The Vikings have been kicking themselves most of the early portion of the 2011 season, believing that they should be much closer to 4-1 than 1-4, yet second-half collapses imploded the first quarter of their season. Coming off a resounding win over Arizona, the Vikings try to prove they can finish a game on the road when they travel to face the Chicago Bears in prime time.
The biggest problem the Vikings may face is that they have been pathetic under the national spotlight in recent years. They're playing a Sunday night game at Soldier Field and the Vikings are have lost their last three Sunday night games and five of their last six. They have also lost their last two Thursday night games and their last four Monday night games. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Vikings have been 0-7 in nationally televised prime time games not on Tuesdays and haven't won a Sunday night game on the road in Chicago since 2000. Since then, the Vikings have been 1-9 on the road against the Bears, but this has all the appearances of a Bears team on the verge of collapse.
Offensively, Matt Forte is an elite weapon in the Bears offense that gets an inordinate amount of attention. The Bears have the league's 23rd-ranked offense – 21st rushing and 23rd passing. In their two wins, they have had to post 30 or more points. In their three losses, they have scored 13, 17 and 13 points. They are an offense that will sputter for long stretches (sound familiar?) and have scored just nine offensive touchdowns through five games.
They have been extremely predictable on offense, almost exclusively running Forte and focusing their passing on attack on four players – Forte, Devin Hester, Johnny Knox and Dane Sanzenbacher. Forte leads the team in receiving with 30 catches (targeted 40 times), but the top three wide receivers have been targeted almost identically – Hester 28 times, Sanzenbacher 27 times and Knox 25 times. Hester and Knox are both deep threats, but the player the Vikings defense may have to focus on is Sanzenbacher. A poor man's Wes Welker, Sanzenbacher is the type of precise route runner that shreds a Cover-2 defense eight and nine yards at a time, but can break one down a seam at any time. Look for him to be targeted as much or more than any of the higher-profile Bears receivers.
The key to the offense will be the performance of Jay Cutler. An erratic QB, it seems when things are going bad for the Bears, he has a tendency to compound them. With a suspect offensive line and a Vikings defense that consistently brings the heat, Cutler may be in for yet another beating, and he went public this week saying it's starting to creep into his head, forcing quick throws as well as forcing offensive coordinator Mike Martz to say he will tweak the offense to give Cutler more three-step drops. For a QB more comfortable with the traditional five- or seven-step drops, this can't be viewed as a positive.
As erratic as the Bears offense has been, their defense has been even more difficult to predict. They are ranked 29th overall (28th rushing, 27th defense) and have been routinely gashed by opposing running backs. Teams are averaging 5.7 yards a carry against the Bears defense, which has taken away one of their primary strengths as a defense – making teams one-dimensional on offense.
Because the Bears haven't been able to consistently stop the run, teams have been free to mix the pass and run and have torn up the Bears defense. Opposing QBs are averaging almost 300 yards games, have thrown nine touchdowns and have a combined passer rating of 97.0 – for comparison only six quarterbacks in the league have a higher individual passer rating than what the Bears defense has allowed. Things have gotten so bad in Chicago that the team announced this week it was benching both of its starting safeties, which should open things up for the Vikings to take advantage of that inexperience over the top – something sorely lacking from the Vikings offense this season.
As always, one of the things that has consistently bailed out sub-standard Bears teams of the past has been a game-changing special teams. They put a lot of effort into making their special teams among the best in the league. Devin Hester was a second-round defensive back who was converted to offense only because he was drafted to be a return specialist. He holds the NFL record with 15 returns for a touchdown in five-plus years and, when teams do kick to him, he makes them pay. He has averaged more than 20 yards per punt return and more than 23 yards per kick return. Teams have chosen not to even allow him to return kicks because he can change the complexion of a game in the blink of an eye. Vikings fans are all too familiar with the damage Hester can do, so, if the game remains close, he has as good a chance as any to make the play that wins or loses the game … if the Vikings let him.
There are a lot of ghosts as Soldier Field that have plagued the Vikings over the years. They have lost nine of the last 10 road meetings with the Bears, but this is a Bears team that just doesn't look to have the magic touch of Bears teams of recent vintage. If the Vikings are to reclaim their 2011 season, this game has to be viewed as a must-win. History is against them. Being on the road is against them. The partisan Soldier Field crowd will be against them. They will be an underdog in every sense of the word, but, given their strengths and the weaknesses of the Bears on both sides of the ball, this should be a team the Vikings can handle … despite the odds being stacked against them.
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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