Bears vs. Vikings: 10 Keys to the Game for Minnesota
Oh, how things can change in just two weeks.
The Vikings went to Chicago to play the Bears on Nov. 25 full of promise and hope. Coming off a convincing win over the Lions before their bye week, Minnesota was ready for a huge game against their division rival that could have tied them at 7-4 with the Bears.
It didn't happen.
In fact, other than Adrian Peterson, nothing good has happened for the Vikings since they beat the Lions on Nov.11. We won't go into detail on the two playoff-crippling losses at Chicago and Green Bay, suffice to say that when your quarterback puts up QBR ratings of 10.3 and 3.1 in back-to-back games, you've probably lost two in a row.
While the playoffs may be a pipe dream at this point, a win on Sunday at home in the rematch with the Bears is step one. Win this game and you're still alive. Lose and your playoff hopes are done and all the white noise of quarterback/coach/front office will only get louder than it already is.
Here are 10 keys to the Vikings bouncing back and beating the Bears on Sunday.
Put the Ball in Adrian Peterson's Hands
It's no secret that things have gone south pretty quickly for the Vikings in 2012.
After the completely unexpected 5-2 start, Minnesota has won just once in their last five games and looked pretty poor in doing so. Given a giant opportunity against two division rivals over the last two weeks, the Vikings were terrible against both the Bears and the Packers and now face a huge uphill fight to get back into any sort of playoff picture.
What's worked for the Vikings over the last six weeks is pretty simple; give the ball to No. 28.
Adrian Peterson has set a club record by rushing for over 100 yards in his last six games and has gone over 150 yards in four of them. Last week against the Packers, Peterson was phenomenal, rushing for 210 yards, including a career-long 82-yard touchdown.
Looking at the box score against the Bears from two weeks ago, one stat jumps off the page: The Bears had the ball a full 15 minutes more than the Vikings. That's a full quarter of offense more for the Bears. That's tough to overcome.
Given that their quarterback is in the midst of a brutal slump, the Vikings need to keep feeding the ball to Peterson. Give him 25-30 carries and let him run you to a victory.
Play with Reckless Abandon
It must seem to the Vikings players like the sky has been falling since just before Halloween.
The team has looked tight and has been playing afraid to lose over the past five games. They need to loosen up and just play. On the bright side, things can't get much worse than they are right now, so they really have nothing to lose. They might as well just let it all hang out.
That starts with the quarterback. Christian Ponder needs to prove he can play in the NFL. A couple of good games and good wins isn't proof enough that you can be a successful quarterback in the NFL. Things have bottomed out for Ponder in the last month, so he might as well throw caution to the wind and just let it rip.
There has been talk that Ponder is too hung up on completion percentage, which is keeping him from taking chances when they are there. Ponder needs to put his best foot forward and play with some confidence.
Everyone else needs to let it rip as well. There's nothing to lose at this point; they're not protecting anything. Go out and play as hard as you can and have some fun. Good things usually happen to teams who play that way.
Win on Third Down
As mentioned earlier, the Bears had the ball for an amazing 15 more minutes than the Vikings two weeks ago. That has to change for Minnesota to have a chance.
The simple fact is that the Vikings defense is spending way too much time on the field. The Bears offense was on the field for 37:30 to the Vikings' paltry 22:30. The Packers had the ball for the first 11 minutes of the fourth quarter last Sunday.
That has to change for the obvious reasons. It's hard for the offense to develop any kind of flow or momentum when they're standing and watching for so long. Likewise, it's hard for the defense to stay tough when they're on the field the whole game.
Minnesota has to get better on third down on both sides of the ball. The Vikings offense has gone three-and-out far too many times over the last six games; that's probably the single biggest difference between the first half of the season and the second.
The defense has been guilty as well, letting opposing offenses convert on third down too many times. Obviously every play matters, but third downs are where games are won and lost. The Vikings have to do a much better job moving the chains and getting the other team's punter on the field.
Keep Brandon Marshall in Check
The Vikings defense did a pretty decent job on Brandon Marshall two weeks ago. Sure, he caught 12 passes, but he didn't score a touchdown and he didn't get 100 yards receiving, you'd take that every time against a player like him.
At 6'4", 230 pounds, Marshall is a quarterback's dream. Though not a burner, Marshall is athletic enough to get separation and once the ball is in the air, he's as good as it gets at getting into position to make a play.
Every defense that game-plans for the Bears makes shutting down Marshall a priority, but he still has 91 catches and eight touchdowns on the season. The Vikings know that Marshall will get some catches, but they have to keep them to a minimum and they have to hit him when they get chances.
Pressure Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler didn't have a monster game against the Vikings two weeks ago. In fact, he hasn't had a lot of monster games in 2012, but he's certainly capable of them.
