Preview: Bears' Streak Continues from 2005

The Bears have been winning consistently since the second half of last season, but suddenly they have an offense to go with their defense. Get the unit-by-unit analysis of the Bears and where they might be exploitable, along with the key matchup of the game.

There isn't a whole lot of hype that needs to be associated with a Vikings-Bears matchup. The Bears are the defending champions of the NFC North and could put an early stranglehold on the division with a win over the Vikings. Having already defeated Green Bay and Detroit in the first two weeks, a road win over the Vikings would go a long way to cementing their position atop the NFC North.

On the flip side, a win by the Vikings could signal a changing of the guard, as the league will surely take notice if the Vikings post a third straight win against teams that went to the playoffs in 2005. But to get that done, the Vikings will have to do something that nobody has done yet this year. As hard as it may be to read this, they will have to derail the Bears OFFENSE to win Sunday.

After starting the season 1-3 last year, the Bears went on a run in which they won eight straight and 10 of 11 games. During that streak, the Bears went nine straight games without scoring more than 20 points. Shockingly, the won eight of those games.

But this year has been different. They have outscored their opponents 60-7 and, while admittedly it has been against the Packers and Lions, Rex Grossman has the highest passer rating in the NFL at 128.5. He has completed almost 72 percent of his passes and has five touchdowns. His average gain per pass attempt is a whopping 10.4 yards – nobody else has more than nine yards per attempt in the league and only two quarterbacks are within two yards of that lofty mark. Grossman has been given time to pass and has thrown 53 times – a lot by Bears standards. The Vikings will need to put pressure on Grossman to get him to release the ball quickly. That is when he makes mistakes. Keep in mind that, by on-field standards, he is still a rookie – having played only a handful of starts due to injury prior to this season. The best way to make Grossman sweat is to force him to pass, not let him pass when he wants to. In order to accomplish that, the Vikings need to stop the run – a task easier said than done.

The Bears have a situation at running back that is a rarity in the NFL. Everyone on the team except for one person would prefer Thomas Jones to be the full-time running back. He's quick, tough and played through injuries last year when the Bears needed him most. However, the one person who wants Cedric Benson getting more playing time is head coach Lovie Smith – and his opinion trumps that of the players. Benson is a better fit in the classic Bears' between-the-tackles offense. But Benson has a history of small, nagging injuries and a pampered background that has put off some of his teammates. But Jones hasn't taken the job by the horns like he did last year. Through two games against suspect defenses, he has averaged just 3.0 yards a carry and ranks just 13th in the NFC in rushing. In two games last year, Jones ran 35 times for 151 yards and two TDs – and saw cameo duty in the second game. He can be a workhorse, and don't be shocked to see him get 20 or more carries and Benson add another 10 along the way.

For years, the Bears' passing game has been nondescript and their receivers relatively anonymous. But the league has begun paying attention this season, as Muhsin Muhammad is no longer as lonely as the Maytag repairman. Bernard Berrian has caught just six passes, but is averaging 23 yards a catch and has a pair of touchdowns already. Backups Mark Bradley and Justin Gage have only seen limited roles thus far, but both have had big catches in their brief careers against the Vikings.

The biggest difference is at tight end – for years a nearly dead offensive position for the Bears. Desmond Clark is tied for the team lead with 10 receptions and fifth-year man John Gilmore has suddenly become the King of the Red Zone after a pair of touchdown receptions. While individually this isn't a group that scares anyone, the unit would appear to be greater than the sum of its parts and can't be overlooked.

Up front, the Bears have struggled to open holes for the running game, but have a solid corps of starters. The addition of Jon Tait, formerly of the Chiefs, to play left tackle has been a boon for the O-line. He and right tackle Fred Miller are both at or near the top level of offensive tackles in the league and will give pass rushers Kenechi Udeze, Ray Edwards and Darrion Scott all they can handle. In the middle, Olin Kreutz is a peer to Matt Birk in terms of overall play and ability to make correct line calls. The only potential weakness is at guard. Ruben Brown is in his 12th season and showing the signs of wear, especially late in games, and Robert Garza has been a "position flexibility" guy who played both guard and center but has never been given a full opportunity to be an every-down starter for a full season. These two are the most likely to be attacked by the Vikings' blitz packages.

The Vikings may have to cause turnovers to win, because it's almost a given that the Bears defense will. Having allowed just seven points in two games, the Bears defense is as good as ever and strong from front to back. On the defensive line, the Vikings are once again going to have their hands full, just as they did the first two weeks vs. Washington and Carolina. Playing a similar Cover-2 system, it is predicated on getting pressure up front and, for fans that watched the dismantling of Brett Favre and the Packers in Week 1, it's clear that the Bears can bring it.

At the defensive ends, Adewale Ogunleye has proven to be a wise pick-up when the Bears traded Marty Booker to Miami to end his holdout. He and right end Alex Brown are a formidable tandem, and rookie DE Mark Anderson has also gotten into the act with a pair of sacks. In the middle, the Bears are also strong with third-year man Tommie Harris and Ian Scott – a pair of young 300-pounders who clog the middle running lanes. The team has depth with sixth-year pro Alfonso Boone and third-year man Tank Johnson – both of whom have been starters in the past. Of the nine defensive linemen on the Bears roster, Ogunleye and Boone are the graybeards of the group and they're only in their sixth seasons. This is a deep, talented group that, barring injuries or free agent squabbles, will be together for years to come.

