Key matchup: Run game vs. beat-up Bears

The Bears linebackers used to be the pride of Chicago, but injuries and Brian Urlacher's retirement have brought hard times to a once-stout run defense. The Vikings still possess one of the top running attacks, making this matchup the key to the game.

For years, the Chicago Bears have prided themselves on their defense. Not only do they create turnovers to turn defense into offense, but the hallmark of their defense has been strong linebacker play. However, with the massive changes that have taken place over the last 12 months, the Bears linebacker corps that will be on the field Sunday against the Vikings will have a strikingly unfamiliar look, making their battle with Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart this week's key matchup.

The Bears have always been known for their hard-nosed run defense that has consistently forced opponents into bad down-and-distance situations. From the era of Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher, the Bears have made a name for themselves by punishing running backs and filling running lanes with bad intentions.

However, that has changed considerably this year. Urlacher is retired, Lance Briggs is injured and won't play Sunday and veteran D.J. Williams is on injured reserve. Rookie Jonathan Bostic is in at the middle linebacker position and will be flanked by James Anderson and fellow rookie Khaseem Greene. It has been a long time since the Bears have had such little experience at this critical position and the Vikings are in a position to take full advantage.

Shockingly, nobody has been worse stopping the run than the Chicago defense this season. Through 11 games, the Bears are the worst in the league in terms of rushing yards allowed (1,597) and 30th in average per rush (a whopping 4.9 yards a carry). That isn't good news for an opponent that has rediscovered its rushing dominance and is ready to make the Bears pay.

Last week against the Packers, Peterson and Gerhart combined to rush 40 times for 237 yards – a lofty 5.9 yards a carry. Peterson was the workhorse, rushing a season-high 32 times and Gerhart was a big play waiting to happen, rushing eight times for 91 yards and consistently breaking off gains for big chunks of yardage. Given the Bears' inability to stop the run consistently, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Vikings try to run 40 times again this week.

This isn't the first time the Vikings running game and the Bears linebackers have been a key matchup, but in the past the issue has been whether the Vikings will be able to get any significant yardage against the Bears run defense. This time around, the question is whether or not the new-look linebackers can contain or shut down the Vikings power running game. It has been a reversal of fortunes that could be one of the biggest pre-game advantages the Vikings bring into the game.

Even with quarterback Jay Cutler ruled out of Sunday's game, the Bears have a powerful offense capable of putting up points in a hurry. Expect to see the Vikings try to control the clock and wear down the Bears' old-school style by pounding them with run after run after run. The Vikings have a chance to strike another blow to a division opponent with playoff aspirations as they did last week to Green Bay. A loss to the Vikings would leave the Bears in desperate circumstances, having already lost twice to division leader Detroit. A loss to the Vikings would drop them at least two games out of the wild card and a game behind Detroit with no tie-breaker advantages with four games to play.

The Bears will have to prove they're up to the challenge because the Vikings aren't going to disguise their plans. It's going to be smash-mouth football that has made the Black and Blue Division famous, as Peterson and Gerhart attack the young Bears linebackers and look to take advantage of this week's matchup to watch.

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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