A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Vikings on Nov. 25, 2012.
Bears offense vs. Vikings defense
The Bears offense is ranked No. 30 in the NFL and it’s been getting worse over the past month rather than better. They made two moves along the offensive line this week: out are left guard Chilo Rachal and right tackle Gabe Carimi, and in are Chris Spencer and Jonathan Scott. The line has given up 34 sacks this year including six last week against the 49ers. The Vikings have the 12th-ranked defense and are 11th in sacks. They are strong up front with defensive ends Jared Allen (7 sacks) and Brian Robison (5.5 sacks). And defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion are stout in the middle. Guion is questionable with a foot injury. The Vikings have had solid play from their linebackers for the better part of a decade. Chad Greenway is second in the NFL in tackles and has also posted two sacks. Erin Henderson has two sacks and starts opposite Greenway. Jasper Brinkley anchors the middle and is fourth on the team in tackles. The Bears will see a familiar face in the secondary in cornerback Antoine Winfield, a long-time veteran of the Vikings and one of the most physical corners in the league, particularly when it comes to run support. Winfield is second on the team in tackles and also has two of the team’s five interceptions. The Vikings feature a young secondary overall, though, with safeties Harrison Smith (rookie) and Mistral Raymond (second season). And rookie Josh Robinson and third-year pro A.J. Jefferson have seen time starting at cornerback as well. The Bears will have opportunities to pick apart the Vikings zone coverage if, and only if, they can protect the quarterback. As of Saturday afternoon, it was still unknown whether Jay Cutler would be cleared to play Sunday, but the Bears would be wise to focus more on the run anyway.
Bears defense vs. Vikings offense
The stalwart of the team this season has been the incredible play of the defense, and it even has carried the team to a few victories. In some cases, the play of the defense has elevated that of the offense. But as the Bears were systematically picked apart by young Colin Kaepernick last week, the team crumbled because the offense could not produce against the 49ers’ stout defense. Unless the two changes on the offensive line this week happen to turn around the Bears’ fortunes, it’s the defense that will have to win this game. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has been fairly careful with the ball this season, throwing just eight interceptions. Ponder has taken the role of game manager and he’s not asked to win games, rather, he’s told not to lose them. Ponder’s yards per attempt average is just 6.42, ranking him 28th in the NFL. When he throws, he typically checks down and does not wait for a play to develop. Because of this quick reaction to get rid of the ball in the face of pressure, he does not rack up many passing yards, but he still has the propensity to get sacked. He’s tied for 11th in the league with 25 sacks. Most of the time, Ponder is asked to simply hand off the ball to Adrian Peterson, the league’s leading rusher entering this week. Peterson averages 112.8 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per attempt. After having surgery on his knee at the end of last season, Peterson has been looking better than ever and would be a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year if it weren’t for Peyton Manning’s astounding season. For what it’s worth, Peterson has had some of his best games at Soldier Field and that could spell trouble for the Bears defense. But I feel that in the face of pressure from the Bears’ front seven, Ponder’s weaknesses should give the Bears the edge. Not to mention, the Vikings’ best offensive weapon outside of Peterson — wide receiver Percy Harvin — is listed as doubtful for the game.
This is one of those rare situations where the Bears don’t have the special teams advantage. We can start in the kicking game where Minnesota’s Blair Walsh has been nearly perfect on the season, converting 23 of 24 field goal attempts with a long of 55. Robbie Gould is 18 of 21 with a long of 54. Walsh also leads the NFL with a 68.6 kickoff average and has 41 touchbacks compared to Gould’s 66.7 kickoff average and 31 touchbacks. It’s difficult to compare them directly because Walsh kicks indoors, but he’s having the better season so far. Meanwhile, at punter, the Bears’ Adam Podlesh has been struggling badly this season while the Vikings’ Chris Kluwe has performed marginally better. In the return game, the Vikings are doing much better as the explosive Percy Harvin is averaging 35.9 yards per kickoff return — second best in the league — and has scored one touchdown. Harvin, however, is listed as doubtful for the game with an ankle injury. Marcus Sherels has 9.3 yards per punt return up to this point and has also scored a touchdown. Devin Hester, meanwhile, is behind both of those guys in kickoff and punt returns and his decision making appears to be going from bad to worse.
There’s a lot of tension in Chicago from the fans to the players to the coaches and the organization regarding the Bears’ recent two game slide. The Bears were predicted by many to lose both the Houston game and the San Francisco game when the schedule was first released, so the Bears’ 7-3 record at this point isn’t much to scoff at. But there is an awful lot riding on this game. The Bears have already lost one divisional contest to Green Bay earlier in the season and still have to face them in December. The Vikings, at 6-4, are nipping at the Bears’ heels and would overtake them for second place in the NFC North should the Bears lose. It’s imperative that the Bears set a tone early and take care of the ball throughout the game. They don’t have the means to play from behind because their offense just isn’t clicking, so it’s important for them to keep the game close or take an early lead. By getting out ahead on the scoreboard, not only will it make things easier on the offense and open up the playbook, but it’ll take the ball out of the hands of Peterson and force the Vikings to go to Ponder to make plays, which is exactly what the Bears will be trying to do. With two of the three phases being owned by the Vikings, the Bears defense will once again feel the pressure of winning the game for the entire team. If they don’t play nearly flawless football, the Vikings will steal this one.
Final Score: Chicago 23, Minnesota 20