Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Vikings (10.16.11)

October 17th, 2011 - 8:21 am
Devin Hester caught a 48-yard touchdown pass and also returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against the Vikings.

Devin Hester caught a 48-yard touchdown pass and also returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against the Vikings.

We certainly learned something about the Bears in their 39-10 victory over the Vikings on Sunday night: if the NFL was divided into social classes a la the American society, the Bears are probably somewhere in the upper middle class. That is, they’re not good enough to be in the upper class with the playoff teams but they’re good enough to compete in the muddled middle.

After weeks of struggling to stop the run, protect Jay Cutler, and put points on the board through the offense, Sunday night’s date with the Vikings couldn’t have come at a better time. The Vikings are a team that has sustained more injuries, poor play and general turbulence than the Bears have, and the Bears capitalized off it.

The mission was simple, but far from easy: contain Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, keep Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen from sitting on Cutler’s head, and protect the football. The Bears passed that test with flying colors, holding Peterson to 39 yards on 12 carries and limiting the Vikings to one sack while keeping Cutler’s jersey clean for most of the game. The Bears did have one turnover — a Cutler fumble on the lone sack — which led to a Vikings touchdown, but it’s hard to nitpick after their performance Sunday night.

Cutler had his second straight solid game by completing 21 of 31 passes for 267 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He spread the ball around nicely by connecting with eight different receivers. He also looked like a top quarterback in this league running a real NFL offense and it all started with solid protection from his offensive line.

The Bears cruised out of the gates to start the game and never looked back. After a Vikings three and out, Cutler — with loads of time — connected with Devin Hester for a 48-yard touchdown. When you think about Hester recording a long receiving touchdown, immediately what comes to mind is a screen pass that he took to the house. But this was a legitimate deep pass from Cutler — placed extremely well between two defenders — that Hester ran under and caught for the score.

The Vikings and Bears then traded punts, which new Bears punter Adam Podlesh pinned at the Minnesota five-yard line, and two plays later Donovan McNabb was sacked by Stephen Paea for a safety. Paea, the second-round rookie who suited up for the first time this season, got instant penetration and got to McNabb in a hurry.

After the free kick, the Bears drove 56 yards on six plays capped off by a Marion Barber three-yard touchdown run. At that point, we were cautiously optimistic that the Bears had rebounded from their disastrous performance last week against the Lions and they appeared to have this game in hand.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the second quarter that the Vikings got on the scoreboard with a 37-yard Ryan Longwell field goal. But Minnesota had no answer for the Bears offense as it continued moving the ball effectively. Cutler connected with Dane Sanzenbacher in the back of the end zone on a perfectly placed ball threaded between two defenders to give the Bears a 23-3 lead. Robbie Gould drilled a 51-yard field goal to send the Bears into halftime with a 26-3 advantage.

The Vikings came out strong in the second half as Allen sacked Cutler and recovered the fumble on the Bears’ opening drive. The Vikings capitalized and scored on a four-yard Peterson touchdown run six plays later.

After that, it was all Bears.

Hester fielded the ensuing kickoff and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown and Gould added a field goal on the next two drives to close out the scoring.

Mike Martz called a balanced offensive game plan for the third straight week now. Matt Forte failed to top the 100-yard mark in what would have been the third time in as many weeks, but he did pick up 87 yards on 17 rushing attempts, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Barber filled in during mop-up time and also in spot duty and had 32 yards on 11 carries.

In the passing game, Forte led the team with six receptions but Hester led the way with 91 yards. Roy Williams contributed early in the game with two big receptions to move the chains and finished with three catches for 50 yards. Johnny Knox and Kellen Davis each added two receptions.

Although the Vikings are far from quality competition, I was impressed with the well-rounded effort from the entire team, including the defensive line which got after McNabb — and later rookie Christian Ponder — all game. The defense recorded five sacks, three from Julius Peppers — who was doubtful for the game on Friday but wound up playing all game — and one each from Paea, Israel Idonije and Amobi Okoye. I was happy to see them “send the dogs,” so to speak, instead of sitting back and rushing just the four down linemen. They mixed things up, such as putting Henry Melton on the outside and running a variety of stunts designed to bring pressure from all directions.

The secondary did not play as poorly as feared. Charles Tillman, who led the team in tackles, and Tim Jennings were good in run support and Major Wright and Chris Conte did not get burned deep in their first start together at safety. Again, it’s difficult to judge their performance based on the quality of opponent, but they still played well and got valuable experience moving forward.

As for special teams, Podlesh did well on his first real test in the swirling winds of Soldier Field. His coffin-corner punting put the Vikings offense in poor starting field position several times, including the one that led to a safety.

Hester, meanwhile, took one step closer to the Hall of Fame with his 16th return touchdown. He also had a 27-yard punt return to set up the Bears with good field position early in the third quarter. Teams continue to kick to him because when they don’t, their kickers usually shank the ball and give the Bears good field position anyway.

For those who will get hung up on the Bears beating a bad Vikings team, think about what the alternative could have been. The Bears could have played down to their competition and barely squeaked by with a win. Instead, they went out and seized it. Although it wasn’t perfect, and the optimism should be tempered until further proof is provided, the Bears did make strides toward improvement and built a little confidence which could be just the rebound they needed.

Check back later in the day for a few more thoughts from Sunday’s game.