When the Chicago Bears travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings Sunday, the chances of the Bears' slumping run defense doing anything more than containing running back Adrian Peterson are slim to none.
Typically, the idea of stopping such a dynamic player goes out the window when the league's worst defense against the run meets the game's most physically dominant running back. That's also a big reason why the term "slow down" was used in this article's title over more confident descriptors.
Peterson, who is second in the NFL in rushing yards (997) and first in rushing touchdowns (10), should have no problem getting his numbers Sunday. The Bears, ranked 32nd in the NFL against the run, just need to ensure that what looks like a huge mismatch on paper doesn't become the primary reason why Chicago loses a game it needs to win in Minnesota.
Accomplishing that goal will be easier said than done for this struggling unit.
Chicago has allowed a staggering 985 rushing yards over the last five games alone. Twice over that span, opposing offenses have rushed for over 200 yards, including last Sunday's 258-yard rupture against the St. Louis Rams in Week 12. Now giving up 145.2 rushing yards a game, the Bears have plummeted to dead last in the NFL.
Earlier this week, we described how Chicago's problems stopping the run will be magnified over a final five-game stretch that will decide whether the Bears make the playoffs or not. Peterson might be the toughest task remaining.
Last time #Bears played in Minnesota, Adrian Peterson rushed for 100+ yards before the first quarter was over.— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) November 28, 2013
This Bears defense holding Peterson under 100 yards might not be realistic, but Chicago can still win Sunday's game if Peterson breaks that arbitrary number. The trouble will come if Peterson is threatening 200 or more yards, which is actually well within the realm of possibility given how poorly the Bears have played the run over the last five games.
Here are a few ways the Bears can limit the damage and ensure Peterson doesn't single-handedly beat them Sunday.
Sell Out to Contain the Run
Playing good run defense is much more complicated that just pushing the numbers into your favor. There's a certain effort and attitude that is needed on every single snap, especially at the line of scrimmage. And there's really no surefire way of improving the execution and determination from one week to the next.
That said, the Bears clearly need to manipulate the matchups in the box to compete against Peterson.
Remember, this is a defense that is now playing two rookies (Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene) at linebacker, and the defensive line is a regular game of shuffle thanks to injury. Expecting to play five or six in the box and consistently win up front is no longer an option for the Bears.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will need to make the decision of whether playing heavy against Peterson outweighs the negatives of exposing his secondary against the pass. With Christian Ponder at quarterback in Minnesota, Tucker's choice should be an easy one. Eight players in the box should be a regular occurrence Sunday.
Everything Ponder and the Vikings attempt to do in the passing game is related to their success running the football. If Peterson is on and the run game is flowing, Ponder can be an effective and occasionally dangerous thrower of the football.
In theory, making things difficult for Peterson should make everything increasingly more difficult for Ponder. The opposite isn't as true.
Take an Early Lead
There has been no easier way to take Peterson out of a game than to jump out to an early lead.
In losses to the Carolina Panthers, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers (first meeting), the Vikings fell behind by a considerable margin early and then gave up altogether on giving Peterson carries.
Source: Pro Football Reference
Minnesota lost those three games by an average of 18 points. And just as you'd expect, Peterson averaged only 12 carries in those losses—far and away his lowest three-game average of any stretch this season.
Of course, every team wants to jump out to a lead early in games. It's beneficial no matter who you are playing. But against Peterson and the Vikings, and considering how difficult it has been for the Bears to stop the run, an early lead takes on a more significant importance.
Control the Football on Offense
The old cliche goes that a good defense is a strong offense. In the NFL, that idea is more often applied to facing elite quarterbacks. In theory, keeping the opposing offense off the field can limit the opportunities for the defense to make a mistake, especially against the pass.
How many yards will Adrian Peterson run for Sunday?
The same principle can be used against an elite back like Peterson.
In the games in which Minnesota has rushed for 115 or less yards, the Vikings have, on average, run fewer plays and held the football for a shorter time. Over those five games, Minnesota has run 55.2 plays while giving up a 38-22 edge in time of possession.
These numbers can be partly attributed to teams going up early and forcing the Vikings to throw the football. But they're also due to teams playing well on offense and controlling the football for long stretches.
Josh McCown is the kind of accurate, timing-based quarterback who can move the sticks and keep the defense off the field. Matt Forte, who is dealing with a knee injury, will also play into Chicago dominating the football. Expect Chicago's offensive game plan to help the Bears keep a struggling defense on the sidelines.
Tackle, Tackle, Tackle
Tackling is such a fundamental part of the game that it often gets overlooked in the overall assessment of a team's run defense.
The rather common exercise will be crucial for the Bears in containing Peterson Sunday.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Chicago has missed 35 tackles over the last five weeks. That averages out to roughly seven a game, which could be too many against an elite back like Peterson.
|Missed Tackles||Rushing Yards Allowed|
Source: Pro Football Focus
Yet the Vikings running back remains one of the game's hardest players to tackle. Per PFF (subscription required), Peterson is currently second in the NFL in forced missed tackles, with his 47 trailing only the 55 caused by Marshawn Lynch. He is also first in the NFL in average yards after contact (3.1) and total yards after contact (702).
The Bears can do everything right in terms of run fits and gap control Sunday, but it won't mean anything unless Peterson is wrestled down on first contact. To keep him under wraps, it will be imperative for the Bears to consistently tackle well.