Bears vs. Bucs: What to Watch for on Sunday

The Bears (11-2) return home to face the Buccaneers (3-10) and could conceivably secure home-field advantage at day's end. The Tank Johnson situation has been grabbing all the headlines in Chicago since Thursday, but it remains to be seen if the team is distracted when kickoff arrives. Here are 10 things to watch for on Sunday at Soldier Field.

1. Will all this Tank Johnson stuff be a distraction?
Johnson had his house in Gurnee raided on Thursday morning and was eventually charged with six misdemeanor counts of possessing a firearm without a Firearm Owner's Identification card. Head coach Lovie Smith accounced on Friday that Johnson will be deactivated for Sunday's game, but Smith stressed that this was not a disciplinary action. Then in the early hours of Saturday morning, Johnson's alleged bodyguard, Willie Posey, was shot dead during a fight outside the River North nightclub Ice Bar. Johnson was with Posey at the time but apparently did not suffer any injuries as a result of the altercation. Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott will start at defensive tackle in place of Johnson and injured Pro-Bowler Tommie Harris, but until the whistle blows, there is no way to speculate how this team will react on Sunday in the wake of this horrible mess.

2. Can the Bears wrap up home-field advantage on Sunday?
The Bears are currently atop the NFC with their 11-2 record, while the Saints are their closest competition at 9-4. Assuming the Monsters of the Midway take care of business and handle the 3-10 Bucs, a Redskins upset of the Saints in New Orleans would guarantee the Bears the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Any NFC team that wants to go to the Super Bowl will have to travel to wintry Chicago and win in Soldier Field. Granted, the Bears have lost their last three home playoff games going back to 1991, but no team wants to be subjected to January weather in the Windy City if they can avoid it. If the Bears take care of business the next two weeks, it doesn't matter what the Saints do.

3. Could Cedric Benson get the start against the Bucs?
Thomas Jones rolled an ankle in the third quarter against the Rams last Monday night, which is why Benson and third-stringer Adrian Peterson saw so much action in the second half. Jones is currently listed on the injury report as questionable, but the Bears might choose to deactivate him for Sunday's game in order to make sure he's 100% healthy once the playoffs arrive. The Buccaneers are awful this season, especially on the offensive side of the ball, so the Bears can afford to play some backups and still be the better team. Benson has been hot of late, so you could make the argument that the running game might be even better if he finally gets 20-25 carries instead of 8-10 as the change-of-pace guy. Peterson also showed that he can get the job done with that 32-yard screen pass against the Rams.

4. Is Nathan Vasher going to be held out once again?
Vasher made the Pro Bowl last season largely due to the fact that he intercepted eight passes. He probably won't make it back to Hawaii this year considering he only has two INTs and five passes-defensed, but he is still an integral part of arguably the best defense in the league. Ricky Manning Jr. has had a wonderful season as the nickelback, but he would once again start should Vasher's hamstring continue to be less than full strength. Rookie cornerback Devin Hester saw the field in nickel packages last week and was victimized for a touchdown at the hands of All-Pro Torry Holt. Veteran Dante Wesley could also see an increased role, although the team seems to have soured on him as a cover corner.

5. Can Rex Grossman put together back-to-back good games?
Grossman had the weight of the world on his shoulders going into Monday night's game against the Rams, and he came through with a strong performance. He finished 13-of-23 for 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns. More importantly, he was not intercepted, did not fumble, and was not sacked. All the Brian Griese talk has died down and probably will for the rest of the season, but Grossman still has to answer the bell on Sunday. The Bucs are still capable of playing good defense with the likes of Derrick Brooks at linebacker and Ronde Barber at cornerback, but this is not the same defensive unit that dominated the NFC for the better part of a decade.

6. Will Devin Hester finally get a look on offense?
Hester was finally given the kickoff return duties for the first time last week, and all he did was become the sixth player in NFL history to take back two kickoffs for touchdowns in a single game. The former Hurricane now has six return TDs this season and is already considered to be the most dangerous special teams player in football. Head coach Lovie Smith hinted that Hester might see some time on offense in order to get him consideration for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, but Smith backed off those statements on Thursday. The youngster already has plenty on his plate as the kickoff and punt returner, plus he's been getting some time at corner with all the injuries they've suffered in the secondary. It sounds like a good idea to put together a small offensive package for Hester to learn, but don't expect it to happen.

7. Should the defense be worried by the way they played on Monday?
Although the Bears were dominant in the second half of their 42-27 victory over the Rams, the defense had a rough night statistically. Marc Bulger & Company compiled 433 yards of total offense and at times threw the ball at will. Ron Rivera's unit was in danger of not forcing a turnover for the first time all season until Charles Tillman intercepted Bulger late in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand. On the surface, 433 yards of offense is a huge number for a defense that had held its first 10 opponents under 300. That being said, much of that yardage came in fourth-quarter garbage time with the Bears holding a commanding lead.

8. What can the Bears expect from their defensive line?
Two weeks ago, Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson were entrenched as the starters and arguably the most talented tandem in the NFC. Harris was on his way to a second Pro Bowl, and Johnson, a first-round talent that fell to the second round because of character issues, had two sacks in Week 13 against the Vikings. Harris is out for the season with a torn hamstring and Johnson's future is in jeopardy with off-the-field problems, so Scott - a former starter - and Boone are now first-stringers. Antonio Garay has only been active for two games this season and Israel Idonije is a defensive end by trade, but both of them will now see plenty of time in the tackle rotation. Even if those four players do their job on Sunday, plainly speaking, they do not have the talent Harris and Johnson do.

9. Will the Bears change things up a little bit to confuse teams?
Time in the film room is such a huge part of today's NFL, no question about it. When the playoffs finally arrive, you can bet that the Bears' second-round opponent will watch the tape from all 16 games this season and look for every strength and every weakness. But since the Bears have such a firm grasp on the conference and are all but assured of home-field advantage throughout the postseason, they can afford to do some different things down the stretch. Hester on an end-around, Jones and Benson in the backfield together, more shotgun - even if the team doesn't plan to do those things come playoff time, just giving their opponents more to worry about and gameplan against could work in their favor. Give Ron Turner the luxury of flipping through the entire playbook these last three games.

10. Does this game have 'letdown' written all over it?
Considering the litany of distractions currently surrounding this team, a letdown certainly wouldn't be a shocker. However, the Buccaneers are a terrible football team right now. Even if they only manage a so-so effort, the Bears should move to 12-2 and one step closer to home-field advantage.


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