Rustproof Buccaneers Polish off Bears
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 18 September 2017

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked off their 2017 season on Sunday amid concerns that a long, Hurricane Irma-induced layoff would leave them rusty for the opener. Instead, like fine silver, the Buccaneers were about as polished as they've ever been at the start of a new campaign, routing the visiting Chicago Bears, 29-7.

Tampa Bay nearly pitched the 11th shutout in franchise history but the Bears scored a meaningless touchdown against mostly reserves in the games' final two minutes. The rest of the game was completely one-sided: The Buccaneers scored on the game's opening possession, logged four first-half turnovers, found the end zone on defense, enjoyed their first 50-plus-yard field goal in more than a season and were responsible for the game's first 29 points.

"The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense was amazing," said QB Jameis Winston. "They gave us the ball, so we had to take advantage of it and I think we did a good job. That's complementary football. That's what we have to do. That's how we play our best and we did a great job of playing complementary football."

The Buccaneers were more efficient than dynamic on offense, only turning the ball over once on a Charles Sims fumble and recording 310 net yards. Winston completed 18 of 30 passes (60.0%) for 204 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 91.5 passer rating. His favorite target was, unsurprisingly, Pro Bowl WR Mike Evans, who hauled in seven of nine targets for 93 yards and a touchdown. However, Winston also spread the ball around well with his newly-deep cast of targets, completing passes to seven different men.

"Every week I feel like there's going to be opportunities for Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, Cam Brate, O.J. Howard," said Winston. "We have a great team and we have great receivers out there so I've just got to get them the ball.

Getting an early lead certainly helped, but the Buccaneers had a huge edge over the Bears on the ground. With Jacquizz Rodgers starting and running for 67 yards and a touchdown and second-year back Peyton Barber adding 47 yards in the second half, Tampa Bay out-rushed Chicago, 117-20.

That improved run defense was a welcome sight, as that was one of the team's top offseason goals. Part of the effort to improve in that category was the drafting of LSU LB Kendell Beckwith in the third round. Beckwith ended up playing a very big role on the Bucs' defense in his NFL debut, starting the game on the strong side but moving into a middle after a hamstring injury sidelined Kwon Alexander. Beckwith finished the game with five tackles, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed. "Kendell Beckwith is a rookie/non-rookie," said defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. "That means this is his first year but he plays like a vet."

Beckwith was relatively satisfied with his first regular-season NFL game, though he said he badly wanted the shutout. "It went pretty good," said the rookie defender. "We all have some things we've got to work on but for the most part it went pretty good. You've just got to be ready. I've been [playing two positions] since camp, so when my number gets called I've got to go in and fill that position and be ready. I've got to step up."

The Buccaneers' defense was also taking on Bears QB Mike Glennon for the first time since Glennon left Tampa Bay to sign with Chicago in the offseason. Glennon was kept busy by the Bucs' quick lead and his own team's inability to run the ball, and he ended up throwing 45 times. He completed 31 of those for 301 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Much of that output, however, came in the fourth quarter as the Bucs were conservatively protecting a 29-point lead. Glennon had only 135 passing yards through the first three quarters and the Bears' offense was held to 144 net yards to that point.

The difference, of course, was the turnovers, as Glennon had three, including his fumble. Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter suggested that would be where the game was decided earlier in the week. "Well, I would probably say the quarterbacks who were the most successful didnít turn it over," said Koetter on Thursday. "Thatís what I would say. And if you donít turn it over, whether you run it or pass it, youíre going to be in good shape."

Veteran kicker Nick Folk, who was brought in to compete with Ė and almost win the job from Ė second-year player Roberto Aguayo Ė also had an encouraging Buccaneer debut. Though he missed one of three extra point tries, Folk hit all three of his field goals, including one from 50 yards out in the second quarter. Folk had made a 45-yarder moments earlier but a penalty forced him to try again and he calmly nailed it from five yards farther away. The Buccaneers' longest field goal in 2016 was from 43 yards.

The Buccaneers started the season off in good fashion, enjoying one of their most dominant first halves in a long time. Tampa Bay led 26-0 at halftime, marking their fifth-largest lead at the intermission in franchise history, and the top advantage of that sort in nearly two decades. The Bucs' last halftime lead of 25 or more points came against New Orleans on Dec. 23, 2001. That game ended in a 48-21 blowout of the Saints at Raymond James Stadium.

The Bucs got the scoring started on the game's opening possession but ultimately had to settle for the first of Nick Folk's three field goals. After a Tarik Cohen fumble on a punt return, Winston immediately found Evans for a 13-yard touchdown, and a Mike Glennon fumble recovered by Lavonte David in the second quarter led to a one-yard Jacquizz Rodgers touchdown. The Bucs' defense then took matters into its own hands as nickel back Robert McClain picked off a Glennon pass and returned it for his first NFL touchdowns. Folk missed the extra point after that touchdown but then tacked on three points with a 50-yard field goal as the first half came to an end.