What Cutler did well against Minnesota in Chicago was extend plays and give receivers extra time to get open. He doesn't run very much or very well, but he moves expertly in and out of the pocket and his rocket arm lets him hold the ball longer than most quarterbacks.
The Vikings always play better at home and that includes the defensive front. Jared Allen and Co. have to get in Cutler's face early and often, pin him in the pocket and put him on the ground when the opportunity arises.
When things go bad for Cutler, he's pretty quick to get frustrated and teams can definitely get in his head when things aren't going his way. Likewise, he tends to get better and better when the Bears are playing well, so it's imperative that the Vikings jump on him early.
The Vikings' Wideouts Are Playing for Their Jobs
Rookie Jarius Wright is probably the only Vikings receiver who'll be playing on Sunday who is guaranteed a job with the team in 2013.
For Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton, the final four weeks are resume builders. The message in Vikings land has been ringing loud and clear, the receiving corps has been flat-out awful. Not just mediocre, but awful.
With Percy Harvin done for the season, the rest of this group is going to have to step up and make some plays; their jobs literally depend on it.
One thing is for certain: The Vikings can't go over 56 minutes of football without getting a reception from a wide receiver like they did last week against the Packers.
The Bears will be filling up the box, knowing that priority Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are to try to shut down Adrian Peterson. There will be room to roam in the secondary, there will be one-on-one match-ups to take advantage of.
Do you want to be here in 2013? Prove it Sunday and for the last month of the season.
Christian Ponder Needs to Show He Belongs
Christian Ponder announced his engagement to ESPN reporter Samantha Steele this week. The joke flying around the Twin Cities is that it might be the first wedding held without a reception.
Such is life for the good-looking, charismatic signal caller for the Vikings. Yeah, he's a great guy, but he's hanging on by the tiniest of threads with the football community in Minnesota right now.
There's just no way around it, Ponder has been awful over the last five games. He's clearly pressing and needs to just go out and play and not worry about all the white noise around him.
Head coach Leslie Frazier has said all the right things about Ponder and he has received the backing of the organization ever since he took over as the starter six games into 2011. That tends to happen when you're the 12th pick in the draft.
Here's the deal, though; the crowd at Mall of America will tear the roof off of the building if Ponder starts out slow on Sunday and the Vikings fall behind the Bears. Ponder has to play well from the get-go or the white noise might be just too loud to ignore.
The Vikings Must Control Field Position
The Chicago Bears thrive off of field position.
The MO for the Bears all season long has been that the defense sets up the offense. The offense isn't built for long, sustained drives. The Bears defense is a turnover machine that is constantly setting up their offense with short fields to work with.
The Vikings are catching a break with Brian Urlacher being out and Tim Jennings possibly being sidelined as well. Chicago will still have plenty of ballhawks looking for every opportunity to add to their league-leading takeaway number.
The Bears have 34 takeaways on the year. The Vikings have just 15. The Vikings must limit their mistakes, be fully engaged mentally and come away with at least a draw in the turnover game or they'll lose their third straight game to a division rival.
Blair Walsh and Chris Kluwe must play well. Trapping the Bears deep in their own end is the first step in keeping them off the scoreboard.
The Bears have always seemed to burn the Vikings on special teams, but the Vikings' kicking units are having their best season in years and don't have to take a back seat to anyone.
The Offensive Line Needs to Keep Getting Better
Adrian Peterson is having a year for the ages. True, their quarterback is struggling and if your quarterback is struggling, not much is going to go right.
Not much is being said about the Vikings' offensive line, and that's usually a good thing. With two brand-new starters and one guy playing a new position, the Vikings front was due for some growing pains this season, but they have clearly been getting better as a unit as the season has worn on.
Rookie Matt Kalil has been solid if not spectacular at left tackle. Charlie Johnson has been uneven to say the least, but continues to plug away at left guard. John Sullivan is having another solid season at center and on the right side, Brandon Fusco, Geoff Schwartz and Phil Loadholt are all playing steady.
The group seems to be rallying around the incredible play of Adrian Peterson. It's exciting to block for a guy who's a superstar of the highest level, and there's nobody in the league playing as well as Peterson right now.
If the line comes out firing on Sunday and Peterson gets rolling early, they could be in for a huge day against the injured Bears.
Get the Home Crowd on Your Side
Sunday's game at Mall of America Field in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday has a chance to be completely combustible.
There will be a wariness in the building, the crowd will be on edge from the get-go and if Christian Ponder starts off slow, things could get really ugly.
The truth is that Ponder is fighting an uphill battle with Vikings fans after his poor play of late. He keeps making the same mistakes over and over and he's starting to sound like a broken record when he talks about getting better and fixing his errors. It's a couple o,f weeks past time to show us rather than tell us.
If he comes out hot and plays well, the crowd will be on his side; it's that simple. He's a good kid; everyone agrees on that. But there are a lot of good kids that aren't starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
It's time for Ponder to prove he can be both.