Few teams are as hard to predict as the Chicago Bears. When they're on their game, there are few defenses that are more dominant. But, despite making additions to the lineup to help the offense, the Bears' struggles on offense have been pronounced, especially against playoff-caliber teams – which the Vikings believe they are.
The Bears have a 7-3 record, which has them tied with Green Bay atop the NFC North. But that record is a little deceiving. They have played only four teams that currently have winning records. Of those, one of them was a Week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL debut of Andrew Luck. The other three have represented their three losses on the 2012 season, having been beaten by the Packers, Texans and 49ers. In those three games, Chicago has been outscored 58-23, scoring just two touchdowns in those three games.
Chicago is allowing just 16.5 points a game, and prior to last Monday's blowout loss to San Francisco hadn't allowed more than 23 points in any game and seven or fewer points in three games. They are the tale of two teams – one dominant, one extremely pedestrian.
The Bears have always been a strong defensive team, from the days before Lovie Smith arrived to the present day. Their 2012 defense has been at a frenetic pace of creating turnovers. In their first 10 games, they have intercepted 19 passes and forced 21 fumbles (recovering 11 of them). From front to back, the Bears defense is as dominant as any group in the NFL. With most good defenses it all starts up front and the Bears have plenty of talent in that department.
Defensive end Julius Peppers leads the Bears with six sacks, but is closely followed by defensive tackle Henry Melton (five sacks), DE Israel Idonije (4.5) and DE Corey Wootton (4.5). Along with run stuffer Stephen Paea in the middle, the Bears are allowing just 95 rushing yards a game and consistently create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They may be the stiffest test the Vikings offensive line faces all year – both trying to protect Christian Ponder and opening holes for Adrian Peterson in the running game.
The linebacker position in Chicago has always been a source of dominant players, dating back to stars like Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Wilbur Marshall. Nothing has changed and the Bears have two linebackers that rank up there with any of those that preceded them – Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Urlacher has patrolled the middle of the Bears defense for the last 13 seasons and, while he has slowed a step, he is still a dominant force in the middle of the Bears defense. Briggs is in his 10th season and remains at the top of his game. He has been to seven straight Pro Bowls and well on his way to an eighth straight trip to the NFL all-star game. He has two interceptions and has returned both of them for touchdowns, which isn't unusual for the Bears, who have seven touchdowns on interception returns.
The secondary is as a strong as any in the league and the cornerbacks are as elite as any tandem in the NFL. Charles "Peanut" Tillman has made a huge reputation for himself as being the pre-eminent ball-stripper in the league. He has perfected the technique of punching the ball out of a receiver's arms and has likely already punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame as a result. So concerned are opponents that Tillman will make a big play against them, they have targeted CB Tim Jennings, which has proved to be an enormous mistake. Jennings leads the NFL with eight interceptions and is a ball-hawk of the highest order. The future is bright at safety, where third-year man Major Wright and second-year man Chris Conte are becoming playmakers in their own right.
As dominant as the defense has become, the Bears offense has consistently struggled over the years. Jay Cutler has been a solid quarterback, but not great. He and backup Jason Campbell have thrown for as many yards as Christian Ponder, which doesn't rank them high on the pecking order of elite quarterbacks.
The centerpiece of the offense remains Matt Forte, who leads the Bears with 641 yards rushing and is second on the team with 25 receptions, but he has lost his role as the biggest game-changer to Brandon Marshall. Acquired in a trade during the offseason, Marshall was reunited with Cutler from their days in Denver when both were dominant young players. Marshall has been the only big-time receiving threat in the Bears offense. His 69 receptions is more than the next three Chicago receivers combined and his 925 yards represent 44 percent of the entire team's receiving yardage total. Chicago has been a wasteland for wide receivers – the last time a Bear had more than 1,000 yards in a season was Marty Booker in 2002. Marshall has given the Bears a receiving threat that has been sorely lacking for most of the last decade.
While the Bears have an established quarterback, running back and go-to receiver, their biggest problem has been on the offensive line, which is arguably one of the worst in the NFL.
Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has been routinely dominated by speed rushers and, if the Bears had a legitimate backup to take his place, Webb would either be on the bench or released from the team. Unfortunately for the Bears, they don't have that option because Webb's backup, Jonathan Scott, has been inserted into the starting lineup at right tackle – replacing 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi. Carimi was viewed as the O-line star of the future but has regressed this year, allowing seven sacks and forcing his quarterback to bail out of the pocket consistently. The only consistent player on the O-line is center Roberto Garza – a 12-year veteran who is nearing the end of the line. Until the Bears offensive line improves, it will difficult for Chicago to make a legitimate Super Bowl run.
Few teams have more big plays generated by its special teams than the Bears. Devin Hester isn't the dynamic threat he once was, but teams often kick and punt away from him (including the Vikings) to prevent him from making the kind of big play that turns a game around.
The Bears are a different team at home than they are on the road. They have put themselves in position to make a playoff run and what stands between them and the postseason are two games with the Vikings and one with the Packers in the next four weeks. Chicago isn't dominant because they are one-dimensional – defensively dominant and offensively challenged. But, they have built up a lot of win equity and, with the Vikings coming off their bye week and Chicago coming off a short week of preparation, the best opportunity the Vikings have to snap their Soldier Field losing streak may be this week. After a 7-1 start, the Bears have lost two straight games to quality teams. A win by the Vikings would push them ahead of Chicago and could be the next step in the drop of the Bears from being one of the elite teams in the NFC to one fighting for its playoff life.
If the Bears defense is allowed to dictate the pace, it could be a long day for the Vikings. If, however, the Vikings take care of the ball on offense and are patient in attacking the Cover-2 defense of the Bears, they have the chance to run over Chicago and keep their improbable 2012 chase for the playoffs alive and well.
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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