Vikings vs. Bears: 10 Keys to the Game for Minnesota
The Vikings can tie the Bears at 7-4 with a road win in Chicago, but they'll have to buck recent history to do so as Minnesota is just 1-10 in their last 11 games at Soldier Field.
The Vikings are getting the Bears at an ideal time. While Minnesota has had two weeks to get ready for the matchup, the Bears had a short week of practice after getting battered 32-7 by the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.
After starting the year 7-1, the Bears have sputtered their last two times out, losing both games and scoring just 13 points total in the two losses.
Backup quarterback Jason Campbell has looked terrible in replacing starter Jay Cutler for the past game and a half. Cutler remains questionable for Sunday's game, still shaking off cobwebs after suffering a slight concussion against the Texans two weeks ago.
The Vikings are certainly on the uptick after putting together a solid all-around performance in beating the Detroit Lions 34-24. Adrian Peterson is coming off the best four-game stretch of his career, running for 629 yards and five touchdowns and continues to amaze as he is getting better and stronger as the year wears on.
Quarterback Christian Ponder broke out of brutal month-long slump against the Lions, throwing for 221 yards and a pair of touchdowns and most importantly avoided any turnovers.
The Vikings head to Chicago for a very winnable game—one that could set the tone for the home stretch of the 2012 season.
Here are 10 keys for the Vikings to come out of Chicago with a win on Sunday.
Keep the Turnovers to a Minimum
The Chicago Bears raced out to a 7-1 start in the 2012 season for one simple reason: Their defense was taking the ball away from the other team.
The Bears lead the NFL with 30 takeaways, led by Tim Jennings' eight interceptions. The Bears have returned a remarkable seven picks for touchdowns. The Vikings have just five interceptions period.
Games against the Bears always seem to revolve around turnovers, and that's an area the Vikings have been treading on thin ice in. Minnesota is the only team in the NFC with a winning record that has turned the ball over more than they've taken it away.
What all this means for Sunday is that Christian Ponder has to be very careful with the football. The Bears rank first in the NFL in interceptions, second in forced fumbles and fifth in sacks. They'll be aiming to rattle Ponder, who's been prone to making a lot of mistakes when pressured and hit.
With the Bears ball-hawking mentality on defense, Ponder will have to take extra care when throwing the ball and make sure he secures the ball when the pocket collapses on him. Adrian Peterson and the Vikings receivers will also have to have ball protection at the front of their minds.
The Bears are masters at creating turnovers; that's how they win so many football games. If the Vikings protect the ball, they can win.
The Vikings Offensive Line Must Play Well
It would be easy to say that the key matchup for the Vikings offense to be effective against the Bears is rookie Matt Kalil against the Bears all-world defensive end Julius Peppers.
The truth of the matter, though, is that the Vikings entire line will have to step up and play well against the Bears' front seven. Yes, Peppers leads the Bears with six sacks, but Henry Melton has five from his defensive tackle position, and Israel Idonije has four-and-a-half sacks at the other end. Meanwhile, the other defensive tackle, the massive Stephen Paea, has done a fantastic job of taking on double-teams in freeing up the other linemen to get to the quarterback.
The Vikings offensive line has been spotty at best in pass protection this year; the entire group will have to be at the top of its game to give Ponder the opportunity to be effective.
Adrian Peterson Has to Be His Usual Self
It's silly for the Vikings to ask for anything more out of Adrian Peterson. The Vikings' tornado of a running back has been the best player in the NFL for the past month, running harder and cutting better than he has at any point in his remarkable career.
Having said that, the Vikings will certainly need Peterson to be his normal self on Sunday against the Bears. If Peterson is able to get 20-25 carries and go over a hundred yards, the Bears' terrifying linebacker duo of Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher will be forced to stay home and honor the run. The Bears defense is always at its best when Briggs and Urlacher are flying around the field and wreaking havoc.
Vikings/Bears games are always physical affairs that usually come down to which side can impose its will on the other. If it's a smash-mouth game, you're always better off with Adrian Peterson on your side.
Christian Ponder Needs a High Completion Percentage
If there's anything the Chicago Bears defense likes to do, it's pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
The Bears come at you from all over the field, with three great rushers up front and two All-Pro linebackers who both seem to be able to disrupt the game as rushers and pass defenders. The Bears' successful defensive M.O. is to hurry the opposing quarterback into rushed throws that their aggressive secondary can take advantage of.
It doesn't take a lot of reading between the lines to realize that the Vikings will need an efficient, smart game from their quarterback. Christian Ponder can look at his last game against the Lions as a good blueprint to what they'll need out of him on Sunday.
Ponder spread the ball around, hitting 10 different receivers and even took some shots downfield that proved successful in stretching out the Lions defense.
Ponder need look no further than the game Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback taken 24 picks after Ponder in the 2011 draft, had against the Bears on Monday night. Kaepernick was phenomenally efficient against the Bears, completing 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over.
Kaepernick is a better runner than Ponder, but he didn't run much against the Bears. He moved well in pocket and made accurate throws that picked the Bears apart. Ponder is capable of doing the same; he just has to go out Sunday and do it.
Receivers Not Named Harvin Need to Step Up (Again)
There was much talk after the Vikings' win over the Lions that not having dynamic receiver Percy Harvin in the lineup was a blessing in disguise.
While ideas like that are a lot easier to throw out after a win, there's no doubt the Vikings collective eyes were opened as to what they are capable of without Harvin.
Harvin will probably play against the Bears, but he more than likely won't be at 100 percent. Having Harvin on the field is always a boost to the Vikings' confidence, and his mere presence makes the defense wary.
