Bears offense vs. Vikings defense
Last week against the worst run defense in the NFL, the Bears managed just 62 yards on 24 carries between Matt Forte and Chester Taylor, a 2.5 average. The most discouraging thing is that the Bears stayed committed to the run game and still couldn’t have success. This week the Bears face the Vikings’ No. 6 run defense and I’d be surprised if they ran the ball more than 12-15 times for anywhere between 35-45 yards. Of course, one broken play can skew those statistics, but that would be about average production for them. Mike Martz figures to dial up quite a few passing plays in this one, especially if the Bears are down early. Minnesota is slightly more susceptible to the pass, but by the slimmest of margins. The Vikings are mostly healthy on the defensive side of the ball and won’t be missing any key players. After having an unusually slow start to the season with just one sack in the team’s first seven games, defensive end Jared Allen registered two and a half sacks last week against Arizona and just might have gotten the jump-start he needed to return to Pro Bowl form. Allen is joined on the line by the familiar faces — and enormous wide bodies — of tackles Pat and Kevin Williams and end Ray Edwards. Of the team’s 12 sacks — which is the fourth-lowest mark in the league — the defensive line has eight of them, which means those guys are going to bring the heat. This game reminds me an awful lot of the New York Giants one in which the Giants recorded 10 sacks against the Bears, most of which came from just the front four. Offensive line coach Mike Tice knows the challenge his unit has in protecting Cutler against the Vikings’ defensive line and he said this week, “We’re going to find out if we’re man enough.” I don’t question the will or mental toughness of the offensive linemen, but I do have my reservations about their talent and physical toughness. Another thing to keep an eye on is that center Olin Kreutz missed practices this week, although he did participate on Friday, and he’s likely to play Sunday, but who knows how effective he’ll be. For the Bears to avoid getting Cutler concussed again, they need to get the ball out of his hands quickly and probably utilize Greg Olsen, Matt Forte, and Chester Taylor early and often. The Vikings have the No. 5 overall defense in the league and I see a lot of struggles for the Bears offense.
Bears defense vs. Vikings offense
If the Bears are going to beat their division rivals, the game has to be won on this side of the ball. The Bears are ranked No. 8 overall on defense, which is incredible if you think about it because that ranking is based on yards allowed and the defensive scheme they run normally yields a lot of yards. That’s reflected in their pass defense, which is allowing an average of 225.8 passing yards per game and is currently ranked 19th. What’s most impressive is the way the Bears have defended the run this season. The Bears began the season with a solid effort against the Lions which landed them in the top spot and they haven’t wavered much since, never falling out of the Top 6, if memory serves. They’re currently ranked No. 3 while allowing just 83.9 rushing yards per game. They’re also yielding just 3.5 yards per carry, third-best in the league. Here’s an ironic statistic: the Bears have the third-best run defense yet have also allowed the third-most rushing touchdowns in the league. They have the 19th-ranked pass defense, yet they have allowed a league-low five touchdown passes. How can we interpret that? Simple: the Cover 2 defense is working — for the most part — as it should. It prevents offenses from getting the big play down the field but it’s giving up big yards because it allows long drives due to shorter and intermediate routes. When an opponent gets closer to the end zone, the field shrinks and it’s harder to pass for a touchdown in a confined space. Meanwhile, opposing offensive coordinators don’t run as much on the Bears because they know they can move down the field with the pass. But when it comes to power football, the Bears get overrun in the red zone. Perhaps the one reason I most feel the Bears will struggle in this game is that Brett Favre is notorious for evading a pass rush — even with his decrepit body — and he also has long had success at picking apart zone coverage. The Bears are going to have to bring pressure with blitzes because I don’t think the front four will generate enough on their own. I think the safety blitz with Chris Harris has been an effective tool this season. The Bears will also get their toughest test of the season against the league’s top back in Adrian Peterson. Peterson has had plenty of success against the Bears in his career and is averaging over 100 yards per game. He also seems to have a nose for the end zone against them. I expect an inspired effort against Peterson and if the Bears do not have a broken play, I feel they can hold him under 100 yards. Still, Minnesota has the weapons to pick apart the Bears’ defense.
Devin Hester has had a great deal of success in his career against the Vikings both offensively and on special teams. Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe has made the mistake more than once of kicking to Hester, who has burned the Vikings for touchdowns. Rather than kick the ball out of bounds as most teams have done during the Hester reign, Kluwe tries to punt it high and deep which causes him to outkick his coverage. Assuming Kluwe hasn’t learned his lesson yet, I like Hester’s chances of having a nice day in the return game. The Bears pulled Danieal Manning off the kickoff return duties last week against the Bills and I’m still not sure why. My best guess is that after Buffalo sustained long drives against the Bears’ defense, Dave Toub preferred to put a fresh Johnny Knox in the game instead of a winded Manning. Knox had three returns for a 23-yard average with a long of 27 yards. I’m comfortable with both players back there. I’d prefer Manning’s straight up the field approach to Knox’s slower method of waiting for his blockers to set up. But Knox does have explosive speed and if he does get a crease, he could go all the way. Robbie Gould has struggled a bit this year, missing three field goals, although he did have one blocked. He also sent a kickoff out of bounds last week. Still, he’s an extremely reliable kicker on field goals and he’s had nine touchbacks on kickoffs, 10th-most in the league. Brad Maynard has had a rough season but he’s a weapon when attempting to pin opponents deep in their own territory. Hopefully the Bears don’t need him to kick from his own end zone this week because his lack of leg strength hurts their ability to flip field position.Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell has been a dependable kicker for a long time. He, too, is getting old and his leg strength is waning. He kicks in a dome and yet he has just one touchback this year. He’s made all eight of his field goals but only has a long of 41 yards, the shortest of any kicker in the league with as many attempts.
The Vikings are one of the toughest teams in the league when playing in the friendly confines of Mall of America Field, but their recent struggles on the road have to be disconcerting for them. They’ve lost their last eight road games in a row, including the NFC Conference Championship game in New Orleans and the 36-30 overtime loss to the Bears in December. A turf team playing on grass has to at least be considered a factor in the losing streak. The Bears and Vikings have truly had a close and entertaining rivalry over the past decade. During Lovie Smith’s tenure alone, the teams have split their 12 battles. Four of the six years the series was split, 1-1. The Bears swept the Vikings in 2006 and the Vikings swept the Bears in 2007. The weather shouldn’t play a big factor in the game on Sunday. Temperature at kickoff calls for mid-40s with wind gusts up to 18 mph. That means the playbooks for both teams should be open and almost everything should be in the game plan. From a coaching perspective, both teams have had an outcry of public complaint. But even the most hard-headed Lovie Smith haters out there should be able to realize that the better of the two head coaches will be wearing blue and orange on Sunday. Smith has the respect of his players and if the Bears are to pull off a victory over the Vikings, it could be the cohesiveness of the locker room that makes the difference. Still, I’m not sure a bad head coach and a road losing streak of eight games will be enough to deter the Vikings in this one. They have better talent despite their 3-5 record and they’ll probably be playing with a bigger sense of urgency than the Bears will. The Vikings know that this is a do-or-die game for them. If they lose, they’ll be three games behind the co-division leaders, the Packers and Bears. They’ll have six losses on the season and they may have to run the table to make the playoffs. I expect a close game with careless turnovers from both quarterbacks. Peterson, who had 20 fumbles in the first three seasons of his career, has yet to fumble this season. That could change against the Bears’ opportunistic defense. However, unless the Vikings completely implode on Sunday, I don’t think the Bears have the offensive talent to match up with their Vikings’ counterparts.
Final Score: Minnesota 20, Chicago 17