It's hard to imagine that playing a team twice in three weeks could result in so many changes in personnel, but as the Vikings play host to the Chicago Bears just 14 days after playing them at Soldier Field, the look of the Bears is markedly different, as injuries have changed the face of the team.
The Bears started the season 8-1 the old-fashioned way – they beat the teams they should beat. In their first nine games, they played just two teams that had winning records (Indianapolis and Green Bay) and split those two games. Against the seven teams that were .500 or below, the Bears had a record of 7-0. However, in the last four games, Chicago has played three teams that currently have winning records (Houston, San Francisco and Seattle) and have lost all three of them. They come to the Metrodome having lost three of their last four and need a win badly to stop their current slide, much like the Vikings.
The first time the Vikings met the Bears, Chicago was pretty much at full strength but were undergoing changes to the offensive line – benching starters Gabe Carimi and Chilo Rachal. Rachal was cut from the 53-man roster after he left the facility in a huff, but Carimi's benching didn't last long. When a Jared Allen hit on guard Lance Louis ended his season, Carimi moved from right tackle to right guard and the left guard position has become a revolving door. In the last three games, Chicago has had three different starters – Rachal, Chris Spencer and Edwin Williams. Against Seattle last week, the Bears offensive line was so porous that the team spent most of the game in max protect and typically had just two receivers out in downfield pass patterns. When the Vikings played them, the hope was to get pressure on quarterback Jay Cutler from just the front four rather than blitzing from other positions. Expect the Vikings to bring more heat this time around and force the Bears to keep players in to protect Cutler.
A big issue coming into Sunday's game will be at the wide receiver position. Both Devin Hester and Alshon Jeffery sat out last week's game and, while both of them are expected to return this week, starter Earl Bennett will miss the game, putting more pressure on top offensive stars Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte. Forte has accounted for 999 yards rushing and receiving and Marshall's 1,182 receiving yards represent almost half of the Bears team total.
While Chicago's offense has a much different look from just two weeks ago, it is the Bears defense that has experienced the most radical change.
Nose tackle Stephen Paea has been limited in practice this week, but that is only a part of the problem. At the second two levels of the defense, the Bears have considerably greater voids to fill. Starting middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who has been battling injuries much of the 2012 season, has been shelved, likely for the rest of the regular season, with a hamstring injury and ball-hawking cornerback Tim Jennings, who leads the NFL with eight interceptions, will also be out for Sunday's game.
When healthy, the Bears have found ways to win this season primarily by dominating early in both halves. Chicago has outscored their opponents 75-28 in the first quarter, typically building leads and controlling the pace of the game. They've had similar success in the third quarter, outscoring their opponents 66-33 then and 164-97 after halftime. If the Vikings are to beat Chicago, it will be incumbent upon them to not let Chicago get an early lead. They did so two weeks ago and found themselves in a deep hole early.
The injuries on both sides of the ball and the shuffling of the offensive line are reasons why the Bears are a team that is currently in flux. With the Vikings' 2012 season on the line, a win over Chicago is necessary. The timing may be right to catch the Bears because they have the look of a team capable of collapsing in the final month of the season. Without two of their top defensive playmakers, Chicago looks much more vulnerable and, with as much as the Vikings have on the line, the Bears look much more beatable than they did just two weeks ago. In the NFL, fortunes can change in a hurry, and Chicago, which looked so good two weeks ago, now looks like a team that may be in a panic mode similar to what the Vikings are facing with the prospect of having to win all four of their remaining games to make a playoff run.
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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