Bears, Bucs return to field after lengthy time off
TAMPA, Fla. — The Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be rested before their game Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
After all, the Bears will have enjoyed a 13-day break while the Buccaneers will have been off for 10 after Thursday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
In both cases, the time off is expected to be beneficial as the clubs attempt to get healthier in a bid to scratch for wins in the second half of the season.
“The biggest thing is we were a pretty banged up football team, and it gave us an opportunity to get some guys back out to practice with the idea of hopefully playing,” Bears coach John Fox said Wednesday in a conference call. “We've been without a lot of different guys that were able to heal up and get moving. … I think the biggest thing is just getting healthy.”
Chicago saw starting quarterback Jay Cutler return for its last game, a surprise Monday night win against the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears hope to have guards Josh Sitton (ankle) and Kyle Long (triceps) back healthy in Tampa, as well as slot receiver Eddie Royal, who has been slowed by a toe injury.
The Bucs also hope to be closer to full strength after the long weekend.
Running back Doug Martin, who finished second in the NFL in rushing last season, practiced Wednesday for the first time since he injured his hamstring in Week 2.
While he might not be fully healthy in time to return Sunday, it's a long-awaited return at a position where Tampa Bay is missing four running backs due to injuries.
“It's great to have him,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “Anytime we get our guys back, it's awesome to have those guys out there.”
Tampa Bay could also get back starting defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who has missed the last three games with his own hamstring injury. McDonald was optimistic he could return as the Bucs close out a three-game homestand.
Tampa Bay could use McDonald as they face Bears rusher Jordan Howard, who has played in the shadow of Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott but nonetheless has more than 500 rushing yards and 150 receiving yards in his first eight games. Aside from Howard and Elliott, the only rookie running back to pull that off in the last eight years was Martin, with the Bucs in 2012.
“He's a talented guy,” Cutler said of the former Indiana standout. “You wouldn't know he's a rookie the way he plays, and kind of the calming effect he has out there. I think he's really getting a lot better. He knows the cuts, knows where things are designed to go. He's gotten better and better over time.”
Chicago ranks 31st in the NFL in scoring offense, averaging just 16 points a game. The Bucs' defense has allowed a combined 1,087 yards of total offense and 73 points in the last two losses to the Oakland Raiders and Falcons, both at home.
Unless Martin can return Sunday, the Bucs will be challenged with establishing a running game without four of the top five running backs. Martin has a hamstring issue, Charles Sims is on injured reserve with a knee injury, Jacquizz Rodgers is out with a foot injury and Antone Smith was placed on injured reserve this week with a knee injury.
That leaves rookie Peyton Barber, who rushed for 31 yards in his first career start last week, and fourth-year pro Mike James, who didn't have a touch in the NFL in nearly two years when he got spot work last week, days after re-joining the team.
James had 158 rushing yards in a game against Seattle as a rookie in 2013, similarly pressed into a larger role by multiple injuries ahead of him.
“I was surprised how well he picked things up when he came back,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “I think every day, every week he's going to feel more and more comfortable. We're going to have to count on him. As we keep losing running backs, we're going to have to count on him even more.”