Struggling Bears, Buccaneers aim to overcome slow starts
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist they aren't as bad as their records suggest.
The sputtering teams begin the second half of their schedules against each other Sunday, clinging to hope they can eliminate the inconsistency - and at times, downright poor play - that's prevented them from being more successful.
Chicago (2-6), coming off a bye that gave it extra time to savor a 10-point victory over NFC North leader Minnesota, has already gotten a taste of what a healthy and on-target Jay Cutler back on the field can mean.
The Bucs (3-5), who've lost two straight while struggling to run the ball, are clamoring for an opportunity to see whether a mended Doug Martin can change the course of their season.
''Obviously, it helps to have confidence, and it's hard to gain confidence without something good happening,'' Chicago coach John Fox said. ''We're in a performance-based business. ... You work very hard in preparation to get that good feeling in the locker room. ... A `W' after a game does give you a boost of confidence.''
Martin, the NFL's second-leading rusher a year ago, has been sidelined since Week 2 with a hamstring injury. He returned to practice this week and is optimistic he'll be ready to play against the Bears.
With or without Martin, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who rushed for 1,402 yards last season, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said he has to find a way to get more out of his team.
''We've got to coach them better, No. 1. That's what a coach's job is, that's what my job is, to try to get your team to achieve up to the talent level that they have,'' Koetter said.
''Our record is what our record is; we have to own that. ... But I think we can play to a higher level across the board. That starts with me, first and foremost,'' the coach added. ''I have to figure out how to reach these guys, how to motivate them, how to get them on the same page, get them to play together, to play up to the talent level that I think we have. That all starts with me.''
Some things to know about the Bears and Bucs, one-time NFC Central rivals who are playing for the 57th time:
PROTECTING THE FOOTBALL: Bucs QB Jameis Winston has made a concerted effort to minimize turnovers following a 1-3 start. The second-year pro, on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards again, has eight touchdown passes vs. one interception and a lost fumble in the past three games. Tampa Bay is 1-2 over that stretch, primarily because of problems on defense, where it yielded 1,087 yards, including 857 passing, in losses to Oakland and Atlanta the past two weeks.
GETTING HEALTHY: The Bears are getting healthier after being banged-up all year.
Cutler (thumb sprain) returned after missing five starts to lead a victory over the Vikings on Oct. 31. Linebacker Pernell McPhee (offseason knee surgery) has played the past two games after starting the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Coming off a bye, the Bears may be closer to getting a few more key players back, including nose tackle Eddie Goldman, guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton, and cornerback Bryce Callahan.
Goldman is trying to work his way back from a high ankle sprained suffered in a loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 19.
''If he's doing well in practice and he feels good about it, then we can take a shot with him,'' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. ''If he's so-so in practice and still hobbling a little bit, then maybe not.''
ROOKIES ON RISE: There weren't many positives for the Bears in the first half of the season. But here are two: rookies Jordan Howard and Leonard Floyd. Howard, a fifth-round draft pick, ranks second among rookies with 505 yards rushing. He ran for 153 against Minnesota, giving him three 100-yard games. Floyd, an outside linebacker drafted with the No. 9 overall pick, has three sacks in the past two games.
NEXT MAN UP: With Martin sidelined since Week 2, and backups Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith going down with injuries, too, the Bucs have used four starting running backs. It has been difficult for Martin to watch.
''Real frustrating,'' the fifth-year pro said. ''You've seen guys step up. ... and you see guys go down. It's hard to see. You want to get in.''
SOMETHING'S GOT GIVE: The Bucs are 0-4 at home this season. The Bears are 0-4 on the road.
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.
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