner in their balanced, ball-control offense. However, after missing last week’s win over the Saints with a knee injury, he has been ruled out for Sunday. A powerful inside runner, last year he became only the third Tampa Bay running back to gain 1,000 ground yards in a single season (1,007 yards at an average of 5.0 per carry), and only the second undrafted rookie to do so.

Instead fullback Earnest Graham will shoulder the load on running players, as he did against the Saints. The 31-year old veteran ran for 109 yards as the Buccaneers’ offense barely skipped a beat. Little-used journeyman Kregg Lumpkin – who has just six NFL carries to his name – provides backup.

Having made his first ever NFL appearance at Wembley two years ago, Freeman returns as starter (image courtesy of buccaneers.com)

The passing game has yet to fire on all cylinders, with Freeman throwing more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five). And in a season where passing records are being broken every week, Tampa’s quarterback registered only his first 300-yard game last weekend and no receiver has yet to record a 100-yard game. Williams led all NFL rookies last year with 11 TD catches but has just one so far this season, and although he has 25 receptions he is averaging less than 10 yards per catch. Parker and Benn are more likely to present a deep threat, averaging 14.1 and 16.2 per catch, with both scoring twice.

The Bucs’ ball-control system likes to spread the football around. Freeman’s favourite target is veteran tight end Kellen Winslow Jr (27 catches) while Graham has 25 grabs. All five of Freeman’s touchdowns, however, have gone to his three main wide receivers, with Benn’s 65-yard score the only one to have covered more than 25 yards.

When Freeman does drop back, the quick passing nature of the Bucs’ gameplan and a strong offensive line means he is generally well protected. The Bucs have given up just nine sacks, tied-fourth in the league. Overall, Tampa Bay are in the middle of the pack in terms of total offensive yardage (15th), passing (14th) and rushing (15th). At 18.8 points per game, they are just 25th in terms of scoring.

Safety Jones plays a pivotal role in both run and pass defense (image courtesy of buccaneers.com)

The Bucs are equally young on the defensive side of the ball, relying on 36-year old veteran cornerback Ronde Barber for leadership. Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster has made a solid start to his NFL career at the heart of a hard-hitting run defense led by the team’s leading tackler, strong safety Sean Jones. They rank a respectable 18th in rushing yards allowed and have already recovered six fumbles (only two teams have more).

Their key weakness is in defending the pass, where they rank a lowly 26th in the NFL, leaking 276 yards per game and a total of ten TDs through the air. Five different defenders have recorded a single interception each. Part of their problem stems from a lack of penetration up front – Tampa have recorded just ten sacks so far this season (tied-22nd), with Foster and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett having two each.

If nothing else, Tampa Bay games generally remain in doubt right until the end. With the exception of week five’s 48-3 loss in San Francisco, all of the Bucs’ matches have been decided by seven points or fewer. In close situations, they can rely on strong-legged kicker Connor Barth, who is 12 of 14 on field goal attempts this season and tied an NFL record in 2009 by landing three kicks from 50 yards or more in a single game.

Players to watch: Josh Freeman (quarterback),  Earnest Graham (running back), Arrelious Benn (wide receiver), Sean Jones (strong safety).

Chicago Bears

Having pushed the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers all the way in January’s NFC Championship game, it has been a stuttering start to the 2011 season for Lovie Smith‘s Bears. A 3-3 start sees them travel to Wembley third in the NFC North, three games behind the unbeaten Packers and two behind the 5-1 Detroit Lions, with little margin for error if they want to sustain their playoff hopes.

Forte is the key to the Bears' offense (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Solid rather than spectacular, Chicago are an efficient team adept at both maximising their offensive opportunities and stopping opponents in the red zone. They rank a mediocre 21st in total offense but average 24.3 points per game, good for 10th in the league, while their fourth-worst defense in terms of total yardage is 12th best in points allowed (22.0 per game). Unlike the Buccaneers, who specialise in close games, it has largely been feast or famine for the Bears. Only one of their games has been decided by less than ten points, with the average margin of victory in their six games being 15.

True to the team’s tradition, the Bears’ offense starts and finishes with running back Matt Forte. The fourth-year back is an all-round threat who is already approaching 4,000 career rushing yards and has surpassed 200 receptions. He is well on track to post career-best seasons in both categories. He currently leads the team with 527 yards’ rushing and 36 receptions. After a relatively slow start he has picked up a head of steam over the last three games, in which he has rushed for 408 yards (including 205 against Carolina in week four). Forte is also the only Chicago player to have had a 100-yard receiving game this season.

Cutler is a talented but inconsistent quarterback (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Bears will aim to hand off the ball to Forte at least 20 times to protect a passing offense which is as fragile as it is talented. Sixth-year quarterback Jay Cutler divides opinion. A strong-armed game-winner on his day, he is equally prone to committing critical errors. He has thrown for at least 20 touchdowns in each of his four full years as a starter, but has also given up at least 14 interceptions in each of those seasons (including a career-high 26 in his first year as a Bear in 2009). He certainly isn’t helped by a porous offensive line, which gave up a massive 52 sacks last season and have already suffered 19 this year, third-worst in the NFL. As a result Cutler lost six fumbles last year, to which he has added a further two so far this season. So far this year, however, Cutler has done well, passing for eight touchdowns with only four interceptions.

