TAMPA, Fla. -- It took a pair of undrafted rookies for the Chicago Bears to defeat their former head coach Lovie Smith.
On a day when Chicago's offense looked mediocre at best, the unheralded duo of safety Harold Jones-Quartey and linebacker Jonathan Anderson forced key turnovers to lift the Bears to a 26-21 victory Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
"The coaches have been preaching to us to just come out here and put it on the line for your brothers," Jones-Quartey said. "That's what I tried to do. I'm trying to make plays out there and help us win."
With Chicago's defense expected to undergo a makeover in the offseason, Jones-Quartey and Anderson distinguished themselves as possible future building blocks.
And with veteran Antrel Rolle’s uncertain future in Chicago, Jones-Quartey made a strong statement that he needs to be included in the safety conversation moving forward. Jones-Quartey played like a ball hawk on Sunday -- the exact kind of playmaker the Bears desperately need in the secondary.
A future safety combination of Jones-Quartey and Adrian Amos is intriguing, and it's something defensive coordinator Vic Fangio needs to consider in the offseason. Because without Jones-Quartey and Anderson, the Bears probably wouldn't have knocked off the struggling Bucs.
What it means: Not a whole lot, but at least the three-game losing streak is over. The Bears (6-9) will finish with a better record than last season (5-11), which isn't saying much. But progress has been made; the Bears are a slightly healthier organization heading into 2016. For John Fox to truly end the year on a high note, the Bears have to beat Detroit in the season finale at Soldier Field. A loss to the Lions would negate whatever small gains Chicago made in balmy Tampa.
What were they thinking? The Bears have committed almost every special-teams gaffe imaginable under coordinator Jeff Rodgers -- blocked extra point, punt-return touchdown, kickoff-return touchdown, fooled on fake punt and fooled on trick punt. You can now add blocked punt to the list. For reasons unknown, the Bears' punt team (LaRoy Reynolds) forgot to account for Tampa’s Jeremiah George, who smothered Pat O’Donnell’s first-quarter kick. The Bucs recovered George’s block deep inside Bears territory and scored one play later. Whatever momentum Chicago’s special teams built in Minnesota vanished in the Florida heat. The Bears need to clean up the third phase.
One reason to get excited: The play of the defense. After an embarrassing performance in Week 15, the Bears' defense mostly held it together Sunday. Except for Charles Sims’ touchdown reception, the Bears applied steady pressure on Jameis Winston. Jones-Quartey’s return to the starting lineup proved successful. He delivered a hard hit to Doug Martin that forced a turnover and later intercepted Winston on the goal line. Another undrafted rookie, Anderson, forced yet another Bucs fumble. Pernell McPhee looked active for the first time in weeks. And Martin had to work for his rushing yards. Overall, the defense kept the Bears in the game while the offense sputtered.
One reason to panic: Speaking of the offense... did the Bears rehire John Shoop to call plays? With Alshon Jeffery unavailable (inactive) to stretch the field, offensive coordinator Adam Gase went ultraconservative in the passing game. Most of Jay Cutler’s throws seemed to travel fewer than 10 yards in the air. Bubble screens, stretch passes, crossing routes. One of the lone “shots” the Bears took down the field resulted in Cutler missing Zach Miller, who looked open but had trouble locating the football. It looked like 2002 all over again. Nobody wants to relive that moment in Bears history.
Fantasy watch: My deepest apologies to all the Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford fantasy owners. Second-year short-yardage back Ka'Deem Carey scored a pair of touchdowns on Sunday. Cutler finished the game 20-of-27 for 156 yards and one touchdown (100.2 passer rating). Langford led the Bears in rushing with 83 yards on 19 carries. Miller caught seven passes for 69 yards.
Ouch: Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins briefly left the game with an ankle injury but later returned. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman (ankle) and center Hroniss Grasu were both helped off the field in the third quarter. Goldman did not return. Grasu re-entered the game in the fourth quarter. Trainers looked at Forte on the sideline in the fourth quarter because of a back injury. Forte said after the game the back injury is no big deal.