Bears vs. Vikings: Breaking Down Chicago's Game Plan
The Vikings defense is built very much like the Bengals as it's strong up front but has weaknesses in the back end.
As Bears head coach Marc Trestman noted in his postgame press conference the Bears' main priority in the first half against the Bengals was to protect the quarterback:
The real goal in the first half was to find out about ourselves; to let our young guys get settled to try and keep him (quarterback Jay Cutler) clean. Whatever the score is, if he's clean in the first quarter and he feels like he can step up and throw, there's a chance we can throw the ball later in the game.
The tape backed up Trestman's claim. By my count, the Bears kept extra blockers in on 12 of their 20 pass attempts in the second half, compared to just six of their 14 in the second half.
Once the Bears were able to block with five, the Bengals couldn't cover the Bears down the field. They weren't just getting rid of the ball, they made big plays. They had an 18-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery that set up a score in the third quarter and a 38-yarder to Marshall later, both with just five men protecting Cutler.
On the go-ahead touchdown pass to Marshall, the Bears used five blockers with fullback Tony Fiammetta chipping. As you see in the screen shot below, Cutler had plenty of options and time. Had he not gone to Marshall, he could've picked up big yardage with on a dump-off pass to Matt Forte or went to Jeffery whose defender had slipped. Both of those easily could've been touchdowns.
The good news for the Bears is that the Bengals have a far more talented secondary than the Vikings. The bad news is they probably won't play man coverage at all.
Against the Detroit Lions, they kept a safety over Calvin Johnson almost all game to prevent him from beating them. You can bet Marshall will get the same treatment.
The Lions attacked the Vikings by using a lot of underneath throws. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), just three of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford's 43 passes travelled more than 20 yards in the air.
As you see in the below screen shot, the Vikings were so scared of Johnson, they had a safety over 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That enabled the Lions to throw a screen bass to Joique Bell for 29 yards. This came one play after they did a middle screen to Reggie Bush for 13 yards.
If the Bears are going to move the ball well against the Vikings, they're going to have to get yards after the catch, something they didn't get a lot of against the Lions.
According to the tally on Pro Football Focus (subscription required), just 25.2 percent of Cutler's yards came after the catch. Stafford had 68.3 percent of his yards come via YAC.
Part of that is the opponent. As you see below, the Bears tried a slip screen to Forte, but it was executed poorly and the Bengals sniffed it out. Had Cutler completed the pass to Forte, it wouldn't have mattered anyway since the Bears had ineligible players downfield. The Bears will need to make sure they can execute these plays better against Minnesota.
The Lions ran a very similar play (below), and it worked much better. On this play, the Vikings rushed just three linemen and wound up with linebacker Chad Greenway on Reggie Bush. Bush caught the pass and picked up 13 yards for a first down on 3rd-and-6.
Defensively, the Bears' plan has to be to stop Adrian Peterson until Christian Ponder shows he's capable of beating them.
Peterson rattled off a 78-yard touchdown run on his first carry against the Lions but finished with just 93 yards on 18 carries.
The game plan to stopping Peterson sounds simple enough. You have to hold your own at the point of attack, chase after the ball as if you're life depends on it and then don't let go once you get your hands on him.
If only it were that simple.
The Vikings have a good offensive line, so getting initial push isn't always easy. If the defensive line gets beat, all bets are off.
In the screen shot below, you see Peterson got a big hole. The Detroit defender was in great position for the tackle, but Peterson made a move that only he can make. The touchdown still could've been prevented, but the deep safety took an awful angle and Peterson was off to the races.
Even if the Bears get push up front and take great angles, they have to be able to bring Peterson down. Tackling was a big problem for them against the Bengals. They regularly seemed to be in position to make plays but didn't bring the ball-carrier down.
One area the Vikings showed great improvement in is being able to pass the ball down the field.
According to ESPN, Ponder completed just two passes that travelled over 40 yards in the air during the entire 2012 season. He matched that mark in Week 1 against the Lions.
Due to the beast they have in the backfield, the Vikings' receivers get a lot of man coverage with a safety playing in the box. Jerome Simpson proved he can beat man coverage twice, with catches of 44 and 47 yards.
The Vikings also have Greg Jennings, who was known as a great deep threat early in his career. It's unknown if Jennings still has the legs to get deep, but the Bears don't want to be the team to find out.
Giving up big pass plays was a huge problem for the Bears in Week 1, as they allowed A.J. Green two receptions of over 40 yards and had a pass interference on a 3rd-and-long. One of his long catches was a touchdown, and the other two set up their other two scores.
What remains to be seen is if Ponder can make those throws consistently and outdoors. Even though both were completions against the Lions, his throws were off the mark. On the first, Simpson had to stop and outjump the defender for the ball, and on the second, he had to make a diving catch.
The best way for the Bears to prevent deep passes is by getting pressure on the quarterback. In this case, that quarterback is almost guaranteed to turn into a turnover machine if they hit him early and often.
On paper, the Vikings aren't nearly as tough as the Bengals are, but they still have some special players. Whether it was a fluke or not, they won 10 games last year, including a 21-14 win over the Bears.
As nice as Chicago's win over the Bengals was, it means very little in the standings. The Bears have to beat their divisional opponents. In this case, they could also put the Vikings into a huge 0-2 hole in the NFC North.
The Bears should come out firing offensively. If they could block the Bengals with five linemen, they should be able to do the same against the Vikings. If the Vikings play man-to-man, the Bears shouldn't have an issue roasting them. If they play zone, the Bears will need their playmakers to get yards after the catch. If they can, they'll keep Peterson off the field and their defense rested.
Regardless of the defense Minnesota plays, the Bears' success will depend on their protection of Cutler.
If the Bears can get a big lead early, it'll take Peterson out of the game. The Vikings will want to throw the ball more, and that should allow Chicago's pass-rushers to tee off on Ponder.
Ultimately, the Bears' game plan should be exactly what they didn't do when they lost to the Vikings last year. They have to protect the football and contain Peterson. If they do that, they shouldn't have an issue coming away with a win.
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