If there is a team that Vikings fans are familiar with and their predictable style, it's the Chicago Bears. There isn't much that has changed in Chicago in the decade that Lovie Smith was the head coach of the team. They are capable of lighting up the skies with footballs or taking the air out of the game and grinding out first downs to win the time-of-possession battles.
Just as important to the Bears' success over the last several years has been their uncanny ability to score touchdowns with their defense and special teams.
Defense and special teams have been their calling cards for decades because they consistently hired defensive-minded coaches that put an emphasis on creating a playmaking defense and return team, and they had been asking the offense simply not to make mistakes that will hurt the team. That has taken a significant change with the hiring of Marc Trestman. While the vast majority of the roster was drafted and groomed in Smith's image, Trestman's offensive-minded philosophy comes down from the CFL in hopes of making the most of the offensive talent the Bears have at their disposal.
As with all NFL teams, offensive success starts (and sometimes ends) with the quarterback position. The Bears invested heavily when they traded for Jay Cutler, but the Bears have struggled to succeed with him and have been awful without him. Cutler is a temperamental, moody quarterback who can get frustrated. In the old system, Cutler often held the ball too long and opened himself up to taking a beating in the pocket. Trestman's offense calls for getting rid of the ball quicker and making faster decisions. If he and his receivers can adapt and adjust to the new offensive scheme, the Bears pass offense could be one of the elite units in the NFC, but they're learning the system on the fly. Fortunately for them, they have their own Mr. Everything in Matt Forte.
Forte is one of the most complete running backs in the NFL. Not only is he the team's bell cow running back, he has consistently been at or near the team lead in receptions. Often used in screens and check-downs, Forte is dangerous in the open field. He doesn't have elite speed, but consistently gets the most out of every play and rarely goes down on first contact. If the Bears can establish Forte and the ground game, they will keep the Vikings defense on its heels and that's when big plays can happen in the passing game.
For years, the Bears passing game struggled because they could never develop playmaking receivers – even when the Mike Martz pinball machine was running the offense. That changed when they reunited Cutler with Brandon Marshall last season. The two of them were among the most prolific duos in the league when they were in Denver, so there was reason for optimism when the Bears traded for Marshall last year. In his first season in Chicago, he caught 118 passes for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns. Nothing would appear to have changed this year. In the opener against a tough Bengals defense, Marshall caught eight passes for 108 yards and the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. With second-year man Alshon Jeffery developing quickly, former Cutler college teammate Earl Bennett in the slot, and free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett, the Bears have surrounded Cutler with the weapons he needs to succeed and improve the passing attack.
While they began accumulating skill position talent last year, the biggest problem was up front. The offensive line was extremely ineffective and Cutler was routinely sacked and took several knockout-type shots – to the point that he had much-discussed dustups with coach Mike Tice and offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb last year. The Bears have done a great job of improving the line – adding Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency and drafting starting right guard Kyle Long in the first round and starting right tackle Jordan Mills. While one game isn't an adequate sample size, Cutler wasn't sacked in Week 1 by a Bengals defense known for harassing quarterbacks. While the unit may need some time to mesh, especially with two rookies on the right side, they have the foundation in place for a long run with this group.
The same can't be said for the defense of the Bears. It is an aging group at some key positions with half of its starters and key reserves in the final year of their current contracts. Up front, the Bears have a young core with left end Corey Wooton (fourth year) and tackles Stephen Paea (third year) and Henry Melton (fifth year). But the straw that stirs the drink defensively is 12th year pro Julius Peppers. A ferocious pass rusher, Peppers gave 2012 rookie left tackle Matt Kalil all he could handle in their two meetings last season and, if the Vikings offense is going to have success, Kalil, who struggled in Week 1, will have to win this critical matchup.
At linebacker, the Bears have a different look without fixture and future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher patrolling the middle. While he slowed down over the last couple of seasons, he was the emotional leader and quarterback of the defense and his leadership loss will impact the Bears this season as they transition without him. Eleven-year veteran Lance Briggs remains, but, like Urlacher, he is still very talented but a half-step slower than he was a year or two ago. He's a thumper who gets as much out of his athletic ability as just about anyone in the league. James Anderson is no spring chicken on the other side. Entering his eighth season, he will have more responsibility in the passing game taking tight ends and receivers crossing over the middle. Replacing Urlacher in the middle is 10-year veteran D.J. Williams. He is also showing the signs of age. While this group is getting a little long in the tooth, they are battle-tested and there isn't much they haven't seen on the football field.
In the secondary, age is becoming an issue as well, but don't tell that to Charles Tillman. In his 11th season, "Peanut" is still an elite cornerback, which he showed by intercepting Andy Dalton twice in the season opener. Tillman and eight-year pro Tim Jennings create an impressive duo that is capable of taking away receiving options, and they are as opportunistic in creating interceptions or fumbles as any corners the Vikings will face all season. While safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte aren't a strength of the defense, they are young and both are returning starters who have the ability to make plays, but can be exploited.
As is always the case when you play the Bears, you have to account for Devin Hester in the return game. Although he's not the dynamic presence he was earlier in his career, there isn't a special teams coordinator that isn't terrified of what he is capable of doing in changing the momentum of a game. Don't be surprised to see rookie punter Jeff Locke asked to kick directionally, if not kick out of bounds, to prevent Hester from being a factor.
For years, the Bears were a reflection of Lovie Smith, who preached running the ball, playing opportunistic defense and emphasizing big plays on special teams. The result was often winning low-scoring games in the fourth quarter. With the change of offensive philosophy, the Bears have the chance to be a multi-dimensional team capable of winning shootouts. After erasing an 11-point deficit, which rarely happened in the Smith era, to beat Cincinnati last week, the Bears come into Sunday's game with the Vikings with confidence and a chance to put significant distance between themselves and Minnesota in the NFC North.
The Vikings can ill-afford to drop to 0-2 in the division, so this one may have an old-school, smash-mouth atmosphere because the early future of both teams will be greatly impacted by who wins and who loses. The Vikings haven't won in Chicago since 2007, and if they don't reverse that trend Sunday they could be a team heading in the wrong direction early in the season with a killer stretch of games waiting in the wings.
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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