The time-honored mantra of every NFL defense with their keys to success is to stop the run and force offenses to be one-dimensional. When the Minnesota Vikings were humbled by the Chicago Bears on Halloween night in their first meeting of the season, that was far from the case, as the Bears used the running game to keep the Vikings defense on the field and controlled both the game clock and field position, which will make the battle between linebackers Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway and Chicago running back Jordan Howard this week’s key matchup.
The indelible image that remains from the first meeting was a 69-yard burst by Howard on Chicago’s first drive of the game, but the lasting impression for the Vikings defense was that the Bears were able to dictate down-and-distance situations by feeding Howard the ball 26 times.
“They kept us on the field by running the ball a lot,” Kendricks said. “He had the one big run, but they kept giving him the ball and pounding him at us. We’re going to have to do a lot better job against him this time than we did in Chicago.”
Following the big initial run on the opening drive, the Vikings didn’t allow Howard to do a ton of damage, but the runs took their toll, much in the same way the Vikings have pounded Adrian Peterson at opposing defenses when he was in his prime. The threat of the run can open up the passing game, especially when it is force-fed as much as the Bears did in their first meeting.
Chicago scored the game’s first 13 points and took a 13-3 lead to halftime, due in no small part to controlling the ground game. Howard had 11 carries for 97 yards in the first half alone, while the Vikings managed just 37 yards on 13 rushes of their own.
In the second half, as the Vikings desperately tried to make up the 10-point deficit, it was Howard and the Bears ground game that prevented it. While he didn’t have great statistical success in the second half, rushing 15 times for 55 yards, it was the volume of rushes that made the biggest difference.
Chicago held the ball for just shy of 19 minutes in the second half and, after scoring on the opening drive to open a 20-3 lead, Chicago turned the offense over to Howard. In the final 22:01 of the game, the Bears ran Howard 13 times to grind the clock down 40 seconds at a time.
For the Vikings, stopping the run has been a source of pride during the Mike Zimmer era, but has been a problem for much of the season against those teams committed to the run. Veteran Frank Gore was able to have similar volume production in the Vikings’ home loss to Indianapolis and you can rest assured that with inexperienced Matt Barkley at quarterback, the more pressure the Bears can take off him by running Howard early and often, the more Chicago will feel it can control the tempo and flow of the game.
The Vikings are looking to end the 2016 season on a high note and a big part of that will be shutting off Howard’s water and forcing Barkley to throw the ball for the Chicago offense to succeed. That will mean flooding the run lanes with linebackers and there will be a concerted effort for the Vikings to slow down and shut down Howard, making the ongoing chase between him and the Vikings linebackers the season-ending matchup to watch.