Each week, Chad Pennington breaks down a dynamic NFL playmaker or scheme, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Pennington looks into how Josh Freeman and the Buccaneers offense can put on a jolly good show in London against the Bears defense.
I know you’ve heard the expression, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
As far as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are concerned, what happened in San Francisco in Week 5 of the NFL season obviously stayed in San Francisco. The 49ers hammered the Bucs 48-3. The loss matched the Bucs’ worst defeat ever. Which makes Tampa Bay’s 26-20 win over New Orleans last Sunday all the more impressive.
So, there are some challenges with my assignment this week: Game plan for the Tampa Bay offense against the Bears defense. The first challenge is, which Bucs offense will show up? Second, how will the game being in London affect both teams?
Let’s begin with the first, because it’s the most important.
After suffering that horrible defeat to the 49ers, Bucs coach Raheem Morris used a technique that is rare. Morris didn’t let the Bucs watch the game film against the 49ers. He told his team to show up on Wednesday and be ready to prepare for the Saints.
Genius! Why, you may ask?
Team success in the game of football goes beyond the Xs and Os. Confidence, synergy and positive visualization are key to a team moving forward. On certain occasions, uncommon circumstances call for uncommon reactions. In my opinion, Morris’ uncommon act proved to be extremely effective. I think it was the key to their week-to-week turnaround. He essentially kept the loss to the 49ers from lingering. The Bucs came to work on Wednesday with nothing on their minds but beating the Saints. Their performance in San Francisco had no explanation. So why focus on it. Forget it!
Against the 49ers in Week 5, quarterback Josh Freeman had no TDs and two interceptions. However, against the Saints on Sunday, Freeman threw for 303 yards (the second most of his career) and two touchdowns for his single-game high QB rating of the season (95.9). The Bucs haven’t been very explosive on offense, and offensive coordinator Greg Olsen said he was happy to see them break out a little against the Saints.
Freeman had a 65-yard TD pass to Arrelious Benn and a 19-yarder to Preston Parker. In fact, the Bucs had 15 plays of 10 yards or more during the game.
From the outside looking in, I think Freeman, who is in his third season, has a really good demeanor about him. He seems to be stable emotionally, never too high or too low. His physical presence speaks for itself. He can make every throw and has the ability to create plays with his legs.
My third year in the NFL is when it clicked for me. That’s when everything started to fall into place. As a professional football player, understanding the word “professional” takes time. There are challenges both on and off the field. Managing your time, handling your finances, dealing with distractions, and, oh yeah, becoming a better football player are all part of the professional game and business.
I was impressed with the Bucs’ ability to create big plays against the Saints in both the pass game and run game. Earnest Graham eclipsed the 100-yard mark rushing without the help of LeGarrette Blount. Freeman hit several of his receivers for big gains that proved to be the difference.
Having the ability to create explosive plays lets your offense breathe. In the NFL, you can’t make a living on slow, methodical drives every week. The talent level in the NFL is too good to allow that to happen, regardless of what the team’s record is. A defense has to force only one negative play to stop a long, methodical drive. Explosive plays create energy for an offense and make a scoring drive less difficult.
Speaking of good defenses, after making it to the NFC championship game last season, the Bears are off to a sluggish 3-3 start. The Bears have always been known for a tough defense, but they are ranked an uncharacteristic 29th overall right now.
Their team speed, athleticism and recognition still make them a big challenge. Over the years, they’ve been very good on defense for two reasons. First, the Bears have always caused turnovers. They create havoc around the ball carrier by stripping and swiping at the ball. Second, Brian Urlacher and his defense use recognition of offensive formations and plays to their advantage. Their scheme has never been considered complicated, but it has always been effective. Technique, recognition and playing fast have made the Bears defense difficult to handle.
As a quarterback, your challenge is to be patient and not get bored. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the Bears are a Cover-2 Tampa defense. They’re really not. Although this coverage is used, Chicago will play a variety of zone defenses with a slight mix of man coverage. Freeman must confirm what he sees after the snap.
The Bears like the term “sameness.” They don’t want to give the quarterback any clues before the snap. A quarterback must process the defensive information, execute his read and deliver the throw. If no one is open, don’t force it.
When examining how to attack the Bears defense, I really liked the performance of the Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton passed for 374 yards and the Panthers rushed for 169 yards. Carolina found success on early downs. Explosive plays were made on first and second down in both the running game and through the air. Play-action passes, running the ball from three-wide receiver sets and even a few wildcat plays were among tools the Panthers used to be successful.
So what’s the key for Tampa? Create explosive plays but not at the expense of protecting the football. Ask the Panthers and Newton. Their one turnover was costly. D.J. Moore returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown. Final score: Bears 34, Panthers 29. In the Bucs’ four wins, Tampa has won the turnover battle 9-3. In their two losses, they have lost 5-2. It seems simple, but it’s certainly not easy.
Finally, let’s talk about where the game is being played: jolly, old England, though it’s probably not going to be too jolly for players on either side.
NFL players are creatures of habit. We’re used to a routine. I played in the Tokyo Bowl in the 2003 preseason. It’s a huge adjustment. I certainly understand the NFL’s desire to create a global audience. The league wants to expand the popularity of the game. However, we all know soccer is the international sport of choice. Period. So, I’m just not so sure how effective it really has been.
The Bucs left Monday for London and will spend the entire week of preparation in England. The Bears decided to practice in Chicago on Wednesday and Thursday before leaving for London on Thursday night. That will leave them about 60 hours to prepare before game time.
Of these two options, I’d rather be on the plane with the Bucs. First, it’s going to take time for your body to adjust. By Wednesday, I think Tampa will begin to feel somewhat in a normal routine. Monday and Tuesday can be used to adjust to new surroundings, climate, distractions, etc. Player preparation can begin on Wednesday and continue through Saturday evening with no travel mishaps or inconveniences.
Traveling to the West Coast from the East was hard enough for me. Flying across the Atlantic Ocean? Thank goodness for next week’s bye week!