Bears Scare Vikings at Soldier Field

Daunte Culpepper's starting debut last season was against the Bears and he is 2-0 against Chicago, but somehow the Bears always make it close at Soldier Field.

The Vikings will conclude two weeks of practice and head to Chicago for a Week Three matchup that could well hold big implications for both teams. With Chicago heading into a bye week following the game with Minnesota, if they are off to an 0-2 start, their season could be over before it really had a chance to start. The Vikings, meanwhile, are in the same situation and are looking to build momentum into a season derailed early by the training camp death of Korey Stringer, an opening-day loss to Carolina and the terrorist attacks on the nation.

The Bears look like a team the Vikings should be able to slap around without much trouble. But, beating the Bears in Chicago has always proved difficult. The last four games at Solider Field — all wins by the Vikings — the Bears have blown leads, including a nine-point lead last year. Chicago finds a way to solve the Vikings for awhile and just needs to string it for four quarters.

The big question among Bears observers has been at quarterback. Cade McNown had been anointed the starter when drafted in 1998, but he failed miserably and was eventually traded to Miami. Now the Bears have Shane Matthews and Jim Miller, both of whom have enjoyed some success against the Vikings. The key to keeping them from getting comfortable is going to be providing a pass rush and blitzes to force them to throw off time. Neither has a wealth of game experience and keeping them off-balance is the key.

Just like quarterback, running back has been a recent nightmare for the Bears. When the team took Rashaan Salaam in the first round a few years ago, they thought they had an adequate replacement for Neal Anderson. They didn't. When they took a very high pick on Curtis Enis, they thought they finally had the job done. They didn't. Now the reigns have been handed to James Allen, who ran for 1,100 yards last year, but fumbling problems have led to speculation that he will lose his job eventually. While he started the year as the go-to guy, rookie Anthony Thomas is expected to make a push to get playing time. If the Vikings can stuff either or both of these players, the defense can pin its ears back and go after the quarterback to shut down the offense completely.

The Bears receivers look great on paper, but have yet to prove it on the field. Marcus Robinson is the most talented receiver, but has battled back injuries and, while he's expected to play against the Vikes, he's not 100 percent. Rookie David Terrell was seen by some as a potential No. 1 overall pick and is going to be a tremendous receiver, but he is still learning the NFL game and will likely be a much more dangerous threat when the Vikes meet Chicago after Thanksgiving than he will be in this matchup. The Bears have a host of other young receivers like Marty Booker, Dez White and D'Wayne Bates, but, until any of them gets a lot of time on the field, being in sync is a question.

Tight end isn't a big factor with converted fullback Fred Baxter, converted linebacker Dustin Lyman and rookie Conrad Emmerich, a college linebacker. They are more blockers than receiving threats.

The Bears have a decent offensive line, but only right tackle James Williams started every game last year. Left tackle Blake Brockermeyer, center Olin Kreutz and guard Chris Villarrial all are veteran starters, but have each battled injuries. The key will be third-year man Rex Tucker, who didn't start a game last season and will asked to stop Chris Hovan. If he can't, the entire offensive line will likely break down and give the Vikings a huge advantage.

From the Bears side of the coin, job one is stopping the Vikings offense. The problem is that they may not have the personnel to do it. Up front, the Bears have built a line through free agency and trades, getting defensive end Bryan Robinson through a trade with St. Louis, Phillip Daniels from Seattle in 2000 free agency and, this year's free-agent crop, defensive tackles Ted Washington (Buffalo) and Keith Traylor (Denver). It is a group that has been thrown together in hopes that the sum of the parts will equal the individual talents. Depth is thin, with aging veterans Clyde Simmons and Van Tuinei as the top backups.

The linebackers are young, raw and lack NFL experience. Second-year man Brian Urlacher anchors the defense in the middle, flanked by third-year men Roosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman. The three were together in the starting lineup for about half of last season and, while they can combine to create a LB force in the years to come, they still make young mistakes. Urlacher promises to be a Pro Bowler for years to come, but the other two aren't as big a certainty. Even backups like Khari Samuel are unproven — something the Vikings will certainly try to attack.

The secondary looks much different after cornerback Thomas Smith, who signed a huge contract in 2000, was released. Now you have sixth-year man Walt Harris, second-year man R.W. McQuarters and third-year man Jerry Azumah sharing the frontline duties at cornerback, which, in itself, should be enough to make Randy Moss and Cris Carter drool. At the safeties, Tony Parrish and Mike Brown are both young and have been burned by the Vikings in the past, which again makes them vulnerable for offensive game-planning.

The Bears are a team the Vikings should be able to handle. Almost position by position the Vikings are the equal or better than Chicago, but strange things happen at Soldier Field on a regular basis when the Vikes come to town. The team is hoping this time will be a little less exciting than in the recent past. VU

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