(CBS Chicago) — Aaron Rodgers still owns the Chicago Bears. He said as much to the crowd at Soldier Field Sunday afternoon, after once again proving it on the field. The Green Bay Packers quarterback torched the Bears for two touchdown passes, while going 17-23 for 195 yards. He ran in another touchdown, as the Packers topped the Bears, 24-14. Rodgers’ counterpart Justin Fields’ numbers weren’t that much worse — 16-27 for 174 yards, with 1 TD and 1 interception — but there was no confusing the promising rookie with the Hall of Fame-worthy veteran.
Fields will meet another legend this Sunday, when the 3-3 Bears head to Tampa Bay to face Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. Brady and the Bucs dispensed with Philadelphia Eagles and their young QB Jalen Hurts, 28-22, in Week 6’s Thursday night game to push their record to 5-1. The 44-year-old wasn’t as dominant as he’s seemed at times this season. But he made plays when he had to, including a third-down pass to Antonio Brown late in the fourth quarter to sustain a drive and secure the win. The Bucs defense so thoroughly smothered Hurts that giving the ball back may not have mattered. But why take the chance?
The Bears vanilla offense hasn’t really moved the ball much this season, generally because of the passing game. And that is by design. Fields will look for improvement when he faces Tampa’s top-10 defense.
“They’re being very smart in how they use Justin Fields,” said Phil Simms, studio analyst on The NFL Today. “It’s conservative. Let’s run the ball. Let’s shorten the game. And when they throw the ball, it’s down the field. And why do they throw it down the field so much? Because that’s the easiest thing for a young quarterback to do. When you throw it down the field, you let him get deep drops so he can see what’s down there. But also the defense spreads out. It’s easier to read who’s open and who’s not. The quick passing game is sometimes where you get in trouble as a quarterback. So I really like what the Bears have done. The margin of error is a lot slimmer with the way they’re playing. But they’re doing a really good thing with a rookie quarterback. Let’s don’t let the rookie quarterback beat us. Let’s go out there and prolong games and see what we can do. And it’s worked well for them the last couple of weeks.”
Fields has topped 200 yards through the air just once so far, and that happened against the winless Detroit Lions.
“It take discipline to do what they’ve done, and it’s given their team the best chance to win,” Simms elaborated. “Yes, he is not throwing to the right guy sometimes. He has missed throws down the field too. But that’s going to correct itself. His size, his ability to run, which we really haven’t seen them take advantage of. It’s all about him scrambling. The strong arm has definitely shown up when I’ve watched him this year. I think that’s one of the reasons why they’re designing a lot of plays where the throws are 15 to 20 yards. And he lets it go. I think that’s one of his great strengths. Over time, and it won’t take long, he’ll learn touch, how to throw it at different levels. And they’ll open this offense slowly as they go along.”
In the meantime, the Bears have to rely heavily on the run game. But when it stalls and Fields must carry more of the load, the offense doesn’t go anywhere. The Cleveland Browns held the Bears to a paltry 46 yards on the ground, and Fields managed only 68 more yards through the air on 6-20 passing. David Montgomery’s knee injury hasn’t helped the rushing attack. But Khalil Herbert and Damien Williams have proved productive in his absence.
Can the Bears offense get going against the dominant Bucs defense? This unit allows 335.7 yards and 24 points per game, as compared to the Packers’ 315 yards and 22.7 points. Most of that is through the air. Their run defense gives up 55.7 yards per game on the ground, the lowest in the league. The Bucs pass defense is susceptible to giving up yards though. And with the injuries piling up in the secondary, a competent quarterback should be able to move the ball. Cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting are on injured reserve, while Richard Sherman suffered a hamstring injury early in last week’s game. Safety Antoine Winfield started off the week in concussion protocol. And the pass rush has only sacked the quarterback 12 times on the season, among the bottom half of NFL teams.
The Bucs defense doesn’t have to be dominant to win games. It simply needs to limit opportunities and put the ball back in Brady’s hands. “Since Tom Brady has been down there, this offense has changed,” Simms noted. “They made it less predictable, that’s for sure. More short passes, more things to it. Tom Brady’s brought his influence to it. With Byron Leftwich and Bruce Arians and what they believe in. Put that all together, we just see a great NFL offense.”
The Bucs offense is averaging a healthy 426 yards and 32.5 points per game, both third best in the NFL. Most of that has come through the air, where Brady is putting up a league-leading 344 yards per game. He has completed 68.5 percent of his passes, including 17 TDs against just three interceptions. His completions tend to be spread evenly among his trio of dynamic wideouts. Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, and Chris Godwin each have over 40 catches and 400 yards. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, a long-time favorite of Brady, has been out since Week 3, but Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard have seen more action of late. And running back Leonard Fournette remains a useful weapon on the ground and through the air.
“I think every team needs that type of runner,” Simms said of Fournette. “Having a big running back who can get all those yards and break tackles in certain situations that we see every team in a lot in this NFL season. Every time you turn around, it’s third and two, fourth and one. What are we going to do? When you have a pulling guard back there running the football like Leonard Fournette, it really helps. And he seems to be extremely motivated. You can see he’s pouring everything into every run.”
That’s a lot for the Bears defense (or any defense) to contend with. Still, the unit has been solid this season under new defensive coordinator Sean Desai, an accomplishment considering their offense’s difficulties sustaining drives and staying on the field. The Bears defense gives up just 218.7 yards per game against the pass, good enough for top 10 in the league. Linebacker Roquan Smith has piled up 62 tackles. Linebacker Khalil Mack has six of the team’s NFL-leading 21 sacks (along with the Minnesota Vikings).
Mack and company will need to keep bringing that pressure against the Bucs. That’s easier said than done against Tampa’s offensive line. “It’s a big, athletic run-blocking pass-blocking offensive line,” Simms said. “It’s a top-five line I guess, just off the top of my head. So for the Bears defense, that’s the big question. How can you match it? Can you can you get to the quarterback somehow? So many answers to it. Hard to get to the quarterback when he has so many weapons too.”
The Bears play the Buccaneers Sunday, October 24 @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.