The Chicago Bears (6-5) head to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome to take on the Minnesota Vikings (2-8-1) this Sunday at noon. The Detroit Lions (7-5) defeated the Green Bay Packers (5-6-1) on Thanksgiving, meaning Chicago needs to win to keep pace atop the NFC North. A loss puts the Bears a game back of Detroit, who also hold the tiebreaker.
This will be the 106th meeting between the two franchises. Minnesota holds a 53-50-2 edge in the all-time series. The Bears have won seven of the last eight meetings, although the home team has won 19 of the past 24 matchups. Chicago won the last meeting 31-30 in Week 2 this season on a last-second touchdown catch by TE Martellus Bennett. The Vikings won last year's meeting at the Metrodome 21-14.
Following Sunday's contest, Chicago's second in a row on the road, the Bears will return home to host the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 4th (27.5)
Total Offense: 8th (372.5)
Rushing Offense: 21st (107.5)
Passing Offense: 7th (264.9)
Minnesota's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 32nd (31.4)
Total Defense: 30th (401.0)
Rushing Defense: 25th (119.3)
Passing Defense: 29th (281.7)
Turnover Ratio: 28th (-9)
Matchups to Watch
RG Kyle Long vs. DT Kevin Williams
The Vikings are vulnerable up the middle and have struggled to stop opposing rushing attacks this season. Yet Williams is still a force inside and can singlehandedly shut down a run game. After a strong start to the season, Long has had a rough go of it as a run blocker the past month and a half. Against the Rams, he had his worst outing of the season, which is one of the main reasons the Bears mustered just 80 rushing yards in St. Louis – the offense's second lowest output of the year. Long needs to break through that rookie wall and have a strong game, otherwise Williams could create hell for Matt Forte.
TE Martellus Bennett vs. LB Audie Cole
The Vikings demoted MLB Erin Henderson after a DUI arrest last week, inserting Cole at middle linebacker in his place. Cole, who was cut just a few weeks prior, responded with 16 tackles, one sack and three quarterback hits. He also showed very well in coverage, so Bennett will have a tough matchup. Bennett hauled in the last-second game winner in Week 2 and is second only to Brandon Marshall in red-zone targets this year. If he can have success against Cole, a seventh rounder last year who will be starting just his second NFL game, Bennett should be able to secure at least one score, while opening up room for the receivers out wide.
Keys to the Game
-Strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway has been abysmal against the run this season. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), no linebacker in the league has been worse than Greenway in stopping the run. That being the case, the Bears need to pound the ball directly at Greenway on a regular basis. More often than not, he'll fold at the point of attack, which will open up wide lanes for Forte.
-The Vikings have a severely banged up secondary and now face the top pass-catching duo in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Minnesota is going to use a lot of Cover 2, forcing the Bears to work the short and intermediate areas of the field. This shouldn't be a problem for Jeffery and Marshall, who have excelled as reliable possession receivers this season. They'll get plenty of touches. What they do after the catch could decide this game. If Marshall and Jeffery can rack up YAC, that could force the Vikings into man coverage, which would be like Christmas come early for Josh McCown.
-Chicago's offensive tackles, Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills, struggled mightily against the Rams, each with his worst outing of the year. They must rebound against defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison. Allen, who is having a down year by his standards, always plays well against the Bears and will have the home crowd backing him. His lone sack in Week 2 led to a fumble and a Vikings touchdown. If Bushrod plays like he did last week, Allen will have similar success. On the other side, Robison is on fire. He has four sacks in his last five games and squares off against Mills, the worst pass blocker on the team. If Mills has another poor outing, Robison will eat him up and disrupt the passing game.
-Earl Bennett had a career-high nine catches last week. He'll matchup against nickelback Robert Blanton, a converted safety. If Bennett can repeat his effectiveness from last week, he could end being the wild card that puts Chicago's offense over the top.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 28th (28.1)
Total Defense: 25th (376.0)
Rushing Defense: 32nd (145.2)
Passing Defense: 13th (13th)
Turnover Ratio: 8th (+7)
Minnesota's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 14th (24.2)
Total Offense: 29th (329.5)
Rushing Offense: 11th (122.5)
Passing Offense: 25th (207.0)
Matchups to Watch
RB Adrian Peterson vs. LB Jon Bostic
Since being inserted as the team's middle linebacker five weeks ago, Jon Bostic and Chicago's defense has allowed 174 rushing yards or more four times and 209 or more twice. Bostic isn't solely at fault by any means but he's played a big part in the Bears' dead last ranking against the run. Now he gets to face Peterson, one of the greatest running backs in the history of the game. Minnesota's offense will ride on the back of Peterson, who could see upwards of 30 carries. If Bostic and Chicago's defense fail to show up again, Peterson could break his own single-game record for rushing yards (296).
RT Phil Loadholt vs. DE Shea McClellin
Loadholt is one of the most consistent right tackles in the game, one who uses his massive size (6-8, 343) to maul in the run game. Across from him will be McClellin, who is the worst 4-3 defensive end in the league at stopping the run, per PFF. Last week, after the Bears pulled within six points in the fourth quarter, the Rams countered by rushing six times at McClellin, resulting in a game-clinching 9-yard touchdown run by Benny Cunningham. It's highly doubtful McClellin can hold his own against Loadholt 1-on-1. As a result, coordinator Mel Tucker must have a plan to defray McClellin's inability set the edge, through pre- or post-snap movement, or by giving David Bass more reps, otherwise the Vikings will just run over McClellin all game.
Keys to the Game
-The Vikings don't pose much of a threat in the passing game. QB Christian Ponder – seven touchdowns, nine interceptions, 78.7 QB rating – is wildly inconsistent and the receivers aren't the most talented bunch. On top of that, their top pass catcher, TE Kyle Rudolph, will miss his fourth straight game with a broken foot. For that reason, there should never be less than eight players in the box on every possible rushing down. Bad rushing teams have plowed through the Bears' defense the past month and this is one of the best in NFL. Tucker has to sell out against the run and force Ponder to beat them.
-If Tucker does load the box, that puts pressure on the secondary to make plays in man coverage. S Chris Conte has struggled to do such that for most of the season. Minnesota's play-action game could put him 1-on-1 with Jerome Simpson or Cordarrelle Patterson, both of whom have very good downfield speed. If Conte sleeps and lets either of these receivers beat him deep, it could be costly.
-S Major Wright is unlikely to play due to a hamstring injury suffered Friday. That could be a good thing, as Wright has really struggled this season. Craig Steltz will start in his place. Steltz has shown toughness as an in-the-box safety in the past. If he plays like a fourth linebacker against the run, it will go a long way toward limiting Peterson.
-LB James Anderson needs to step up. Plain and simple, Anderson has stunk since Lance Briggs went down with a shoulder injury three weeks ago. With two rookies by his side, Anderson needed to be the solid presence at linebacker. Instead, he's made as many mistakes as his inexperienced teammates. Anderson is a six-year veteran who has worked in a 4-3 system his whole career. If the Bears are going to have any success stopping AP, Anderson has to have his best game of the season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.