A lot will be on the line for the Vikings when they come to Soldier Field for a divisional bout with the Bears on Sunday. Not only is it a divisional game, which are ever-important in tight races such as the NFC North this year, but the Vikings are trying to avoid dropping to 0-2 to start the season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, since 1990 only 12% of teams have made the playoffs after a 0-2 start to the season. Conversely, 63% of teams have gone on to make the playoffs when posting a 2-0 record at season’s beginning. You can bet the Vikings want to avoid the former and the Bears want to reach the latter.
The Vikings got things started with a bang last week against the Lions when Adrian Peterson’s first carry of both the game and the season went for a 78-yard touchdown. Unfortunately for them, that’s where the good fortune ended. Peterson rushed 17 more times in that game for only 15 whopping yards. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder completed 64% of his passes for 236 yards, but he also threw 3 critical interceptions. Ponder is not the quarterback the Vikings were hoping they’d be getting and he could be on a short leash against the Bears. Will the Vikings yank him if he starts the game slowly? We could find out.
The Bears did a good job of bottling up the Bengals run game in Week 1, but that probably had more to do with Cincinnati’s success in the passing game. The Bengals managed just 63 rushing yards on 21 carries, an average of only 3.0 yards per carry. Things will be a little bit different this week when the NFL’s best running back comes to town with his freakish combination of size and speed. Bears coach Marc Trestman joked this week that the team “will need every Bear fan to run to the ball and make the tackle this week.” He conceded that Peterson will have a big play because of how good he is, but the team can’t let it affect the result of the next play. Peterson has had good success at Soldier Field in the past, but history isn’t always indicative of what’s to come, especially with so much having changed in recent years between these teams.
Peterson is bound to get his yardage, and it’s incumbent on the Bears defense to minimalize his impact on the game. One such way is to stay disciplined in assignment and technique and try to keep the Vikings in third-and-long situations. Put the ball in Ponder’s hands and make the shaky, third-year quarterback beat them with his arm. Not only is Ponder a marginal quarterback at best, but his supporting cast outside of Peterson doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Greg Jennings, the former Green Bay Packers wide receiver, is Ponder’s top option, but Jennings’ best days are behind him. Jerome Simpson, a former Bengals receiver in his second year with the Vikings, had a good game last week with 7 catches for 140 yards, one of which went for 47 yards. Ponder’s favorite target, particularly in the red zone, is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who caught 9 touchdown passes last year. Beyond those three players, there’s not much to worry about, and even Jennings, Simpson and Rudolph aren’t exactly elite.
Then again, if the Bears defense plays like it did last week, it can make this group look special. They have to improve their pass rush leaps and bounds over last week’s performance. Julius Peppers missed practice time this week with “flu-ish” symptoms, according to Trestman, and Tillman was excused for personal reasons and has battled a knee issue. Both are listed as probable on the injury report and the two Pro Bowlers will be needed for this game.
When the Bears have the ball, I’m anxious to see the offense’s improvement from Game 1 to Game 2. That’s where the most improvement typically takes place, or at least the potential for the biggest change is there. The Bears offensive line allowed zero sacks to the Bengals in Week 1 — which I’m sure had Jay Cutler feeling giddy last Sunday night — but there is certainly room for improvement, not only in pass protection and giving Cutler more time to throw, but in run blocking as well.
Matt Forte had just 50 rushing yards on 19 carries last week and that needs to get better. Forte was also a contributor in the passing game, which he’ll be all season, but he needs to keep defenses honest by pounding the rock and that starts with better protection up front. Last week, Detroit’s prized offseason acquisition, running back Reggie Bush, had a great debut with his new team. Bush shredded the Vikings’ defense for 90 rushing yards on 21 carries and 101 receiving yards and a touchdown on 4 receptions. Forte and Bush are not identical, but they are both among the best receiving running backs in the NFL, and both can make defenses pay when gaps are not filled.
There was a lot of angst leading up to the season from outside the organization that Cutler was zeroing in on his favorite receiver, Brandon Marshall, too much last year. With Trestman’s offense, the goal is to help spread the ball around to more options. After one week, Marshall still had 8 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, but he’s one of the best receivers in the NFL and that kind of stat line is supposed to happen. Cutler did complete passes to four other targets, including second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery, who caught 5 passes for 42 yards, and new tight end Martellus Bennett, who had 3 receptions for 49 yards, including a big touchdown catch early in the game. So far, I think the diversity appears to be present and it should only grow as Cutler gets more comfortable with the offense.
The Vikings have a physical secondary which should play into Marshall’s hands this week, as he appreciates a good physical battle, knowing full well he’s bound to win that matchup. The Vikings line up in Cover 2, which provides ample opportunity for Bennett to stretch the middle of the field and open things up on the outside for Marshall and Jeffery. A good tight end in a good offense has the opportunity to have huge games against the Cover 2. Is Bennett a good tight end? Is this a good offense? I believe they are, and we have a chance to find that out this week.
There are no secrets to this game, unless former Bears defensive back and current Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier has a few tricks up his sleeve. The Bears have to prevent too many big plays to Peterson. The defense has to get off the field quicker than they did last week against the Bengals. The pass rush needs to improve and last year’s Pro Bowlers along the line — Peppers and Henry Melton — need to show up on the stat sheet. The offense needs to run the ball better and I’d like to see more involvement from Forte in both the run and pass games. The pass blocking did well in Week 1 and it has to keep Cutler’s jersey clean.
All of these objectives are fair and attainable. It just comes down to a matter of will and execution, and I think the Bears have that on their side. I’m not sure if I see a blowout in the making here — although, it’s definitely possible — but I do see another win for Trestman and the Bears as they take care of the Vikings on the lakefront.
Prediction: Chicago 27, Minnesota 20