Defense Still Chicago's Hope

While the Bears are still playing solid defense behind Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher and their offense has been holding them back this season, running back Anthony Thomas can be a different player at Soldier Field. Get a glimpse at the strengths and weaknesses of the Bears.

It's been rare in recent years when a Vikings-Bears game in December has held critical importance. But, with three games to go in the 2003 season, a win over the Bears at Soldier Field can guarantee the Vikings all playoff tiebreakers with the Packers, making this game of paramount importance.

However, beating the Bears in Chicago has never been an easy task for the Vikings, and, despite numerous personnel changes on the Chicago roster, it likely won't be easy this time around either.

The biggest question facing the Vikings defense is how to scheme against a quarterback getting his first regular-season NFL action. After being benched, Kordell Stewart returned to action when Chris Chandler got injured and led the Bears to consecutive wins over the Broncos and Cardinals. With the Bears' hopes of a playoff berth down the drain, they are going with rookie draft pick Rex Grossman for the first time this season.

Regardless of what Grossman says, the Vikings defenders can expect to see a lot of Anthony Thomas. After struggling all of 2002, Thomas has rebounded this year — especially at home, where he has averaged 100 yards a game rushing. When he was down for a week with pneumonia, rookie Brock Forsey got his chance to shine and came through with 134 yards rushing. While Forsey and receiving backs Rabih Abdullah and Stanley Pritchett will all see playing time, expect to see a steady dose of A-Train all day.

The receiver corps is also in flux, as starters Marty Booker and Dez White have struggled to post the big days fans of the Bears have become accustomed to. That has opened the door for David Terrell, a first-round bust who always seems to make a big play against the Vikings, and rookie Justin Gage, who had a 100-yard game against Arizona, to step in. While Booker remains the main receiving threat, Dick Jauron now has more possibilities in the passing game. That will also include TE Desmond Clark, who has become a bigger part of the entire offense — both in the passing game and run blocking for Thomas.

Up front, the Bears have put together a patchwork unit that includes three homegrown regulars — center Olin Kreutz, guard Chris Villarrial and tackle Mike Gandy. At the right tackle, the Bears have an NFC North retread in Aaron Gibson, whom the Lions gave up on. The left guard spot has been a revolving door all year, with first-year pro Steve Edwards now starting, following in the footsteps of Rex Tucker, Terrance Metcalf and former Viking Corbin Lacina. While the unit has done a decent job, it is capable of being overrun by a blitzing defense, so expect to see the Vikings bring a lot of pressure up the middle to keep this group on its heels.

The success of the Bears can be attributed more to defense than offense. After allowing 111 points in their first three games, the Bears haven't allowed more than 24 points in a game since, and had a recent five-game streak in which they allowed just 55 points — a span that included games with St. Louis and Denver. The Bears have an unheralded front line on defense, but one that has been getting the job done. At the ends, Phillip Daniels and Alex Brown have been providing the pass rush, and tackles Bryan Robinson, Keith Traylor and Alfonso Boone have been plugging the running lanes in the middle. The biggest concern here is depth, since rookies back up three of the four starting positions.

The strength of the defense is at linebacker, where Brian Urlacher is again heading for the Pro Bowl. He chases down plays from sideline to sideline and has a good complement on the outside with Warrick Holdman and rookie Lance Briggs. While Briggs is a step down from Rosevelt Colvin, who left via free agency, he has gotten better as the year has progressed and has given the Bears reasons for optimism on defense for years to come.

The secondary is strong at the safety spots, with a question mark on the corners. Mike Brown and Mike Green are both big hitters with a nose for the ball that have become stars in the deep secondary for the Bears. The corners are another story. Jerry Azumah has been forced to play against a team's top receiver every week and has done a decent job, although he has been burned deep by some of the game's premier receivers. Rookie Charles Tillman has been thrown into the starting lineup in place of R.W. McQuarters and has been picked on. Expect the Vikes to do the same.

It has become a painful part of Vikings history to struggle at Soldier Field, but, with so much on the line, expect to see the Vikings attacking for 60 minutes — both on offense and defense. When they beat the Bears in Minnesota, Mike Tice said the team "won ugly." They would accept another ugly win Sunday.


KEY MATCHUP
Brian Urlacher vs. Michael Bennett/Moe Williams
Few defensive players get more attention from the TV networks during a game than Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. A tackling machine, Urlacher never stops coming at opposing running backs and makes them pay when they enter his area. He is responsible for chasing down running plays, which is why his battle with Michael Bennett (or Moe Williams if Bennett can't go full strength) will be the matchup to watch Sunday.

Urlacher was embarrassed in the earlier meeting with the Vikings when Moe Williams effectively blocked him on blitzes and ran hard through the Bears defense. Bennett is likely to seek more angles and isolation on Urlacher and the other linebackers. With his ability to turn any play into a long touchdown run, Bennett is a dangerous threat at all times, and the Vikings will try to find ways to get him into open space.

If he has a weakness, Urlacher at times can be too aggressive. Coaches have learned to call plays that will get Urlacher to jump and take himself away from the intent of the play. With Bennett's speed, if Urlacher is a step late in getting to the hole, Bennett will be past him and into the secondary.

You can bet that Urlacher will be coming into this game with destruction in mind. After getting pancaked by Williams a couple of times in the earlier game, he was embarrassed and will turn that into anger — looking to make the Vikings pay Sunday for what they did to him on national TV. Sometimes anger is a good thing. Other times, it makes a player forget his assignments and try to make every play — often resulting in missed plays that go for big yardage.

Urlacher isn't going to be content just being a run stopper Sunday. He's going to want to make a difference — stopping the run, blitzing Daunte Culpepper and covering receivers. The extent to which he can neutralize Bennett will go a long way to determining who wins Sunday.


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