Tampa started the game at its own 25 after a touchback, but Winston's first pass attempt down the seam to Howard was tipped away by LB Danny Trevathan. After a six-yard run by Rodgers, Trevathan was flagged for holding, which slowed down Brate enough for Winston's pass to miss. The penalty made it first down at the Bucs' 36. Two plays later, Evans made his first catch of the season on a square-in, moving the chains again, just across midfield.

And, two more plays later, Jackson's first catch as a Buccaneer picked up 10 and a first down at the Bears' 35. A shot to Jackson in the end zone was just out of bounds, but another Evans catch on a quick out made it first down at the 21. A sack by Willie Young put the Bucs into a third-and-13, and after an incompletion in the end zone the Bucs settled for Nick Folk's 42-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead six minutes into the game.

Tampa Bay's defense got off to a nice start as Howard was swarmed after the handoff by a group led by DE William Gholston, leading to a loss of two. Glennon also had to burn a Chicago timeout before second down. Glennon took a shot from McCoy on second down but got a quick dumpoff over the middle out to Wright. Glennon converted the third down with a sharp slant pass to Cohen. Glennon hit the slant again on another third down, this time to Zach Miller for a first down at the Bucs' 22. The drive ended on the next play when Alexander picked off a pass intended for TE Dion Sims and returned it 22 yards to the Bucs' 38.

An eight-yard grab by Jackson left the Bucs in a third-and-one and Sims' run up the middle was stopped short, leading to the game's first punt. And that led to the Bucs' first touchdown, as it turned out. The Bucs were fortunate when Bryan Anger's shanked punt bounced down the right sideline and inside the 20. They were even luckier when Cohen decided at the last second to try to grab it and get a return, instead fumbling, with Lynch recovering at the Bears' 13. Winston went immediately to his favorite target, as Evans made a dancing, toe-tapping sideline catch for the game's first touchdown.

Chicago overcame a holding penalty to get a first down on its next possession, but that one also ended in a turnover. This time, David blitzed on third-and-long, which helped Spence collapse the pocket. Spence's hit on Glennon sent the ball into the air and David caught it for a fumble recovery at Chicago's 35. A second defensive holding penalty on the Bears led to another first down, erasing a third-down incompletion in Jackson's direction in the end zone. Rodgers bounced his next run around the right end for nine, then picked up the first down on a well-blocked third-and-one run to the Bears' nine. Evans couldn't quite pull in a throw at the back of the end zone on second down, but another Chicago holding penalty made it first-and-goal at the one. Rodgers made a nifty inside cut to avoid a tackle on first down and backed into the end zone for his first touchdown of the year.

Despite losing Alexander to a hamstring injury, the Bucs' defense started to pile on. After a great knifing tackle on an attempted sweep by Cohen for a loss of two, McClain followed with an interception of a Glennon pass meant for Josh Bellamy and a 47-yard interception return. McClain stepped out of a potential tackle at the 10 and darted the rest of the way for his first NFL touchdown. Folk's extra point attempt was hooked left to keep the score at 23-0.

The Bears got the ball close to midfield on the ensuing drive but had to punt after Beckwith led the charge to stop Howard for a loss on third-and-one. The Bucs got one last possession in the final minute of the half and got across midfield on an 11-yard third-down catch by Brate. With the clock running down, Evans made a superb play to catch a pass near the left numbers and get through three Bears defenders to dive out of bounds with seven seconds left. An illegal shift penalty forced Folk to kick again after he had hit a 45-yard field goal, and the veteran kicker calmly nailed it from 50. The Bucs took a 26-0 lead into halftime.

Tampa Bay's defense forced a quick punt to start the second half, and a pair of sharp Winston-to-Evans hookups got the offense into Chicago territory. A deep shot to Jackson in the end zone just missed but the Bucs got another first down at the Bears' 20 on a 10-yard run around right end by Rodgers. However, Sims fumbled two plays later and the Bears recovered, with only a tackle by Winston of DE Leonard Floyd preventing a possible touchdown. Chicago still got a new possession at its own 35 but the Bucs again forced a punt without allowing a first down.

A sliding catch by Brate and a 13-yard sweep around right end by Barber got the Bucs' offense to the edge of the red zone and Barber moved it into that territory with a spinning eight-yard run. The third quarter came to an end with the Bucs facing a third-and-one at the Bears' 12. Rodgers came in to start the final period and ran for two yards to make it first-and-goal. However, the Bucs couldn't punch it in from there and Folk came on for his third field goal, a 23-yarder. The Bucs extended their lead to 29-0 with 12:26 left in the game.

Chicago responded with its first scoring drive of the game, throwing mostly underneath against a Buccaneer defense that had the clock on its side. However, a 17-yard catch by Bellamy with a personal foul against Chris Conte tacked on the end got the ball inside the Bucs' 15. However, Beckwith broke up two passes as the Bears threw four straight incompletions to turn the ball over on downs.

Chicago's defense got a sack and a three-and-out on the next drive, giving the offense another shot to score. Glennon once again got the ball into the Bucs' red zone but Conte knocked away a fourth-down pass to keep the shutout intact. However, the Bears were able to avoid the shutout, getting the ball back one more time ahead of the two-minute warning and scoring on Glennon's 14-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Thompson.