Preview: McCown more than typical backup

An injury to Jay Cutler gave Josh McCown a chance and his numbers have actually been better. But, overall, the Bears are team limping to the finish with injuries on defense.

When the Vikings met the Chicago Bears in Week 2, they had a chance to make a statement that would alter the course of both of their seasons. The Vikings had the Bears on the ropes in the fourth quarter, but Jay Cutler rallied the Bears for a last-second 31-30 win that sent both of their seasons in opposite directions.

But, this time around, the Bears are a much different team and possibly heading in the wrong direction. After getting off to a 3-0 start, the Bears are 3-5 since and Cutler has been missing in action on the offense. The Bears that the Vikings will see Sunday will be much different than the team that they faced in Week 2.

The primary difference, as would be expected, is the change at quarterback. Cutler went down at midseason and rushed his return from a groin injury only to get sidelined again, turning the reigns of the offense over to backup Josh McCown.

To his credit, McCown has been more than merely a backup. By the NFL standard for measuring quarterbacks, he's actually been better than Cutler. He has put up a passer rating of 100.8 – more than 12 points higher than Cutler. He has been the primary quarterback in four of the five games he has played, throwing for 1,106 yards with seven touchdowns and just one interception. While technically seen as a game manager, his average yards per attempt (7.47) are higher than Cutler's (7.20), so the offense hasn't suffered.

As always, Matt Forte is the straw that stirs the drink. It was feared that Forte could miss Sunday's game after suffering an ugly-looking knee hyperextension last week, but he has recovered enough that he will be starting, which will be vital to the Bears' offensive attack. In previous years, he was in a time share with Michael Bush, but this season it has been incredibly lopsided. Not only does Forte have nearly five times as many carries as Bush, he has rushed for 851 yards and seven touchdowns. But his danger to a defense is in his dual-threat ability as a receiver. He is third on the team with 56 receptions and is almost guaranteed of 20-plus touches. If the Vikings want to shut down the Bears offense, it starts and ends with Forte. If he isn't 100 percent, it would go a long way to grounding the Bears offense.

New head coach Marc Trestman came to Chicago looking to improve the pass offense. So far, so good. Brandon Marshall is a dominant receiver who has caught 74 passes for 945 yards and nine touchdowns – including 7-113-1 numbers against the Vikings in Week 2. The most pleasant surprise has been the emergence of Alshon Jeffery. Drafted to be the ideal complement to Marshall, he has caught 58 passes for 860 yards and three touchdowns and has four 100-yard games. Throw in tight end Martellus Bennett (46-531-5 for the season, including 7-76-2 against the Vikings in Week 2), the Bears have a potent passing attack that can do a lot of damage. No lead against the Bears is safe because, if they fall behind by 14 points, they have the weapons to back it up.

The problem for the Bears that has them with a losing record over the last eight games isn't with the offense. It's with the defense. Chicago's opportunistic defense has consistently been its calling card, but the Bears have struggled badly this season.

Uncharacteristically, the Bears have the 25th-ranked defense, which includes the league's worst-ranked run defense. Injuries at all three levels of the defense have been the cause of much of the problems. Up front, arguably the best defensive tackle on the team (Henry Melton) is on injured reserve. At linebacker, compounding the retirement of Brian Urlacher has been an injury to Lance Briggs that has Chicago starting two rookies at linebacker – Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene. The Vikings will likely try to confuse both of them and take advantage of their inexperience by getting them out of position in both the run and pass game.

The secondary has always been one of the deepest in the league, but their emotional leader, Charles Tillman, is on the injured reserve/designated for return list. But that return won't be Sunday. Fortunately for Chicago, they have four solid players in the secondary – cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman and safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte – but, without a quintessential playmaker like Tillman, the drop-off is significant.

Much like the Packers last week, the Bears come into Sunday's game with the Vikings looking to keep themselves in the thick of the playoff chase and not digging themselves a hole that may be too late to get out of. The Vikings did their job in deflating the Packers' dream. They hope to do the same to the Bears Sunday. It won't be easy, but the critical injuries the Bears have suffered this season could be enough to tilt the advantage the Vikings way, especially if Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart can impose their will in the running game.

Chicago has all the looks of a playoff contender that could be turned into a pretender. The Vikings could be the team that makes that official Sunday.


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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