They'll face a worthy opponent Sunday at noon at Raymond James Stadium, though not face-to-face. The Bucs' inconsistent offense shouldn't present much of a challenge, but Tampa's defense is comparable to the Bears' in most categories. The Bears are No. 1 in points and yards allowed, while the Bucs are third and 10th, respectively.
Bears coach Lovie Smith began his NFL coaching career as the Bucs' linebackers coach from 1996-2000, and his Bears strongly favor Tampa's Cover-2 scheme on defense.
"They're the fathers of the defense," Smith said. "We're the young crew coming up through the ranks."
The Bears' rise has been rapid. They're better than they were a year ago in every defensive category; significantly better in most. There are many reasons for the improvement, but the biggest are health and familiarity - with the system and each other.
Through 10 games last season, defensive starters had missed a total of 26 starts. This year not one starter has missed a single game because of injury.
Safety Mike Brown and cornerback Charles Tillman each missed eight of the first 10 games last season; cornerback Jerry Azumah, a starter last season and the nickel back this year, missed the first four games in 2004; middle linebacker Brian Urlacher missed three games in between hamstring and calf injuries; and defensive end Wale Ogunleye missed two games and played hurt in several others because of a calf injury.
This year Brown is third on the team with 74 tackles and tied for second with three interceptions. Tillman leads the team with 12 pass breakups, is fourth in tackles with 69 and is tied with Brown in interceptions. Urlacher leads the Bears with 108 tackles, is tied for first with seven tackles for loss and is second with six sacks. Ogunleye leads the team with seven sacks and is first among the linemen with 60 tackles.
All of them have benefited from the comfort level they've reached in their second season in defensive coordinator Ron Rivera's system, according to head coach Lovie Smith. As a former defensive coordinator, Smith is more involved on that side of the ball than any other facet of the team.
"When we initially got here, we had our core of players in place," Smith said. "We had the right type of leadership. Your second year in a system, (it) really works when you have good football players. We have good football players throughout our entire team. We have the guys that make plays and do what we ask them to do."
Rivera makes the defensive calls, and the Panthers game was an excellent example of the former Bears linebacker putting his players in the best position to succeed.
"We just play what he calls," Brown said. "He gets a feel about what the (opposing) team's trying to do, how they're trying to attack us, and he makes his calls based on that."
Knowing the Panthers' fondness for the long ball, Rivera brought blitz pressure early and hurried Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme into a pair of bad throws that resulted in interceptions by Nathan Vasher and set up 10 points for the Bears. That forced the Panthers to delegate more players to pass protection and prevented them from flooding the secondary with receivers.
"Ron came into our system and has done a good job of running it and getting our players to believe in it," Smith said. "He's a fierce competitor. He knows the game. He really knows how to relate to the players. They believe in him, and they believe in what we're doing."
Most of the starters have also been together long enough to believe in each other and work efficiently as a unit. Seven of the starters have been together for at least three years, and tackle Tommie Harris, Vasher and Ogunleye are in their second year with the Bears. Rookie free safety Chris Harris is the only new starter this season.
The formula of familiarity and good health has worked wonders in the past 12 months.
"Our defense has been doing it (all season)," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "Everybody says it's because we haven't been playing good offenses. The reason we haven't been playing good offenses is because their numbers are bad because they played us."