Vikings' third-down defense a letdown again

The Vikings had plenty of chances to stop Chicago drives short, a trend of third-down letdowns consistently kept drives alive.

As the Vikings made their run over the four games prior to their bye week, it was the improvement of the Vikings defense that was front and center. They had 20 sacks in that span and, just as importantly, were allowing opponents to convert on just 25 percent of third-down opportunities. In Sunday’s 21-13 loss to the Chicago Bears, it was the inability to convert on third down that resulted in a disappointing, lackluster turning point of the game.

For the record, the Bears converted on 10 of 17 third downs and, on two of the seven third downs in which the Vikings made a stop, Chicago converted on fourth down to keep drives alive.

With the Vikings ahead 10-0 on the final play of the first quarter, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw a bubble screen to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who slipped a pair of tackles and picked up 11 yards for a first down. Four plays later, Cutler and Jeffery would connect again, this time for a 27-yard touchdown that cut the Vikings lead to 10-7.

Although the Vikings defense was able to get a stop at the goal line on a fourth-and-1 play and Harrison Smith recorded an interception late in the third quarter that snuffed out another drive, as the game went to the fourth quarter with Chicago ahead 14-10, the Vikings’ defensive failures on third down mounted in the back-breaking drive that would give the Bears a two-score edge over Minnesota.

Starting from the own 28-yard line with 1:26 remaining in the third quarter, the Bears decided to let running back Matt Forte be the center of their offense. He started the drive by breaking off a 32-yard run to get the ball all the way down to the Vikings 36-yard line and then it became torturous for the Vikings defense.

After a pair of incompletions set up a third-and-10 situation, Cutler completed a 9-yard pass to tight end Martellus Bennett. With the ball on the 27-yard line, instead of going for a field goal that would give Chicago a seven-point lead, they went for it and Forte converted the first down with a 2-yard run.

Two plays later, after runs of 8 yards and 1 yard by Forte, the Bears had another third-and-1 situation that Forte converted with a short plunge. Following a 7-yard pass to Jeffery and a pair of 1-yard runs by Forte, the Bears faced another fourth-and-1 situation and, as they had done seven plays earlier, they converted the first down with a 2-yard run by Forte.

The Bears then became content to throw the ball and the first two passes fell harmlessly incomplete with good coverage. Again facing a third down, another incompletion would have surely brought the field goal unit out on the field. But Cutler was able to complete a 4-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall, who outmuscled Josh Robinson for the ball, giving the Bears a 21-10 lead that would never be touched – capping off 16-drive, 72-yard drive that ate up 7:35 off the clock.

The Vikings’ woes at Soldier Field continued Sunday, but this time it was equal opportunity dysfunction. The offense struggled again, but it was the defense’s inability to make stops on third and fourth down, especially in the critical game-widening drive in the fourth quarter, that was a sadly reminiscent version of the turning point in previous losses at Soldier Field.

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