Chicago Bears vs. Minnesota Vikings: What to Expect and Who Will Win?
Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith likes to divide his seasons into quarters. In the first quarter of 2010, the Bears surprised the NFL with a quick 3-1 start. In the second quarter, the Bears stagnated offensively and dropped to a 2-2 record.
Sunday, Chicago begins its third quarter with a critical divisional matchup against the rival Minnesota Vikings. Smith and company hope to start this quarter positively with a divisional win, which would advance the Bears to 3-0 in division play.
Despite its improving offense, victory won’t come easy against an underachieving Vikings team, which, coming off a big overtime win against the Arizona Cardinals, should put up a strong fight this Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field.
What should Bears fans expect from this matchup? And which of these two NFC North rivals will emerge the victors?
When the Bears Have the Ball
When Chicago stumbled into their bye week after a turnover-fest against the Redskins, the Bears coaches vowed to strike a better balance with their offensive play calls, which, true to Mike Martz’s history, heavily favored the pass.
Against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday, the Bears made a firm commitment to the run, calling 29 rush plays (excludes the Jay Cutler runs). Although the Bears averaged well under four yards per carry, the balanced attack kept opposing defenders honest and enabled the Bears to move the ball with relative ease throughout the afternoon, albeit mostly through the air. This game plan produced one of the most efficient offensive performance the Bears have had since last season.
Chicago will likely attempt to maintain this balanced attack on Sunday. The Vikings, however, are not the Bills (NFL’s worst run defense). Behind the strong interior line play of Pat and Kevin Williams, Minnesota has consistently stymied opposing rushers. Currently, Minnesota ranks sixth in NFL rush defense.
When Chicago tests the formidable Vikings run defense, they will encounter a brick wall. Making matters worse, veteran center, Olin Kreutz, has battled a hamstring injury all week. Although the savvy veteran returned to practice today, his status remains questionable for Sunday. If Kreutz does manage to start, he will probably struggle to move the Williams boys on running plays. Consequently, expect the Bears run game to become a non-factor early Sunday afternoon.
To compensate for a sputtering rush attack, the Bears will turn to their passing game. The good news for Chicago is their pass-blocking has improved since poor performances against the Giants and Seahawks. Last week, for instance, the beleaguered Bears line yielded only one sack against the Bills.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have surprisingly struggled to generate a consistent pass rush this season. DE Jared Allen, after tallying a phenomenal 14.5 sacks in 2009, has a mere 3.5 sacks this season. Against the Cardinals, however, Allen had a strong 2.5 sack performance. He’ll likely enjoy a good game against the Bears’ porous offensive line on Sunday. To counter, expect Chicago to roll Cutler away from Allen’s side of the field.
Like the Bears, the Vikings use a base Cover-Two defense. As Bears fans know, this defense offers several glaring vulnerabilities: seams between the safety and the corners and between the corners and linebackers. Slants and fade routes are particularly effective when properly timed against Cover-Two.
Chicago will likely attack the Vikings’ coverages with a mixture of short to intermediate passes in an attempt to dink and dunk their way to the end-zone—a tactic Martz used successfully against Detroit and Buffalo this season. With little room for error on the quick passes, expect Cutler to target his most reliable possession receivers, WR Earl Bennett and TE Greg Olsen, both of whom could have big afternoons.
If Chicago succeeds in holding back the Vikings pass-rush, Cutler should have a decent game. Last December, when the Bears held the Vikings to just two sacks, Cutler threw for 273 yards and four touchdowns. Conversely, last November, when the Vikings consistently got in Cutler’s face, the Bears only managed one passing touchdown along with two interceptions.
At home, with some momentum and offensive rhythm coming out of their win in Toronto, expect the Bears passing game to perform well against the Vikings.
