NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (2-8) at Chicago (4-6) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Amid a slightly higher-profile arrival this weekend at Soldier Field - in the form of Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith visiting his former Chicago home for the first time since he was fired two years ago - there's also one Josh McCown.
McCown appeared in 11 games and started seven times across three seasons (two under Smith) with the Bears before heading to Buccaneers on a two-year, $10 million contract after Chicago displayed its allegiance to Jay Cutler in the form of a seven-year, $126.7 million deal.
His first three games with his new team yielded three losses and a thumb injury that subsequently kept him out of action for six weeks, but McCown returned to his starter's role in Week 10 and has since thrown for 589 yards and four touchdowns against just two interceptions.
He finally earned win No. 1 for the Bucs last week, throwing for 288 yards and a pair of scores in a 27-7 road defeat of Washington that ended a five-game losing skid.
The momentum comes just in time for what he concedes will be an unusual experience this week.
"It will be neat, weird, all those things. I'm sure for Coach Smith it's the same thing," McCown said. "But for us, we've got to win ball games, it doesn't matter who we play."
His return has coincided with the emergence of first-round draft pick Mike Evans, who's caught seven passes in three straight games for 458 yards and five touchdowns. The Texas A&M product accounted for 209 receiving yards against the Redskins, making him the first rookie with a 200-yard game and two scores since Anquan Boldin did it 11 years ago.
The defense did its part in Washington as well, registering three takeaways and six sacks while yielding its lowest opposition point total of 2014. Tampa Bay had averaged 30.2 points allowed through its initial nine games while accounting for only 12 turnovers and 14 sacks.
"Hopefully we can build on this and see where we go from there," Smith said.
As it turns out, the tumult-wracked Bears could use a little building of their own.
Lest he be reminded that Smith was 18 games over .500, reached the playoffs three times and appeared in a Super Bowl once during his tenure in Chicago, second-year coach Marc Trestman is enduring daily questions about why his star-studded team isn't performing anywhere near expectations.
Trestman was 8-8 in his first go-round last year, following Smith's dismissal after he went 10-6 in 2012 and failed to reach the playoffs. And several of his holdover players are still fans of their old boss.
"(Smith) was the type of guy that you really wanted to run through a wall for," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. "And you didn't want to see him go."
Inconveniently, Chicago's offense is more than six points a game off of the NFC-best 27.8-point clip it posted under Trestman last season, and his defense had allowed 50 points in two straight games before a circle-the-wagons 21-13 defeat of Minnesota in Week 11 ended a three-game losing streak.
Chicago allowed 243 total yards, but the Vikings were just 30th in the league in total offense coming in.
Smith's defenses for the Bears averaged better than two takeaways per game, permitted less than 20 points and only surrendered 40 or more four times. Chicago has allowed 40 points six times under
Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, while surrendering 29.5 points per game overall.
"We're going to talk to our team truthfully about every aspect of this game," Trestman said. "The thing I can tell you about Lovie is that I've watched him for years and played against him for years and I know him as a person and I have tremendous respect for him as a person in all areas. That's the only thing I can speak of at this point, and I truly mean that."
As for offense, Cutler is expecting his former boss to supply a new defensive wrinkle or two.
The QB passed for 330 yards and three TDs against Minnesota, but he was intercepted twice and has six INTs in his last four games. Running back Matt Forte had 117 rushing yards against the Vikings and is third in the league with 1,308 total yards.
"It's going to be challenging," Cutler said. "We are going to be familiar with their defense, they've got some really good players on that side of the ball."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Rookie on Rookie
First-year man Evans comes into the game for the Bucs full of pass-catching momentum. He's scored seven touchdowns since missing Week 5 with an injury and uses his 6-foot-5, 231-pound frame with surprising speed and agility. He'll be the focal point of rookie corner Kyle Fuller, picked seven slots after him in April, who's 6-foot, 190 pounds and will need to create disruption at the line of scrimmage.
Facing an Old Friend
On the flip side, Chicago's Brandon Marshall comes in after his own seven- catch, two-touchdown performance against Minnesota and will presumably be matched with veteran Alterraun Verner, who's been inconsistent in his first year with Tampa Bay. Marshall could have a big day if Smith employs soft coverages with Verner, especially if the receiver can escape initial contact and extend plays.
If it were solely a match on paper, the Bears would win easily. Of course, if they'd all been solely matches on paper, the Bears would probably be 8-2 instead of 4-6.
Expect Tampa Bay to be plenty revved-up for its popular new coach and for Smith to confound Cutler with a look or two, but in the end the advantages in personnel still reside with the hosts in Chicago. If he loses this one, Trestman's done.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bears 24, Buccaneers 14