Forte is by far Cutler’s most likely target – his 36 receptions are more than double the total of his next-best teammate. Wide receivers Devin Hester (17 catches) and Johnny Knox (16) are both deep threats, although they have just one TD between them this season. Rookie Dane Sanzebacher is more of a possession receiver who averages barely nine yards per catch, but he already has three scores among his 17 receptions. Tight end Kellen Davis (two TDs) is also a scoring threat.

Urlacher remains the heart and soul of a tough Bears defense (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

On defense the Bears concede a lot of field position (both running and passing) but are relatively stingy when it comes to points. 12th-year veteran middle linebacker Brian Urlacher remains the beating heart, but hard-hitting cornerback Charles Tillman and outside linebacker Lance Briggs are the leading tacklers on a defense which has already recovered four fumbles.

A fierce pass rush is led by experienced defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, who have combined for seven of the Bears’ 14 sacks. However, Chicago have a measly four interceptions this far – two each for Urlacher and defensive back D J Moore.

Special teams is an area of genuine strength for the Bears. Robbie Gould is the third most accurate kicker in NFL history, and has successfully converted each of his 13 field goal attempts this season. Devin Hester remains one of the league’s best-ever returners. Already this season he has scored on a 69-yard punt return and a 98-yard kickoff return. Overall, defense and special teams have contributed an impressive four of the Bears’ 15 touchdowns this season.

Players to watch: Matt Forte (running back), Devin Hester (wide receiver/kick returner), Brian Urlacher (middle linebacker), Julius Peppers (defensive end).

Predictions for Sunday

Both teams come into this game on the back of confidence-boosting wins over divisional rivals. However, as the home team Tampa Bay will benefit from the support of the majority of a vociferous Wembley crowd. They will also be better acclimatised, having arrived in London on Monday – the Bears did not arrive until today (Friday) – and with several of their players familiar with both Wembley and the accompanying PR circus from their game here two years ago. So it would not be a surprise to see the Bucs being the faster team out of the blocks.

Although there was rain in London earlier in the week, the weather forecast is dry throughout the weekend. This should ensure the pitch – which has had problems with the turf cutting up in the past – should not cause any problems, and provide decent traction to give both teams a chance to establish their running games. Expect to see LeGarrette Blount and Matt Forte featuring prominently in the first quarter, with the key battles likely to be fought in the trenches as Blount squares up to Brian Urlacher and Forte tests Sean Jones and rookie Mason Foster.

Hester poses a big threat on both offense and special teams (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Each team will look to control time of possession but will certainly air it out too, and it would not be a surprise to see both quarterbacks looking for a home-run ball early on, with Preston Parker and Arrelious Benn most likely to be sent deep for the Bucs and Devin Hester and Johnny Knox doing the same for the Bears. However, I would expect both quarterbacks to spend most of their time checking down underneath to keep the chains moving – which means Kellen Winslow, Mike Williams and Earnest Graham seeing plenty of the ball for Tampa, while Forte and Dane Sanzebacher can expect to be the targets for the majority of Cutler’s passes for Chicago.

And every time Tampa have to kick off or punt, watch out for Hester. Blink and you might miss him.

I’m expecting a tense, closely fought game which could well depend on which version of Jay Cutler turns up. Offensive fireworks are unlikely – Tampa Bay have yet to score 30 points in a game, and Chicago have won every time they score 30 and lose every time they don’t – but I’m backing the more experienced Bears to squeeze past the young Bucs 23-20.

Sky Sports is showing a special game preview on Sky Sports 3 (Saturday 6pm, Sunday 4am), Sky Sports 1 (Sunday 12am) and Sky Sports 4 (Sunday 8am and 11am). Live coverage of the match is on Sky Sports 3 from 5:30pm on Sunday afternoon. Highlights will appear on BBC1 on Sunday at 11:45pm.

Links: NFL website, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

2 Responses to NFL at Wembley: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Chicago Bears preview

  1. txtmstrjoe says:

    Intriguing game, for sure.

    I think the key match-up will be Chicago’s O-line vs. Tampa Bay’s D-line. As you’ve noted, neither unit is their respective teams’ strength. It would be interesting which weakness is more exploitable.

    If the Bears can establish a strong run game, they should win this one easily.

    Hope you have a great time, Tim!

    • Tim says:

      The battle in the trenches will certainly be key. If Tampa can stop Forte – a big if – and get in Cutler’s face, they should win. But without Blount I think they will struggle on offense.

      For sure, if the Bears can get the run game established you’ve got to fancy Hester and Knox to break a deep pattern.

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