Star-studded Buccaneers, downtrodden Bears meet with vastly different ambitions

Many expect the Buccaneers to contend for a spot in the Super Bowl, and they’ve started to look capable of that recently. The Bears, meanwhile, are trying to fight off collapse after a shaky 3-1 start.

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Rob Gronkowski (left) and Tom Brady (right) won three Super Bowls together with the Patriots.

Rob Gronkowski (left) and Tom Brady (right) won three Super Bowls together with the Patriots.

Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

While the NFL doesn’t typically see super teams come together through free agency, the Buccaneers are the closest thing the league has had to one in a while.

When they roll into Soldier Field on Thursday, they’ll do so with the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history, a tight end as famous for trucking defenders as he is for orchestrating party boats and the nastiest defensive lineman of the era. And all of them — Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Ndamukong Suh — arrived in Tampa hoping to vault the Bucs into Super Bowl contention.

“They’re great guys and they have the same thing in common: They want to win,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “So they were welcomed to the organization. But no, they’re not [celebrities]. They’re just football players who want to win.”

The Bucs already had a solid base before landing Brady and Gronk, as well as last month’s addition of one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league over the last four seasons, running back Leonard Fournette. Before bringing in those three, they had three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans, former All-Pro pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and 19½-sack man Shaquil Barrett.

The Bucs’ roster was good. Now, it’s loaded with a ton of talent.

As Bears coach Matt Nagy looks to “calibrate” his offense around new starting quarterback Nick Foles, the new-look Bucs are already accelerating.

After the offense looked disjointed in a season-opening loss to the Saints, Brady has gotten better each week. All of his numbers are now on track to jump dramatically from last season, and that’s with Evans battling an ankle injury and Gronkowski making a minimal contribution.

What an impressive draft correction, by the way, to sign a six-time champion and three-time MVP after Jameis Winston fizzled. That’s a little different than the Bears solving their problem with Mitch Trubisky by trading for Foles.

The Bucs’ defense is lagging, but it still ranks fourth in yards allowed, 10th in scoring and second in takeaways. With Suh still dominating in the middle at 33 and Pierre-Paul and Barrett combining for six sacks, the Bucs are third in sacks and allow the NFL’s fewest yards per rush at 2.7.

“Strap it up, man, because these guys come at you,” Nagy said of a pass rush that averages one sack per 10.8 drop-backs. “They are war daddies. They are really, really good. They know they’re good.

“We’ve gotta make sure our energy matches what they do. Schematically, we’ve gotta be right. But when it comes down to it, you better be ready to get into a fistfight.”

It’s been more slapfight than fistfight for the Bears’ offensive line the last two seasons. In 2019, the team ranked 12th in sacks allowed and 29th in yards per carry. They’re at 14th and 12th, respectively, this season, but those numbers are primarily against bad defenses.

The Bucs are closer to the Colts, who held the Bears to 1.8 yards per carry, sacked Foles once and kept him at a 76.4 passer rating.

Both teams come in at 3-1, but under vastly disparate circumstances. The star-studded Bucs see this as just another step toward their goal of winning a championship. The Bears, meanwhile, are just out to prove to themselves and others that they aren’t a fraud.

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“We’re kind of living through Grae right now,” Kessinger told the Sun-Times. “I’m more excited and nervous watching him play than I was when I broke in.”