Preview: Untamed Bears?

The Bears made a few changes to their offense, but it still isn't where it needs to be. The defense has been forced into changes with its personnel, but that hasn't always worked either. We take a position-by-position look at the Vikings' opponent on Sunday.

While many fans view the Vikings-Packers as the greatest rivalry the team has, others have contended that the rivalry with the Bears has been just as heated. Both teams have been dominant for stretches over the past 20 years and, during those times, they built much of their success by beating the other team twice in the same season. It has been a back-and-forth rivalry, but one marked by one team dominating the series for extended periods of time.

The latest "Age" of the rivalry has been dominated by the Bears. The only Vikings win in the last five meetings came in the too-little-too-late coaching swan song of Mike Tice, who was unceremoniously stripped of his ranks within minutes of winning the game. Otherwise, it has been a series controlled by the Bears, who have won by scores of 24-14, 28-3, 19-16 and 23-13 in that stretch – the last two coming at the expense of Brad Childress' career coaching record.

But this is a much different Bears team than fans have been used to seeing over the recent past. Injuries and changes galore on both sides of the ball find the Bears feeling their way and in a desperate position for a two-time defending champion that has dominated the division over the previous two seasons.

The biggest and most obvious change has come at quarterback. Rex Grossman became a running joke last year on the Bears' Super Bowl run. The consensus became that Chicago got to the Super Bowl despite Grossman, not because of him. His erratic play and penchant for interceptions exasperated Bears fans, who openly called for backup Brian Griese during home games earlier this season. Lovie Smith finally gave in and Griese was given his chance. While Grossman was playing, he had one touchdown and six interceptions. While Griese has thrown four interceptions in just 77 passes, the fact that it has been better than Grossman is enough. Griese is not an overly talented replacement. He had every chance to win and hold starting jobs in Denver, Miami and Tampa Bay and didn't hold on to any of them. When pressured, he makes mistakes and, in a game that looks to be a ball-control game, any turnovers you can get could be the difference between winning and losing and Griese has his own problems in that regard.

The running game has seen a change as well. Thomas Jones was one of the most unappreciated players in the league. It seemed like the Bears tried to find a way to run him out of town, feeling Cedric Benson was ready to take the full workload. To date, that would seem to be a wrong assumption. Benson is averaging just 3.0 yards a carry. Of NFL running backs with more than 200 yards rushing on the season, it is by far the lowest average in the NFL. The Bears offense has struggled to a ranking of 30th, but much of the blame has been placed on the 28th-rated pass offense. But perhaps more blame should be shouldered by the running game and its No. 27 rating. The Bears have always been a power running team, but that has been stymied by defenses much less accomplished at stopping the run than the Vikings. The Bears have the "other" Adrian Peterson as a change-of-pace back, but Smith has committed to Benson as his workhorse. His 101 carries are more than five times that of any other player and represent more than 80 percent of the team rushing attempts by it RB corps. The point is simple – stop Benson and you'll stop the running game because the Bears will keep feeding him the ball even if he struggles.

If the Bears have to pass, don't look for the conventional speed bombs to the wide receivers that so many teams used to beat opposing defenses. The Bears are almost tortuous with consistently throwing short, timing passes and pick away at a defense five to 10 yards at a time. That has become even more pronounced with speed receiver Bernard Berrian slowed with a toe injury. Berrian has been battling the injury most of the season and – while he leads the team with 25 receptions, he hasn't been the deep threat he was in his breakout 2006 season and has yet to score a touchdown. Veteran Muhsin Muhammad remains a steady, move-the-chains possession receiver who rarely drops passes but also rarely breaks off a short slant pass into a 70-yard touchdown. Behind them is the usual cast of characters the Vikings have become accustomed to – third-year guys Rashied Davis and Mark Bradley – but the potential wild card is second-year phenom Devin Hester. A speed merchant who has become the biggest rage in the return game in the NFL, Hester has been moved to offense and, while he has yet to be fully utilized in that capacity, he might have more than a cameo appearance if the Bears are forced to pass and the Vikings bottle up Benson.

A pair of weapons the Vikings are almost sure to see is the tight end combination of rookie Greg Olsen and veteran Desmond Clark that proved fatal to the Packers last week by catching both second-half touchdowns for a come-from-behind win. With both seemingly in lock step with Griese, they will likely be first options on a dozen or so pass plays Sunday.

