The Tampa Bay Buccaneers publicly haven’t shown their hand in regard to their starting quarterback for the Week 4 contest against the Chicago Bears, but the team came up aces with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.
Fitzpatrick is expected to get the nod over Jameis Winston as the Buccaneers (2-1) bid to rebound from their first loss of the season on Sunday when they face Khalil Mack and the Bears (2-1) at Soldier Field.
The 35-year-old Fitzpatrick was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week following both of Tampa Bay’s victories in its first two games. He overcame three interceptions to lead a comeback attempt that fell just short in Monday’s 30-27 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Fitzpatrick still leads the NFL in passing yards per game (410.0) and is second behind Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in both touchdown passes (11) and passer rating (124.8).
Winston, who was the top overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, returned to the team this week after serving a three-game suspension by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
“So we know what we’re going to do, both guys know what we’re going to do, and I hope everybody can appreciate it doesn’t do us any good to tell our opponents what we’re going to do,” Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said. “That’ll work itself out as the week goes on, but we do have a plan and both guys are aware of it.”
While Koetter has refused to divulge his starter for competitive reasons, Mack insists it’s all part of the game.
“Man, that’s the whole point in playing in the NFL,” Mack said. “You have to be prepared. You get paid to go out and be able to know. No matter who it is, you’ve got to be prepared. That’s going to be a challenge. You’re ready to meet the challenge.”
Mack has met the challenge since being traded from the Oakland Raiders, recording four sacks, an interception and three forced fumbles for a Bears team that is tied for second in the NFL with eight takeaways.
A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Mack had two sacks and five tackles as Chicago overcame an early deficit to post a 16-14 victory over the winless Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
Mitchell Trubisky was limited to just 220 yards and an interception against the Cardinals, but a date with a forgiving Buccaneers defense that ranks 31st in yards allowed and 29th in scoring can help silence his mounting critics.
“In this sport, at the quarterback position, there’s immense pressure, especially with a great team like we have here in the great city of Chicago,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “There are a lot of people and a lot of people that care, and so it’s easy to direct it at one person.
“And then you throw on top of that somebody that’s a high draft pick, that’s a lot of pressure. But that’s OK. This kid is willing to take anything and everything on. I want to make sure that he understands that there are so many parts to this offense that take time, and as long as I convey that to him, that the only thing he needs to worry about is what I tell him and how he’s going at our pace, that’s the only thing that matters.”
Tampa Bay defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul provides another worry for Trubisky, as he has three of his team’s seven sacks.
The Bears’ fifth-ranked defense will need to keep a keen eye on Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin, as the three Buccaneers receivers each have three touchdown receptions under their belt. In fact, Evans (367 yards) and Jackson (312 yards) are the first pair of teammates in league history to have at least 300 receiving yards and three touchdown catches apiece through their team’s first three games of a season.
“(Jackson is) underrated as a route runner, he’s a phenomenal route runner,” Nagy said. “And then you’ve got Mike Evans, he’s so big he can beat you with his physical size but yet you saw he can go downfield and his ball skills are amazing. He can make great catches. And that’s been like that since Texas A&M.”
While the passing game has flourished, Tampa Bay’s rushing attack ranks last in the NFL in yards per carry (3.0). Last week, the Buccaneers fell behind 30-10 and abandoned the run game early. To slow the Bears’ pass rush, they will have to be more balanced.
Running back Peyton Barber gets most of the carries and it remains to be seen if second-round pick Ronald Jones II will see his first action of the season.
Statistics would suggest it will be difficult to get Bears running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen running lanes, but the Buccaneers’ defense hasn’t really been tested on the ground. Attacking with the inside zone and occasional jet sweeps or screen passes is the best way to move the ball and keep Tampa Bay’s own offense watching the game.
Howard rushed for 100 yards during a 2016 encounter versus the Buccaneers.