A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Vikings on Oct. 16, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Vikings defense
A lot of good from the offense came out of Monday night’s loss to the Lions that unfortunately has been overshadowed by the disorganized mess that is the offensive line. Instead of talking about Jay Cutler’s 249 passing yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, his 73-percent completions, or his 99 passer rating, we’ve had to dissect why the line had him on the run all game. Rather than focus on another solid effort from Matt Forte and the run game, we’ve had to dwell on the line’s embarrassing nine false start penalties. Fortunately, Sunday night’s game against the Vikings is at Soldier Field, where the offense should have the advantage of a quieter atmosphere where they can actually hear the snap count, right? Well, not so fast. This game should be a close one, and in tense situations, the drunken Bears fans have a tendency of getting loud at the wrong time and giving the offense trouble hearing the play calls and the cadence. The line will have its hands full this week against Jared Allen, who leads the league with 8.5 sacks. The Vikings as a team have roughly double that and rank second with 16 total sacks. Joining Allen on the front line is fellow defensive end Brian Robison, who is second on the team with 4.5 sacks. The combination of the two will cause problems for the Bears’ young tackles. Lance Louis is expected to replace Frank Omiyale at right tackle and will be put to the test early and often. The Vikings have a strong second level of the defense with linebackers E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway. Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, who leads the team in tackles, is listed as doubtful with a neck injury. The Vikings defense is tied for seventh in the league with six interceptions, with five different players picking off at least one pass. The Bears spread the ball around nicely last week against the Lions and Cutler did a great job of feeling the pressure in the pocket and avoiding it while making throws on the run. When asked about it this week, Cutler said ideally the Bears would run more plays that allowed him to get rid of the ball quickly and offensive coordinator Mike Martz acknowledged as much, even going so far as to say his offense can cater to that type of philosophy despite being known for its seven-step drops. The offensive line needs to have the game of its season this week to keep Cutler upright and effective.
Bears defense vs. Vikings offense
There could be several moments of ugly play when these two units step on the field together. The Bears have been dreadful against the run this year and that’s a big cause for concern with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson roaming the sod Sunday night. Peterson is the league’s second-leading rusher with 498 yards and leads the NFL with six touchdown runs. He’s recorded two runs of more than 40 yards — tied for third-most in the league — and also has three runs of more than 20 yards. If the Bears allowed the Lions’ Jahvid Best to break off an 88-yard run, I fear what Peterson will do to them. Visions of Peterson scampering 67 and 73 yards en route to 224 total rushing yards at Soldier Field as a rookie in 2007 are flashing in my head. The defense needs a much better effort than it’s showed all season in order to contain the Pro Bowl running back. On the flip side, if the Bears are able to contain Peterson, they could have some success against Donovan McNabb and the Vikings’ No. 31 pass offense. Minnesota is averaging just 155.8 passing yards per game and have just four touchdowns through the air. Bad news out of Halas Hall this week is that Julius Peppers is doubtful for the game with a sprained knee. Although Peppers hasn’t been able to get to the quarterback in the last few weeks, his presence has always altered game plans for opposing offensive coordinators. Corey Wootton is probable for the game and will have to step up his performance. I’m not sure the Bears can expect much production from Nick Reed. With Matt Toeaina out with a knee injury, we could have our first Stephen Paea sighting. The rookie second-round draft pick will dress and could crack the defensive tackle rotation and we’re all interested in seeing what the kid has to offer. The story of the week has to be the demotion of not one, but both starting safeties, Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather. Neither played well in Monday’s loss to the Lions as Harris labored through a hamstring injury from which he probably rushed back too soon and Meriweather chose to continue going for big hits instead of using proper tackling technique. Meriweather also has struggled to conform to Lovie Smith’s defense and has been beaten in coverage on a number of occasions. Replacing those two will be Major Wright and rookie Chris Conte, the same combination that blew coverage against the Saints’ Devery Henderson on a 79-yard touchdown in Week 2. Not only will their zone coverage responsibilities be critical, but their run support against Peterson will be a huge factor in the outcome of this game.
The Lions wanted to take Devin Hester out of the equation by keeping the ball away from him on punts. Hester managed to field just one punt for one yard. He did get his opportunity to return four kickoffs, one of which he returned 33 yards and ran over Lions kicker Jason Hanson in the process. After which, he had a swagger in his step. Good for you, Devin, you knocked down the kicker. Unfortunately, Hester had one of his brain farts on another return in the third quarter. While trying too hard to make something happen, he tracked down a kickoff that was headed toward the sideline, and instead of letting it go out of bounds and getting great field position near midfield, he caught the ball and his momentum carried him out of bounds at the seven-yard line. Hester may be the greatest returner of all time, but some of his decisions are just confounding. The Vikings have a dynamic kick returner opposite Hester in Percy Harvin. Harvin is averaging 35.4 yards per return on five attempts this season. The average is inflated because he returned one kickoff for a 103-yard touchdown. Harvin is questionable for the game with a rib injury and if he can’t go, Lorenzo Booker will handle the return duties. Booker has done well this season, too, averaging 27.6 yards per return with a long of 68. Robbie Gould and Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell are both solid veterans as are punters Adam Podlesh and Chris Kluwe. This is a very even special teams matchup.
This is a battle for third place in the NFC North and for the hope of remaining alive in the wild card hunt. The Bears have homefield advantage and, unfortunately, need it in order to even call offensive plays with minimal difficulty. Cutler is learning to handle pressure and adversity with last week’s performance against the Lions as evidence. He’ll need to maintain that poise in the pocket against yet another good pass rush. The Bears have to sustain drives in this game in order to win; it’s really that simple. With how poorly the defense has played this year, they need to dominate the time of possession and keep Peterson off the field as long as possible. They also need to jump out to an early lead and try to get the Vikings to abandon the run and have to resort to the pass to play catchup. With their backs against the wall and their playoff hopes fading, the Bears need to put forth their best effort of the year and secure a homefield win. Unfortunately, with the possibility of Peppers not playing, a safety combination of Wright and Conte, and the difficult task of stopping one of the NFL’s best rushers, I can’t see a path to success if the Bears continue on the rocky one they’ve been traveling this season. The Bears have the intangibles in their favor but I think they’ll fall short in this one.
Final Score: Minnesota 23, Chicago 21