Let the grudge matches begin.
The Vikings face a two-game schedule that could make or break their 2010 season as the play both of the two teams they are trailing in the NFC North division chase – at Chicago this week and hosting the Packers next week. Before the Vikings can concern themselves with Green Bay, they will have to get past Chicago, which has been easier said than done.
Earlier this week, Viking Update chronicled the bizarre, high-scoring games that the Vikings and Bears have had in recent years at Soldier Field. To win Sunday, one of the first priorities will be to pressure turnover-prone quarterback Jay Cutler. Because of the Mike Martz-run offense, Cutler is subject to wide open shots, which the Vikings will need to put on him. He has cut his interception numbers way down this season after leading the league in pickoffs last year. Through eight games, he has thrown just seven picks as opposed to nine touchdowns and is completing 60 percent of his passes. He has embraced the new offensive system. No player has more than 30 receptions, but five have 20 or more. Cutler has the ability to spread the ball around and will look for weaknesses in the Vikings defense. This isn't the Greatest Show on Grass – the team has more than 23 points in just one game – but Cutler has been a field general that has minimized his mistakes and kept his team in games. He has, however, been sacked 28 times because he holds the ball a little too long a little too often, so getting pressure on him will be critical.
Chicago hoped to have a dominating run game backed by a two-headed monster of Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. It hasn't materialized as hoped. Neither has been overly impressive. Forte leads the team with 104 carries for 401 yards – averaging just 50 yards a game – but is once again the team's leading receiver with 29 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns. His six TDs are twice as many as anyone else on the team, so he is the focus of the offense, despite spotty running totals. Taylor has had a disappointing first season in Chicago. Through eight games, he has just 54 carries for 172 yards (3.2 yards a carry) and has caught just 11 passes for 92 yards. Expect to see him getting more opportunities against his former team, but his contribution has been minimal. The offense doesn't use a fullback, so Forte and Taylor have had all the running back carries this season. Look for Chicago to try to establish the run, but, if the Vikings can stymie them early, they can make the Bears one-dimensional and force them to throw.
The Bears receivers are far from dominant, but they have excellent speed. Johnny Knox is averaging almost 20 yards per reception and is second on the team with 27 receptions. Return man extraordinaire Devin Hester is a dangerous deep threat, but is averaging just 10 yards a catch on 20 receptions. Earl Bennett, a college teammate of Cutler, has chipped in 24 catches. The big disappointment has been Devin Aromashodu, who was expected to be a deep threat, but, to date, has just seven catches for 111 yards and no touchdowns. All four receivers will rotate in and out of the lineup. At tight end, the arrival of Martz was supposed to mark the end of tight end Greg Olsen's offensive impact, but he has been a key red zone receiver, catching 21 passes and tying for the team lead with three touchdowns. He's burned the Vikings before, so, when the Bears get into Vikings territory, he will have to be accounted for. Backup TE Kellen Davis is a blocker who has yet to catch a pass this season.
The offensive line has undergone a significant change because of one player – 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams. He played his first season and a half at right tackle and, when the Orlando Pace experiment was deemed a failure at Thanksgiving of 2009, he moved to left tackle – where it was assumed he would play for the next decade. But problems with speed rushers forced the Bears to shuffle the deck. Six-year pro Frank Omiyale, who was slated to move from guard to right tackle, is at left tackle, with Williams moving to left guard and seventh-round rookie J'Marcus Webb taking over at right tackle. All three are at positions they weren't expected to be when the Bears hit training camp, so they are learning on the fly – and that helps to explain why the Bears have allowed 32 sacks (the most in the NFL this season). They have a solid veteran anchor in the middle with 13-year man Olin Kreutz and 10-year veteran Roberto Garza at guard, but Kreutz has been battling a hamstring injury that may allow Pat and Kevin Williams to make plays both in the run and pass game. The Bears depend on their O-line to hold up, but, as often as they have left their QBs vulnerable to hits that can cause turnovers, the line has to be viewed as a suspect unit of the team, not the strength it has been for so many years.
