TAMPA – An undercurrent last week, even amid all the positives generated by the pre-bye win over the Minnesota Vikings, was that if the Bears did not take down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it would render the win over Minnesota all but meaningless.
Well, the win over Minnesota was in fact rendered all but meaningless in a 36-10 rout at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose 29th-ranked defense limited the Bears to exactly one touchdown and that on a Hail Mary to end the first half.
Most disturbing, the Bears simply unraveled, not once, but over and over. And they did it know two weeks after the Minnesota game showed them what they can be.
Presented with a platinum opportunity to rejoin the NFC North division race, and with their healthiest lineups in months, the Bears (again) delivered a game that evoked memories of slaughters in Philadelphia, New England and Green Bay under the previous regime. The Bears (2-7) for the second straight year failed to build any forward momentum out of an upset win over an NFC North rival (Green Bay last season). When the playoffs were within reach in 2013, the Bears melted down. At 5-6 last season they melted down against then also-rans San Francisco and Washington. They did again on Sunday.
The only, largely academic, question amid the aftershocks Sunday was which of the seemingly endless Bears foul-ups was the fatal self-destruct, an ominous situation that there were so many choices.
“Our whole team was off today. I don’t want to put it all on one guy,” said coach John Fox in an effort deflect some blame from quarterback Jay Cutler, who lost the football four times (two interceptions, two fumbles) that directly accounted for nine Tampa Bay points.
It was a game with a great deal suddenly at stake given that Minnesota and Green Bay were both losing (again) and no one in the NFC North has fewer than four losses. If the Bears wanted a character test, they have one now that they need to address, because they failed miserably with the one in front of them on Sunday.
“It’s all about how you handle adversity,” said linebacker Willie Young, leaving out the fact that the Bears do not appear to be able to handle prosperity when it comes in the form of an opportunity game.
The problems were everywhere and immediate.
[BEARS GRADES: Defense lets momentum, Bucs QB Jameis Winston slip away]
The Bears had the football in Tampa Bay’s end on four of their first five possessions and came away with just three points, and those on a 54-yard field goal. The reason: Cutler threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, and running back Jordan Howard lost a fumble, all in the span of six possessions.
Yet the inescapable feeling at the time was that this game, and possibly more, had gotten completely away from the Bears in the span of two plays. A statement of…something. Something not good, because these were defensive catastrophes.
The first was Leonard Floyd coming free up the middle and missing a sack of Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winton. Then Willie Young missed the sack chance. Winston wound up and heaved the football in the general direction of wideout Mike Evans, who caught the ball behind cornerback Tracy Porter at the Chicago 38.
One play and a penalty later, Winston found third-string receiver Freddie Martino loose behind cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc for a 43-yard touchdown.
Instead of field position (and possibly a safety) against a wobbling Tampa Bay team, one that had been given four turnovers, one a pick-6 by ex-Bear Chris Conte, and that managed just a 17-10 halftime lead on the Bears, the Bears were behind 24-10 – this to a Tampa Bay team that hadn’t won at home this season and was 3-17 at home in its last 20 games at Raymond James Stadium.
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
The offense couldn’t stay on the field and, once again when that happens, the defense couldn’t get off it as the game dragged on.
“[Tampa Bay] put up 30-something points on us, man,” said linebacker Jerrell Freeman. “All that game-planning, watching film, we’ve got to go out there and do what we’ve got to do as a squad. [Coach is] making some great calls out there. I get the [defensive-signal call] in my [headset], I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s going to work.’ Boys have to go out there and execute. To a man, everybody has to go out there and do their thing.
“It’s just what it is.”
If Sunday is what the Bears is … .