Stout Run Defense
The Minnesota Vikings came into yesterday’s game with the NFL’s 10th-ranked rushing offense, led by first-year ball carrier Jerick McKinnon, who was leading the league in rushing amongst rookie running backs.
Yet the Chicago Bears held the Vikings to just 96 yards on the ground, with half of those yards (48) coming on a fake punt. In essence, Chicago’s 15th-ranked rushing defense shut down a top NFL rushing unit.
Bridge(water) Over Troubled Waters
Minnesota’s rookie quarterback was indecisive all game, struggling through his reads and never finding a rhythm. Credit goes to Chicago’s defense for keeping him uncomfortable in the pocket, yet Bridgewater looked every bit the part of a wide-eyed rookie starting his sixth NFL contest.
“We were able to shut down the run game early and force him into throwing the ball,” Jared Allen said after the game.
Bridgewater responded by completing 18 of 28 passes for 158 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, good for a 76.2 QB rating. His only turnover came on the final drive of the contest, a Ryan Mundy interception in the end zone to seal the game.
“I just read the quarterback,” Mundy said. “I stayed on my Cover 2 landmark and the corners did a great job of getting their hands on [the receivers]. That’s a very critical part of playing Cover 2 and also the rush. The rush was there on that snap. When you have those two elements, playing Cover 2 is pretty easy.”
The 13 points allowed by the Bears defense are the fewest in a single game during the Marc Trestman era. Yet don’t be fooled, the Vikings have a mediocre offense led by an inexperienced quarterback. Chicago’s defense did what they had to do to secure the one-score victory but this unit still has a long way to go.
High Pressure Affair
The Bears took advantage of Minnesota’s suspect pass-blocking offensive line, racking up two sacks and a whopping 14 QB hurries, per Pro Football Focus (PFF). Jared Allen led the way with six hurries, while the defensive tackle duo of Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea combined for five hurries. Linebacker Shea McClellin chipped in with two hurries as a blitzer.
“Even when we didn’t sack him, we had him off his spot, off his mark, moving in the pocket,” Allen said. “We didn’t allow him to get out and get comfortable.”
“When you’ve got guys like myself, [Jeremiah] Ratliff, Jared Allen, that’s a lot of pressure on you,” Young said. “[Bridgewater] has been able to come away with some big plays and wins. For us to stop the run and make him one dimensional, that was crucial.”
Linebackers in Bourbonnais Form
Chicago’s top four linebackers were all healthy yesterday for the second week in a row. They’ve fallen back into the rotation developed in training camp, with Shea McClellin (SAM), D.J. Williams (MIKE) and Lance Briggs (WILL) in base sets. Jon Bostic came on the field in nickel situations alongside Briggs.
The continuity developed within that rotation during the offseason activities, helped Chicago’s linebacker play at a very high level yesterday. Collectively, they amassed 13 tackles, two for a loss and two QB hurries.
I asked Bostic about the comfort level inherent in the familiar linebacker rotation.
“It really doesn’t matter who’s out there. It’s about making plays,” he said. “There’s no other way around it. It’s about going out there to make plays when your name is called.”
Briggs, likely in his final stretch as an NFL player, has truly raised his level of play since returning from a rib injury. He’s flashed as a run stopper the past two weeks, showing the same burst and decisiveness he did earlier in his career.
“Lance is flying around every week,” Bostic said. “There’s one person you never have to worry about not showing up. He’s going to throw himself in there and try to get the ball from the ball carrier.”
Cutler Still Cutler
Despite throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns, Jay Cutler also threw two of his patented boneheaded interceptions against the Vikings.
The first came at the end of the first half and didn’t cost the team, yet the second pick put the game in jeopardy. It was a third-quarter turnover during which the Vikings blitzed, forcing Cutler to get rid of the ball quickly. His hot route was Martellus Bennett, who never turned to look for the ball, making it an easy interception for Minnesota safety Harrison Smith, who returned the pick 52 yards into Bears territory.
“I was just trying to put it at Marty’s feet,” Cutler said. “It got away from me a little bit. I’ve got to do a better job there.”
Chicago’s offense piled up 468 yards yesterday, yet they scored just 21 points. That’s been an issue for this team all season. Coming into the game, they ranked 15th in total offense yet 22nd in points scored, with almost all of those points coming in garbage time the past two weeks.
The Bears had two trips to the red zone yesterday but came away with just one touchdown, thanks in large part to a failed QB sweep on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line. That type of mediocre production on the scoreboard is good enough to beat the sub-.500 Vikings but we saw the previous two weeks how good teams will exploit those inconsistencies.
The Vikings’ secondary used man coverage the vast majority of yesterday’s contest. It was a questionable maneuver, as Cutler has struggled mightily against zone coverage all season. In addition, man coverage heaps pressure on the cornerbacks to limit two of the biggest and most-athletic wide receivers in the game, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.
Not surprisingly, Jeffery and Marshall had their best combined outing of the season. Jeffery caught 11 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown, while Marshall hauled in seven balls for 90 yards and two scores.
“You can’t cover us [man-to-man] or we’re going to take advantage of it,” said Jeffery. “If you want to play us man-to-man, we’re going to take advantage of every opportunity.”
A lot of people believed receiver Marquess Wilson, who was activated off IR last week, would be the spark Chicago’s offense needed. Instead, he finished with just two catches for 11 yards.
It was a quiet start and one that just reiterates what we already know: there is no room for a third wide receiver in an offense that features Jeffery, Bennett, Marshall and Forte. Unless on of those four gets hurt, Wilson will continue to be Cutler’s fifth option.
Running back Matt Forte had 26 carries yesterday, his most in any single contest since Trestman took over the offense. Forte finished with 117 yards on the ground and added another 58 receiving yards on six catches.
By leaning on Forte, the Bears controlled the time of possession. They had the ball for 38:38 in the game, compared to Minnesota’s 21:22.
“It was important that we could turn our momentum around. This leaves us in a good position,” Forte said. “We never lost faith in our abilities.”
Forte has been underutilized this season. Yesterday’s performance should serve as a reminder to Trestman that Forte, and not Cutler, is his meal ticket.
Sack-less but not Blameless
Chicago’s offensive line did not give up a sack against the Vikings. That’s substantial, as Minnesota came into the game with the third most sacks in the league.
“The guys did a heck of a job,” said Cutler.
In reality, Cutler had as much to do with the lack of sacks as the offensive line, which allowed 10 QB hurries and four QB hits. The left side of the line was a mess for most of the game, with LT Jermon Bushrod and LG Brian de la Puente giving up six combined hurries, while RT Michael Ola gave up three of his own.
Cutler’s ability to move around in the pocket and extend plays with his legs made the banged-up offensive line look better than it was. Repeat performances going forward won’t end as well for the Bears.
Bears punter Patrick O’Donnell has a big leg, sometimes. Other times, he’s a shank machine. Currently, O’Donnell’s 44.3 yards per punt is 25th best in the NFL.
Yesterday, O’Donnell averaged just 29.5 yards per kick, and it appears he’s putting much more effort into angling the ball than he is booming it deep. That’s all fine and well, as the Bears made a concerted effort to keep the ball out of Vikings returner Cordarrelle Patterson’s hands, yet O’Donnell wasn’t drafted in the sixth round to pooch balls all over the field.
At some point, the Bears need to let O’Donnell loose, otherwise he’ll soon be known less as “Mega-Punt” and more as “Mega-Bust.”
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.