While problems on the offensive line have been an issue, the Bears' trademark has always been defense and this season has been no different. Chicago currently ranks eighth in the league (third against the run and 19th against the pass), and when you have a run defense that allows just 84 yards a game, it has to start up front. But it may be a unit that, aside from superstar free-agent signee Julius Peppers, Vikings fans may not be that familiar with. Starting DE Mark Anderson was cut at the end of the preseason and starting DT Tommie Harris has been relegated to part-time backup duty. The Bears have always found ways to have active DEs that bring pressure, but it has been seventh-year pro Israel Idonije, who didn't start a game last year, that has been the more consistent pass rusher. He leads the team with five sacks, while Peppers, who, like Jared Allen, has been constantly double-teamed with tight ends and chipped by running backs and fullbacks, has just two. Depth beyond Idonije and Peppers is extremely thin. The only other DEs on the roster are rookies Barry Turner and Corey Wootton. If either of the starters get injured, the drop-off would be significant. In the middle, veteran Anthony Adams is the primary run stopper and third-year pro Matt Toeaina is in his first stint as a starter, but has supplanted Harris. Look for both Harris and swingman Harry Melton, who would likely move to DE if Peppers or Idonije were to go down long term, to see playing time. To date, this unit has held up well against the run, but they have yet to face a runner of Adrian Peterson's caliber.
The linebackers are without veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer, but haven't missed a beat. They are led by their emotional leader Brian Urlacher. Although he has lost a step, the 11th-year middle linebacker is still the heart and soul of the Bears defense. He is adept at filling gaps in run defense and taking away the short routes over the middle in the passing game. He is flanked by Lance Briggs and Pisa Tinoisamoa. Briggs is a playmaker on the lines of Chad Greenway and Tinsoismoa won the starting job over Hillenmeyer last year before a season-ending knee injury in Week 2. Both can extend to the sidelines and make plays and, unlike a lot of positions on the Bears roster, there is depth. Fourth-year man Nick Roach, who started 15 games in 2009, is a reserve in name only, since he sees the field for 20-plus plays on a consistent basis, but this isn't a dominating group as Bears LBs have been in years past. They likely won't be exploited by the Vikings, but they aren't the devastating Monsters of the Midway that Bears linebackers have been known to be.
The strength of the defense may well be its secondary, where talent and depth have come together nicely. The Bears take their D-back play seriously – of the 53 players on the active roster, 11 are defensive backs. At cornerback, eight-year veteran Charles Tillman is very strong at taking receivers deep down the field, which may have him blanketing Bernard Berrian on anything deep down the sideline. He is joined by Tim Jennings, who has good speed and instincts to break up pass plays. Former start Zack Bowman is still in the mix, as is D.J. Moore, who, despite being listed as the fifth CB on the depth chart, leads the team with three interceptions. As safety, the Bears have three starting-caliber players in Danieal Manning (who also serves as their primary kick returner) and sixth-year pro Chris Harris in the starting lineup, and former starter Josh Bullocks and Craig Steltz in reserve. Depth may be an issue at many positions for the Bears, but the secondary isn't one of them. If the Vikings are looking for big plays deep down the field, this group will make that task difficult to achieve.
Few teams have the explosiveness Chicago has in its return game, which has been a cornerstone of their success for most of the last decade. With Hester back to his old self with two punt returns for touchdowns and Manning and Knox both capable kickoff returners, the Bears can tilt a game with their special teams like few others. They also have two veteran kicking specialists in place-kicker Robbie Gould and punter Brad Maynard. It is hard to give an accurate depiction of how difficult it is to kick and punt at Soldier Field, where the winds whip off Lake Michigan and can be a nightmare for opposing specialists. There hasn't been much turnover at either position for the last 20 years because it takes a certain mindset to be a kicker for the Bears and both Gould and Maynard have proved themselves worthy of not only winning their respective jobs, but holding on to them. Neither has faced a serious training camp challenge in years and, in games that are often decided by less than a touchdown, their ability to master the tricky conditions that Soldier Field can cause are invaluable. The special teams aspect of the game has won far more games for the Bears than it has lost, so increased attention must be paid to that facet of the game.
Recent history at Soldier Field would suggest that the Vikings and Bears will play a game that ends up with a score somewhere in the range of 34-31, as has been the norm the last few seasons. But, considering that the Bears haven't allowed any opponent to score more than 23 points and have held five opponents to 17 points or fewer, they have the ability to dictate the pace of the game and, like it or not, win games "Bears style." On paper, the Bears look like a team that can be dominated, but, even a team like the Giants, that pounded Cutler and knocked him out of the game with nine-first half sacks, only won by a score of 17-3. This is a team that wins ugly and already has five wins in the tank. If the Vikings are to break their current road losing streak, they will have to dictate the pace, which won't come easy.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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