While the Bears want to avoid being forced to pass, a large share of the blame for the lack of a running game has to be laid at the feet of the offensive line, long viewed as the clear strength of the Bears offense. Loaded with veteran players, it has been one of the best units in the NFL – with Fred Miller (12 years) and Jon Tait (9) at tackles, Olin Kreutz (10) at center and Roberto Garza (7) and Ruben Brown (13) at guard. With a collective 51 years of NFL playing time, it has been a solid unit for years. But, not only have the Bears struggled to run the ball, they have allowed 17 quarterback sacks. While Grossman has been blamed for many of them for not getting rid of the ball on time, it is a troubling statistic that seems more than just an anomaly. Teams that blitz the Bears get to the quarterback and the Vikings are sure to exploit that.

The Bears have built their team on defense, but it would appear that attrition and injury have severely weakened the foundation. The Bears have been outscored 85-50 in the second half of their five games and gave up a record 34 points in one quarter to the Lions earlier this season. The problems, as they usually do, have started up front. The once-vaunted Bears defense is ranked 23rd in the league (12th vs. the run and 26th vs. the pass). The team released Tank Johnson in the spring after another run-in with the law and have replaced him with former Eagle Darwin Walker. While solid, Walker doesn't have the ability to collapse the pocket to the extent that Johnson did and has been injured. Tommie Harris is one of the best tackles in the league. He has been battling some nagging injuries, but is tied for the team lead with four sacks from the DT position. At the ends, the Bears have Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson. They have been polar opposites – Ogunleye coming to the Bears in a trade for Marty Booker after he held out with Miami and Anderson coming in as an unheralded fifth-round rookie and leading the team with 12 sacks last year. The two have combined for seven sacks already this year and are going to be a constant source of trouble for Bryant McKinnie and Ryan Cook. Veteran Alex Brown, a former starter, also sees time in the DE rotation, but depth at the tackle spot is thin.

The face of the Bears defense is middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. In his eighth season, he is regarded as one of the best players at his position in the league and is always around the ball and making tackles. He is flanked by Lance Briggs on the weak side, also viewed as one of the top play-making linebackers in the league. He had a run-in with the organization after being franchised, but signed his one-year tender and returned to the team to play one more year and potentially hit the free agent market with full force. He has missed some practice time with a hamstring injury this week in practice, but expect to see him flying all over the field when game time rolls around. The weak link of the linebackers is Hunter Hillenmeyer and he isn't too shabby. Adept at run defense, he has shown some improvement in the passing game, but he will likely be the linebacker the Vikings target in the passing game because Urlacher and Briggs have more big-play defensive instincts.

The Bears secondary has been a mess all year and injuries have taken more than a minor toll. Safety Mike Brown has been lost for the season and top cornerback Nathan Vasher isn't expected to play. CB Charles Tillman is expected to play, but he's been battling injuries of his own. In Vasher's place, the Bears have moved safety Danieal Manning to the corner spot with mixed results. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 97.6 and have thrown for seven touchdowns. They are completing 71.8 percent of their passes and much of that is do to inconsistency in the secondary. Former Ram Adam Archuleta, who many view as a marginal starter at best, has replaced Brown at strong safety and Brandon McGowen, who had played in just nine games in his first two seasons, is starting at free safety. Backing up the cornerbacks is fifth-year man Ricky Manning as the nickel back and rookies Trumaine McBride and Corey Graham. The Bears can't afford any more injuries to the secondary or teams will open fire on them early and often.

Typically special teams play is viewed as necessary, but not as game-changing as offense or defense. But the Bears pose a set of problems that few teams do. First is the wind at Soldier Field. It often whips through the stadium and may be blowing in one direction in one end zone and another direction in the other end zone. Ryan Longwell has a lot of experience there, but Robbie Gould has proved his own worth as the new guy in Chicago kicking lore. But perhaps the biggest special teams question will surround Hester. The Packers opted to directionally punt and squib kickoffs just to avoid Hester having the big return that would break their back. He brought a kick back for a touchdown against the Vikings and you can bet he will get more attention from the coaching staff than any return specialist the team will face all season.

The Vikings and Bears rivalry will be renewed for 113th time Sunday. While most think the game will be close, it could be one play or one element of the game that could be the difference between winning and losing. If the Vikings can make sure it isn't special teams, the problems the Bears have on both sides of the ball could be enough for the Vikings to win in Chicago for the first time since 2000.


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