The Minnesota Vikings got one big, slobbering monkey off their back last week when they gave head coach Mike Zimmer his first divisional road win. On Sunday, they’re looking to exorcise an even greater demon, beating the Chicago Bears on the road.
It won’t come easily. It never does in Chicago. The Vikings have beaten the Bears on the road just one time since 2001, but this is a Bears team that has a much different look than the Chicago teams of years past. The Bears are a team in transition on both sides of the ball and the Vikings will need to take advantage of the weaknesses that have seen the Bears get off to a 2-4 start.
Quarterback Jay Cutler is the mercurial anti-leader of the Chicago offense. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and, when he gets pressured, he can get in a funk that produces some of the worst passing games imaginable. The Bears offensive line has done a solid job of protecting him this year, but they’re a banged-up unit that could have a difficult time maintaining their level of protection for Cutler. Fans who have seen Cutler over the years know that, when things are going well, he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the game. When he faces a lot of pressure, just the opposite can happen … and often does.
Perhaps the biggest key to beating the Bears is to limit running back Matt Forte. No running back in the league is on the field as much as Forte, who has more than 80 percent of the running back carries for Chicago and 87 percent of the rushing yards among their running backs. He has a couple of young backups in rookie Jeremy Langford and second-year pro Ka’Deem Carey, but Forte is the man as both a runner and receiver and the Vikings will have to limit what he accomplishes because the game plan will include a heavy dose of Forte in just about every aspect of the game.
One of the first moves new head coach John Fox made when he arrived in Chicago was to ship off veteran Brandon Marshall for a late-round draft pick. The thought at the time was that Alshon Jeffery could step up and become the dominant player he showed he was last season, as well as counting on first-round rookie Kevin White to be a dynamic playmaker downfield. The problem has been that White hasn’t played a down (he’s on the physically unable to perform list) and Jeffery has missed four games due to injury. He’s back and is coming off a game against Detroit in which he caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, re-establishing himself as the go-to downfield threat in the offense.
Jeffery’s injury has forced the Bears to go deeper into their receiver corps to get the job done, including tight end Martellus Bennett, who has caught 34 passes; Eddie Royal, who has 23 receptions; and Marquess Wilson, who is averaging 17 yards per reception. Cutler likes to spread the ball around, but the big question now is how much time he will have in the pocket because the Bears are beat up along the offensive line.
The Bears have held up well despite shuffling players in the lineup, including promoting third-round rookie Hroniss Grasu to the starting center and moving guard Kyle Long, a first-round pick in 2013, to right tackle. The Bears went outside the organization to bolster the left side of the O-line, adding former Saint Jermon Bushrod to be Cutler’s blindside protector and bringing in guard Matt Slauson to play left guard. Former Viking Vladmir Duscasse is the starting right guard and has struggled at times to hold up against big, physical rushers.
The biggest key will be injuries that have two of the key starters as question marks for Sunday. Both Bushrod (shoulder) and Grasu (neck) have been limited in practice all week and both are listed as questionable. Slauson has also been limited but is expected to play Sunday. If one or more of them can’t play or are limited to the point that they can’t get the job done, the Vikings could dominate the battle in the trenches.
The biggest difference Vikings fans will see from Chicago Sunday is a new look on defense that Fox brought in with him. The Bears have always been known as a stout defense that has operated from a 4-3 base set. That isn’t Fox’s forte and, almost immediately when he installed a 3-4 defense, it became clear that certain players had to go, including former Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and linebacker Jonathan Bostic. As a group, the defense is still feeling its way with the new system and it may be an advantage to the Vikings that they are catching them early rather than later in the season as they make their annual trip to Chicago.
Up front, the player who is as critical as any to making Chicago’s 3-4 defense work is nose tackle Eddie Goldman. A second-round pick who seemed destined to land with the Bears, Goldman has already begun earning a reputation that demands double coverage while he is clogging the middle run lanes. He is flanked by second-year defensive end Will Sutton and free agent signee Jarvis Jenkins, both of whom flash big-play ability but need to work on consistency. They will be the critical front line looking to slow Adrian Peterson down and, if the Vikings offensive line can handle them with regularity, it could be a long day for the Bears.
The key to any 3-4 is active linebackers and Fox had to go outside the organization to find the outside linebackers. Their biggest splash came with the signing of Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee. He plays with a violent style and can take on receivers and rush the quarterback with equal skill. On the other side, free agent Lamarr Houston was expected to make a bigger contribution, but, coming off ACL surgery, he is playing limited snaps, opening up playing time for Arizona import Sam Acho. In the middle, athletic youngster Christian Jones is making a name for himself next to Shea McClellin and will need to be a big part of the game plan because McClellin hasn’t practiced all week with a knee injury and will test the depth of the linebacker corps. On Chicago’s depth chart, there wasn’t a player listed behind McClellin, who is doubtful to play Sunday.
The secondary is a work in progress as well, because opposing quarterbacks have been able to carve up the Bears with regularity. Their best player on the back end is second-year pro Kyle Fuller. A first-round pick in 2014, Fuller has become a player capable of taking away a team’s top wide receiver and is counted on to play on an island for many plays a game. Aging veterans Tracy Porter and Alan Ball are charged with taking control of the left side of the defense and both have lost a step, which the Vikings will clearly look to take advantage of. At safety, veteran Antrel Rolle was brought in to help a very young group that has nothing but rookies in it, including starter Adrian Amos, a fifth-round draft pick. With Rolle questionable with an ankle injury, if he isn’t 100 percent, this could be a huge advantage for the Vikings Sunday.
Minnesota has found Chicago to be a house of horrors over the years, as evidenced by just one win in the last 14 road meetings. If the Vikings are looking to get yet another monkey off their back, they will have to eliminate the ghosts of seasons past, something they’ve have had an extremely difficult job doing for the entirety of this century.