When the Vikings Have the Ball
The biggest priority for the Chicago defense is to shutdown Adrian Peterson early. Behind a healthy Brian Urlacher and the always reliable Lance Briggs, the Bears have excelled in stuffing the run all season. Currently, Chicago ranks third in NFL rushing defense. Nevertheless, this unit will have its biggest test of the season as it attempts to contain the NFL’s best running back, Adrian Peterson.
Look for the Vikings to focus on the run as means for relieving pressure from an injured Brett Favre, who has struggled with interceptions and poor decision-making throughout the year. At the same time, expect the Bears to commit an extra man to the box to force the Vikings into unfavorable passing situations. Still, Peterson should have a solid day of production; but the Bears will likely bottle him up most of the afternoon.
If, as I anticipate, the Bears marginalize the running game, the Vikings will need to attack the Bears through the air. As Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick proved, Chicago’s defense is vulnerable to the pass. The Vikings coaches surely watched how the Bills neutralized the Bears defense by spreading out the offense with three to four receiver sets. From these sets, the Bills were able to expose Bears CBs Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings in one-on-one matchups. Expect the Vikings to try the same tactic.
Chicago’s response to a short-passing game will be its pass-rush specialists: DEs Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. These two crafty defenders will need to have productive games to keep the Vikings offense contained.
Throughout his time as a Carolina Panther, Peppers generated consistent pressure on Vikings quarterbacks. With a much better supporting cast assembled in Chicago, Peppers should have a productive day, especially given Favre’s limited mobility.
Look for the Chicago defense to have a solid outing against the Vikings. If, however, the Bears fail to pressure Favre, the Vikings will pass their way to victory against an average Bears’ secondary.
With Percy Harvin likely out due to his continuing battle with crippling migraines, the Vikings special teams unit will suffer a drop in productivity.
In Ryan Longwell and Chris Kluwe, the Vikings have strong kicking capabilities. This unit should be able to keep the ball away from Devin Hester in the punt return game.
As for the Bears, they have one of the best kick and punt return units in football. On punts, Devin Hester is always a threat to go the distance. However, teams have successfully played keep-away from him since he regained his Pro Bowl form earlier this season. The Vikings will continue the trend of kicking away from Hester.
Robbie Gould had an off-game last week in Toronto, missing a 42-yard field goal and drawing a penalty on a kickoff out of bounds. This performance was an anomaly. Gould should be good as gold come Sunday
Punter Brad Maynard, on the other hand, remains mired in a deep slump, averaging below 40 yards per punt. Although he maintains his accuracy, his power has dropped off substantially in 2010. As a result, Minnesota may enjoy good field position following Bears punts.
Both Chicago and Minnesota desperately need a victory this weekend.
For Chicago, a victory against a solid team would affirm their coaches’ assertions that the Bears are a playoff team. At the same time, Chicago must keep pace with the surging Green Bay Packers for first place in the NFC North.
Moreover, with tough games against the New York Jets, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots on the horizon, Chicago needs to pile up wins before its tough December schedule. The Bears will be highly motivated come Sunday.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is looking to build momentum following an electrifying overtime victory over the Arizona Cardinals. A win over a division rival on the road would also raise the morale of a team once favored by many analysts to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Nonetheless, a coaching controversy and off-the-field drama will likely continue to affect the psyche of Vikings players.
Considering the preceding analysis, this game could go either way. Both teams should have some success moving the ball through the air. On the ground, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson will likely play marginal roles in this clash of elite rushing defenses.
Therefore, the performances of QBs Brett Favre and Jay Cutler will probably determine the outcome of this battle between evenly matched teams. If afforded time in the pocket, both Cutler and Favre are capable of running up the score. Pressure on the QB will play a central role in determining the victor.
If the game were in Minnesota, Favre would likely win the QB duel; but on the road, where Minnesota has struggled, expect Favre to turn the ball over and a take too many sacks against a fierce Bears defense.
Assuming key players for both teams remain healthy, Chicago should emerge the winners 24-21 in a hard-fought game.