What Ponder and the other receivers learned against the Lions is that they are completely capable of moving the football threw the air without Harvin being involved. Kyle Rudolph re-emerged as a go-to guy for Ponder, and eight other receivers caught balls in Harvin's absence.
Drop Harvin back into the mix and the Vikings offense should be able to click at a high level. Jarius Wright, John Carlson and Jerome Simpson are all receivers who need to start proving they belong, and solid games against the Bears would go along way towards doing that.
Vikings Need to Win the Special Teams Battle
The Vikings offense is averaging 341 yards per game. The Vikings defense is giving up 341 yards per game.
You can make a very good argument that the Vikings are 6-4 because their special teams have been exceptional in 2012.
In order for the Vikings to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday, they'll more than likely have to win the special teams battle. That might be a tall order considering how Devin Hester has flat out killed the Vikings over the years. The good news for the Vikings is that their special teams are the most improved part of the team.
Weather is usually a factor in Chicago, be it wind or cold to say the least. When weather plays a role, field position becomes paramount. With Blair Walsh and Chris Kluwe, the Vikings are in good hands as far as field position goes. If the Vikings can stick the Bears with long fields, their chances of winning go up substantially.
Obviously, it's imperative the Vikings special teams keep Hester in check, and it would be nice if Marcus Sherels could throw in a couple of nice returns. If Percy Harvin is at full speed, it's always a huge boost to the Vikings kick return team.
Rookie Blair Walsh hasn't kicked in an environment like Chicago yet. The Vikings would be more than happy if the game came down to Walsh making a field goal. Seeing what we've seen from him so far, it would be dumb to bet against him.
Vikings Need to Pressure the Quarterback
The 49ers Aldon Smith had 5.5 sacks against the Bears on Monday night.
That number has to have Jared Allen, Brian Robison and company drooling as they get ready to take on the Bears Sunday at Soldier Field. The Bears have talent on the offensive line, but they've been getting beaten up as of late.
Tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi are young and have been giving up a lot sacks. Jared Allen always seems to bring a little extra to games against division foes, and he seems due for another huge game in Chicago. Whether it's Jay Cutler or Jason Campbell in the pocket for the Bears, the Vikings have to be able to get pressure against an offensive line that just isn't playing well right now.
This is a Bears offense that has gained just 358 yards and scored only 13 points in its last two games. Granted, a game and a half of that was without Cutler, but the Bears offense was hardly tearing up the league with Cutler either.
The 49ers defense put tons of pressure on Campbell and held the Bears to 143 yards of offense. Jared Allen has a chance to be the most impactful player on the field Sunday. If he is, the Vikings should be in great shape.
If the Vikings Bottle Up Matt Forte, They'll Win
Chicago running back Matt Forte has been a constant thorn in the Vikings' side since he joined the Bears in 2008.
As both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, Forte is the type of dual threat that always seems to give the Vikings headaches. The Bears have added power back Michael Bush to their arsenal, but Minnesota never seems to have as much trouble with power backs than it does with those with a little more wiggle in their games.
For the Vikings defense, this means that the linebackers have to be on their A-games. Chad Greenway has been fantastic all season and is well on his way to being an All-Pro. Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley have both been too inconsistent, not only from game to game, but from series to series.
To shut down a back like Forte, your linebackers need to play well. The 49ers, with their dynamic duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, did just that, holding Forte to just 63 yards rushing and four yards on three receptions.
If the Vikings are able to keep Forte to numbers like that, they should have no problem winning the game.
Keep Brandon Marshall in Check
When Chicago Bears wideout Brandon Marshall has his head in the game, he can be every bit as good as Calvin Johnson.
The 49ers held Marshall to just two catches for 21 yards and a touchdown, but it's doubtful Marshall will have back-to-back games with such meager numbers. Again, if Cutler doesn't play, all bets are off, but with Cutler slinging the ball, Marshall tends to be a difference-maker.
The 6'4", 230-pounder is a nightmare matchup for any defensive secondary, and he ranks fifth in the NFL with 69 catches for 925 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.
The Vikings will probably game-plan for Marshall much like they do for Johnson, try to keep him underneath and then punish him when he does make catches. Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond will all have to be on high alert when defending Marshall; he's a guy who, when he gets on a roll, can take over a football game.
One thing for the Vikings secondary to keep in mind if Cutler does play is that interceptions will be available. The strong-armed Cutler has never been afraid to throw into tiny windows and take his shots downfield. He plays with a cockiness that can win ballgames, but he is also prone to throwing interceptions.
Know What's at Stake, Opportunity Is at Hand
No one who follows the Minnesota Vikings looked at the 2012 season with a ton of optimism.
Coming off a train-wreck of a 2011 season, the Vikings were looking at a rebuild that was going to take more than a season or two. With a fistful of new starters, a second-year quarterback who looked to have a long way to go and a running back coming off complete reconstructive knee surgery, any improvement on 3-13 would be acceptable.
Yet here we are, 10 games into the season and the Vikings are 6-4 and have a chance to tie the Bears for either first or second place in the division. They're heading down to Chicago at the perfect time, with the Bears having lost two straight and looking horrible in the process.
The Vikings have been a bad road team the last few years and have been absolutely awful in Chicago. But the thing with the 2012 version of the Vikings is that they continue to surprise us. Led by a running back for the ages, if the Vikings can hang on to the football Sunday, they should have every opportunity to win.
If they win, they're 7-4 and can control their playoff destiny the rest of the way. Opportunity is at hand.