The Vikings return to the road for the first leg of their final five-game stretch run for the playoffs, and the Chicago Bears will be their first of three divisional contests in the next four weeks. While the Bears are down this year, they'll be rested from their post-Thanksgiving Day bye week and looking to continue the Vikings' frustration in Chicago.
The Bears have won the last three home games by scores of 17-10, 27-23 and 13-10 — grounding the Vikings' high-powered offense. The question this time around is this: How many points will the struggling Bears offense be able to put up against the Vikings?
The biggest question mark is at quarterback. When Rex Grossman went down in the first meeting between the Vikings and Chicago, the Bears didn't have a contingency plan to cover it. As a result, rookie Craig Krenzel got the nod over the more experienced Jonathan Quinn and Chad Hutchinson. Because Krenzel's numbers were pretty dismal, the Bears are going with Chad Hutchinson and the newly acquired Jeff George if Hutchinson fails. Neither can afford to make many mistakes, so the Vikings need to pressure the QB to force turnovers. One turnover could turn the tide of the game.
The running game has also been altered by injuries. The Bears wanted RB Thomas Jones badly in free agency — so much so they called him less than one minute after free agency began and got a contract done in the middle of the night. A slashing runner, Jones has the ability to make people miss and catch the ball out of the backfield. Injuries earlier this year allowed former starter Anthony Thomas back into the lineup, where he impressed with a couple of 100-yard games. A-Train is a bruising runner that, when combined with Jones, makes a dangerous combination. Third-down back Adrian Peterson is a nice change-of-pace player.
The receiver corps took a hit when the Bears traded Marty Booker, but it is a young group with a lot of potential. Former high first-rounder David Terrell leads a corps that includes second-year pros Bobby Wade and Justin Gage, and rookie Bernard Berrian. Each of them brings speed to the offense, which coach Lovie Smith has tried to model after his old Rams offense. While their progress was slowed by the season-ending injury to Grossman, their ability to stretch the field for big plays makes them dangerous, if not savvy and experienced. The Bears' most veteran receiver is tight end Desmond Clark, who, in his sixth year, is the graybeard of the group.
The Bears have been a run-first team all season, and much of the reason for that is an experienced and talented offensive line. The addition of right tackle John Tait was a key, but he will be replaced Sunday by Aaron Gibson because of a knee injury. Gibson joins second-year pro Qasim Mitchell and veteran guards Ruben Brown and Rex Tucker and center Olin Kreutz to give the Bears a solid but unheralded offensive front. This is a group of maulers who have the athleticism to run the classic Bears sweep or smash-mouth the ball up the middle. The Vikings' defensive line, which has had sporadic success, will be tested against this group of strong run blockers.
While the offense has plenty of holes and question marks, there is no denying the ability of the Bears on defense. The commitment to the defensive side was clear in training camp when the team traded veteran wide receiver Marty Booker to Miami for disgruntled defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. Ogenleye is a superior pass rusher, but he starts a theme of defensive question marks this weekend because of a rash of injuries on that side of the ball for the Bears. While he is questionable with a calf injury, talented rookie tackle Tommie Harris is questionable with a knee injury. Harris seems more like to start than Ogunleye, who missed two straight days of practice this week. They are joined by ends Alex Brown and Michael Haynes and defensive tackles Ian Scott, Alfonso Boone and Tank Williams to give the Bears as deep and talented a defensive front as any team in the NFC.
The reason the Bears have already improved on last year's record is due in large part to the consistency and strong play of the defensive front. Even with lesser talent, the Bears have found a way to stymie the Vikings offense. With this core of young, aggressive talent, it will be an even more daunting task for Minnesota's offense.
The biggest question mark for the Bears is at linebacker, where Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher has been sidelined much of the season with a calf injury and is questionable for this game as well. Under ideal circumstances, Urlacher will patrol the middle and be flanked by Hunter Hillenmeyer and Lance Briggs. If he can't go, Hillenmeyer moves inside and the strong side will be a platoon of Joe Odom and Marcus Reese. If the Bears don't have Urlacher, it could be the difference in the game.
The secondary took a big hit with the loss of safety Mike Brown for the season, but this unit still has the personnel to get the job done. CB Charles Tillman (who stole a game-winning TD from Randy Moss last year) has been injured, allowing R.W. McQuarters and Jerry Azumah into the starting lineup. At safety, Todd Johnson has joined Mike Green to patrol the deep middle. This is an injury-depleted group that can be exploited. Expect to see Daunte Culpepper test this group early and often.
Too many times, the Vikings have seemingly played down to the Bears, almost anticipating a low-scoring game. This time should be different. Look for the Vikings to pull out all the stops to try to open an early lead and take away the Bears' rushing attack. If they can do that, the three-game road losing streak to the Bears should come to an end.
REPLACEMENT VERSUS INJURED — This week's matchup to watch features two players that didn't even factor into the equation for either team back in July, but, now that it's December, both have proven critical, and their battle could go a long way to determining who wins Sunday.
DE Adewale Ogunleye was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Dolphins after leading the NFL in sacks in 2003. His contract demands led to an impasse, and during training camp the Dolphins ridded themselves of him in a trade with the Bears to get Marty Booker. Despite the salary-cap implications, Ogunleye joins a defensive line that was already solid but lacked a pure pass rusher. If he plays hurt effectively, his presence makes a huge difference.
Right offensive tackle Adam Goldberg found himself in a similar situation. Goldberg was never drafted and has switched for most of his two years between guard and tackle. He was a project that would require time and patience. When Mike Rosenthal went down, the Vikings didn't have either — they needed to push Nat Dorsey into the lineup, but after a recent shoulder injury to Dorsey, Goldberg has wrestled away starting duties. While he's had his ups and downs with a learning curve, he has earned himself a place on the team. His big challenge now will be battling one of the top defensive ends in the game who is relentless and has just one speed — full out.
You can bet the Bears have already targeted Goldberg as a weak link of the Vikings offensive line. If Ogunleye can play through his injury and exploit Goldberg's inexperience, it could create a turning point in the game.
Bears Battling Injuries On 'D', Ineffective QBs
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