While the line is productive, when you think Bears defense, Brian Urlacher is the first person you think of. Entering his seventh season, Urlacher is at the top of his game and is slowly etching his way into the lore of the great Bears linebackers of all-time – of which there have been plenty. His presence is such that teams run an inordinate numbers of plays away from Urlacher in the middle, which helps create mismatches for the Bears to exploit at the sidelines. But, Urlacher isn't the only star in the linebacker corps. Lance Briggs made the Pro Bowl last year on his own merits, not just living off of Urlacher's largesse in the middle. He runs down plays from sideline to sideline and is rarely out of position. The only potential weak spot is, ironically, on the strong side, where Hunter Hillenmeyer has been slowed by injuries. The Bears don't have ideal depth at linebacker, so the Vikings might try to make quick strike plays with their tight ends and backs on the strong side of the defense.

Because of the pressure the Bears' front seven can bring, the secondary has been given a lot of credit, but it isn't the most dominant group in the league – although perhaps the most opportunistic. The parts form a group that takes chances. They score touchdowns by jumping routes, but are at times susceptible to double-moves and play-fakes. At the corners, Nathan Vasher has developed into a solid cover corner and Charles Tillman and Ricky Manning, both in their fourth seasons, have developed into good, aware corners in their own right. None of them are true shut-down corners, but they benefit from a pass rush that doesn't give teams the time to run long routes against them. At safety, Mike Brown is to the Bears defense what Darren Sharper is to the Vikings – a ball hawk who is tantamount to a coach on the field. He consistently makes big plays at big times and, while he's still not 100 percent after blowing an Achilles last year, he is a dominant playmaker who can make a game-changing play at any time. At free safety, there has been a changing of the guard. Chris Harris was forced into duty as a rookie last year when Brown was lost to injury and had the starting job heading into the regular season. But the Bears announced this week that rookie Danieal Manning will take over the starting role Sunday. He has speed and athleticism, but, if Brad Johnson has the time, you can bet he will be targeted at least a couple of times.

As if the Bears don't have enough players that can help turn a close game, one of the key players to this game is someone who isn't even a starter. Rookie Devin Hester was taken in the second round for one purpose – to give the Bears a dynamic punt returner who can break a return for the distance at any time. He is faster than Dante Hall or Santana Moss, viewed as the game's premier punt returners, and if the Vikings don't pay special attention to their punt lane assignments, he could provide the big play that makes the difference in winning or losing.

If there is one intangible in this matchup, it is that the home team has won the last eight meetings between these teams. Through the ups and downs of both franchises, each has been able to make their home field advantage stand up. The Vikings will need that to continue Sunday, because this is expected to be yet another tight, low-scoring game that likely won't be decided until the final minutes, and having the fans at the Metrodome potentially get a drive-killing false start or missed audible out of the Bears could end up being the difference between winning and losing.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

OT MARCUS JOHNSON VS. DE ADEWALE OGUNLEYE –
Marcus Johnson at some point has to be asking himself what he did to upset the people that make the schedules for the NFL? In his first full season as a starting right tackle, he got the assignment of Phillip Daniels in the first game vs. Washington and then got beaten up by Julius Peppers last week.

So what does he get for an assignment this week? A date with Chicago's Adewale Ogunleye – the most feared of the Bears impressive front four. How Johnson holds up and, just as importantly, how much emphasis Brad Childress and Mike Tomlin put on containing Ogunleye, makes this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.

It would be understandable if Johnson's psyche was shaken after a day opposite Peppers. Peppers racked up three sacks and four quarterback hurries on Brad Johnson, and Childress said after the game that he could have done a better job at using tight ends or running backs to chip Peppers to slow him down and give Johnson a little support. But, the running back portion of that game plan might be out the window Sunday, since it's more likely that the Vikings running backs will be asked to stay in pass coverage to be on the lookout for blitzing linebackers like Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs. That will likely leave Johnson on his own to handle Ogunleye or perhaps get part-time help from the tight ends.

If the Vikings are forced to alter their game plan to keep potential receivers behind the line or near the line in an attempt to neutralize Ogunleye, many of the pass patterns Brad Johnson will have to look at will have only two or at most three viable options. If that's the case, it will be a huge advantage for the Bears. If, however, Marcus Johnson can hold up Ogunleye and free up the tight ends and running backs to be more of a part of the passing game, it will give Johnson many more options and allow him to pick apart the Bears defense with his patented short passing game.

The good news for Johnson is that schedule eases up a little bit in the coming weeks and, after what he's going to have faced the first three weeks, it couldn't come at a better time. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for the second-year tackle, so if he can come up big in his battles with Ogunleye, it could make all the difference in the world to the Vikings offense – making this the Matchup to Watch.

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