Bears vs. Vikings: Behind Enemy Lines with Minnesota Columnist Mike Nelson

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Bears vs. Vikings: Behind Enemy Lines with Minnesota Columnist Mike Nelson
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With the Detroit Lions thumping the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day, the Chicago Bears need to top the Minnesota Vikings to keep pace in the NFC North. A task that won't be easy.

The Bears are coming off of their most lopsided loss of the season as banged up as they've been all season, which is really saying something. The Vikings, meanwhile, are coming off of a tie to the Packers as they sit at 2-8-1 on the season.

Chicago's run defense sunk to a new low, giving up 258 yards rushing to the St. Louis Rams, and now they face the league's best running back in Adrian Peterson

The Bears also have backup quarterback Josh McCown under center again, while Minnesota is going with Christian Ponder. McCown has performed admirably in relief of the injured Jay Cutler but doesn't stretch defenses or make nearly as many big plays as Cutler. Although he hasn't been impressive statistically, the Vikings have averaged nearly 27 points per game with Ponder under center.

For more insight on this game I once again reached out to Minnesota Vikings Featured Columnist Mike Nelson.  Nelson helped me break down the game the last time these two teams played, and we were both correct in picking the victor. That won't happen again, as we picked different teams to come away with the 'W' this time.

 

Bleacher Report: What is one adjustment you’re expecting each team to make?

Mike Nelson: It’s really simple because both teams are going to make the same adjustment. Neither will kick to the other’s standout kickoff returner.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Devin Hester returned five kickoffs for a Bears-record 249 yards, which included 76- and 80-yard returns. He burned the Vikings, reminding them that he’s still one of the best return men in the NFL, even at 31 years old.

Cordarrelle Patterson was just a rookie in the second week of his first NFL season when he ran all over the Bears, including a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. But now, he’s no secret. Everyone knows about Patterson. And everyone knows what he is capable of doing.

Chicago understands Minnesota is offensively challenged, and eliminating Patterson as a return man will make the Vikings that much more ineffective.

 

My Take

I do expect the Bears to be more cautious with Patterson, and they'd be stupid not to be. He has returned two kicks for touchdowns and has a mind-boggling average of 34 yards.

He's a freak of nature.

I'm not sure how much the Vikings will avoid Hester, however.

He has pretty good averages of 27.6 yards per kick return and 12.2 yards per punt return and is still capable of big returns and touchdowns. They'd be smart not to kick the ball right down the middle of the field to him, but that's a given. He's not the threat he once was, but opponents also don't give him a lot of opportunities.

I think the Vikings will avoid him as much as any team avoids him. However, I don't think they'll be scared of giving him any opportunities. 

 

B/R: What is something you’re concerned about with the Vikings facing the Bears?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

MN: Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett vs. Minnesota’s secondary.

The Vikings boast one of the NFL’s worst defensive backfields, especially without Harrison Smith, who is out with turf toe. The unit is allowing 281.7 yards per game (29th in the NFL) and allowed 218 yards to Green Bay’s Matt Flynn, who only played in the second half and overtime.

Josh Robinson is out with a concussion, which may actually benefit Minnesota, as he’s been its worst cornerback this season, and A.J. Jefferson was released this week after being charged with assault.

The trio of Jeffery, Marshall and Bennett is one of the best friends a quarterback can have. All three are tall, physical and can catch the damn ball.

Josh McCown should be in for a big day.

 

My Take

The Bears' starting receivers are a mismatch for just about every team, but especially for a Minnesota team that struggles against even pedestrian receivers.

The Vikings allowed each of the Packers' trio of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin to top four catches and 55 yards, despite the fact that they had Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn under center.

McCown isn't a Hall of Fame quarterback, but he looks like it when compared to Tolzien or Flynn. If he can get rid of the ball and get it to his playmakers, he should top 300 yards passing again.

 

B/R: What is one area you think the Vikings can exploit in the matchup?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

MN: Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart vs. the Bears run defense. 

The Minnesota ground game finally showed signs of life against Green Bay last week, a unit that has now allowed three 100-yard rushers in the past four games. But the Vikings will take positives in any way they can at this point in the season.

Peterson finished with 146 yards on 32 carries (4.6 yards per carry) with a touchdown. And his partner in crime Gerhart finished with 91 yards on eight carries (11.4 yards per carry).

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told the St. Paul Pioneer Press he wants to get Gerhart more involved with the offense down the stretch, especially as Peterson battles various nagging injuries.

It’s a long time coming, and I’m surprised the Vikings have waited this long to get Gerhart more carries. He’s nowhere near Peterson’s level—who is?—but he’s a powerful back who can damage defenses.

The offensive line sprung into action against Green Bay, too, clearing very large holes for its running backs. If the line gets back on track, Minnesota will have at least one offensive weapon in its arsenal.

My Take

Don't forget about Patterson. The Vikings haven't given him many carries, but they'd be wise to get him the ball any way they can, especially after seeing what St. Louis' Tavon Austin did to the Bears defense. 

The Bears had to be sick after watching their run defense against the Rams, but that's been the case just about every week lately. They gave up 258 yards against St. Louis and have allowed an average of 197 yards per game over their last five. 

They didn't fix the problem after allowing Ray Rice's corpse to run all over them; is there any reason to think they will now? 

What's worse is that it looks like the Bears may be without starting defensive tackle Stephen Paea, one of their few defensive linemen who doesn't get dominated on running plays. He and Jeremiah Ratliff—who would be expected to start or at least be in the rotation—were both limited participants in Thursday's practice, which means they're about 50-50 for the game on Sunday.

I'd say the Vikings are a good bet to top 200 yards on the ground and may even challenge 300 if Peterson goes off.

 

B/R: Who do you think wins and why?

MN: Déjà vu: Da Bears.

Minnesota blew a 23-7 lead in the second half at Lambeau Field last week and ended with a 26-26 tie. The Bears have too much to play for to lose to a lowly team like Minnesota.

Christian Ponder will do some Christian Ponder-like things, and McCown is playing very well—for any quarterback, let alone a backup—and should have his way with the porous Minnesota secondary.

 

My Take

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

As much as it pains me to say, I have the Vikings in this one. 

Minnesota is very much like St. Louis on paper, and that does not bode well for the Bears. The Bears allowed Benny Cunningham to top 100 yards on just 13 carries; what is Adrian Peterson going to do? It's a scary thought.

As bad as Ponder looks statistically, the Vikings have averaged nearly 27 points per game when he starts. When he gets a good ground game and receivers make plays after the catch, he's capable of doing good things. 

I do think the Bears will score more than they did against the Rams because the Vikings don't have quite the same pass rush. 

I think the Vikings will win this one 31-28 on a 52-yard field goal by Blair Walsh with under a minute remaining. 

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