Few things about Monday night's game with Chicago have come as scripted or planned. The Vikings have already been eliminated from playoff contention. With the Packers' loss to New England, the Bears are closing in not only on a division title, but the potential for a first-round bye if they run the table. Nothing has gone as expected in September. The Vikings have been much worse than advertised and the Bears continue to pile up wins.
The Bears got off to a 3-0 start and, after struggling in October – losing three of four games – they rallied to win five straight games before losing to the Patriots last week. They have put themselves in position to win by dominating defensively and making enough plays on offense to win. The Bears have allowed more than 20 points in just three games and have been able to keep teams off the board. The biggest difference has been QB Jay Cutler, who has taken much better care of the ball this year.
Last year, Cutler led the NFL in interceptions and was in competition with first-year starters for that dubious honor. He still has 12 interceptions, higher than the league average, but has thrown more than one pick in just three games and has been a much better game manager than he was in his first year with the Bears. He hasn't had to throw a ton of passes (344), but has spread the ball around and been getting the entire offense involved, which is ideally what any team looks for from its quarterback.
The running game has been a balanced combination of Matt Forte and Chester Taylor, but unlike early speculation that it would be a near-50/50 time split, Forte has made a much bigger impact. He has almost twice as many carries as Taylor (186 to 98) and receptions (38 to 20), but the bigger difference has been the impact the players have made. Forte has averaged 4.2 yards a carry and 11.2 yards per reception, while Taylor has averaged just 2.6 yards per rushing attempt and 7.0 yards per reception. He has been largely marginalized. While there may be the temptation to let Taylor get some more carries against his former team, Forte has had more rushing attempts in every game and more receiving yards in all but one. Don't expect the Bears to deviate from a system that has been so effective.
The receiver corps is deep, but lacks a true go-to presence. Everyone has a role and seems content to play it. Johnny Knox has emerged as the big-play threat of the offense. He not only leads the team in receptions with 45, but his 17-yard receiving average (790 yards) is by far the best on the team. Earl Bennett, a former college teammate of Cutler, is close behind with 42 catches and leads the wide receivers with three touchdowns. Devin Hester is a big-play threat at all times, but has been scaled back a bit in terms of the offense, but his impact on special teams has returned – averaging more than 30 yards per kickoff return and 15 yards per punt return. Devin Aromashodu and Rashied Davis provide backup help, but the two have combined to catch just 10 passes. When it comes to the red zone, the primary target is tight end Greg Olsen. A bit out of place in the Mike Martz offense, Olsen leads the Bears with five touchdowns. He has torched the Vikings in his young career, so it will be imperative to get a man on him when the Bears are close to the end zone.
The Bears have seen some improvement during the year from their offensive line – a mix of young and old. The line has a couple of greybeards in the middle – 13-year center Olin Kreutz and 10-year veteran guard Roberto Garza; and they have youth on the outside – six-year veteran (but only a two-year starter) Frank Omiyale at left tackle, third-year pro Chris Williams at left guard and rookie J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. In their first meeting this year, this group held up well against the Vikings front four and it would appear that they will have to do the same in order for the Bears to control the clock and let their defense do the dirty work. The big issue here is that they have allowed 47 sacks. If Jared Allen or Kevin Williams gets a free run on Cutler, they may be able to create the big play defensively that puts the Vikings over the top.
Defense has been the hallmark of Chicago's success for decades and this year is no different. The Bears have the eighth-ranked defense in the league (second vs. the run, 18th vs. the pass) and win games by keeping teams off the scoreboard. In 13 games, the Bears have allowed just 80 points in the second half of games this season – a little more than six points a game. They are effective at getting teams off the field and have solid role players from front to back.
Up front, Julius Peppers is a difference-maker, leading the team with nine sacks and creating havoc in both the pass and run games. On the other side, Israel Idonoje has showed he can be a pass rusher as well, posting seven sacks and making enough of a difference that he has been getting more chip help from tight ends and backs to neutralize him, much in the same way Ray Edwards was getting attention early in the season to keep him from getting one-on-one shots at getting to the QB. They will likely be on the field for almost every defensive snap. The only other DE on the depth chart is rookie Corey Wooten. In the middle, the Bears specialize and rotate their tackles, with Matt Toeiana and Tommie Harris at the defensive tackle and Anthony Adams and Henry Melton at nose tackle. They are able to keep them fresh throughout the game and have as much quality depth on the inside as just about any team in the NFC.
The linebackers are the calling card of the defense and playmakers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are as big as they get. Both of them are savvy veterans capable of making game-changing plays with interceptions, sacks and forced fumbles. Pisa Tinoisamoa is a solid linebacker that would be the leader of a linebacker corps somewhere else. But with the Bears, he is the weak link – only because Urlacher and Briggs are so good that offensive coordinators call plays away from them. He has shown a lot of improvement under fire and, with Nick Roach spelling him at times, the Bears remain strong here. It will be difficult for the Vikings to run slant routes crossing to the middle or getting Visanthe Shiancoe free down the middle.
The Chicago secondary is led by veteran cornerback Charles Tillman, a turnover machine who can not only take a team's top receiver one-on-one for an entire game, but is adept at ripping the ball loose while making tackles and forcing fumbles. On the other side, Tim Jennings has speed and good cover skills, but will get caught peeking in the backfield and has given up his share of big plays. Depth is impressive here with Zackary Bowman and interception leader D.J. Moore, who has four interceptions (including a pick-six for a TD). At safety, Danieal Manning and Chris Harris are the starters, with Josh Bullocks and Craig Steltz seeing action in reserve. Neither of them is an elite safety and opposing quarterbacks try to take advantage of them. If an offensive line holds up and gives a QB protection, they can be exposed.
With a win tonight, the Bears can clinch the NFC North with a two-game lead over Green Bay, and a win over the Vikings would guarantee Chicago a better division record than the Packers. The game could allow the Bears to continue their quest for a first-round playoff bye (they hold the tie-breaker over Philadelphia) and will have a lot at stake. The Vikings are going to get all the Bears can offer and you can bet they're going to look to make Joe Webb's NFL debut a disaster. How the Vikings respond to the latest bit of adversity will go a long way to determining how the team approaches the final two games, making this a grudge match with a lot at stake for both teams, which has the making for a great NFC North matchup.
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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