Bears Besieged By Injuries

The Bears are a team missing their starting quarterback, a touchdown-making wide receiver, a key offensive lineman and a few players on their defensive front seven. Still, for the Vikings it could come down to Derrick Alexander's ability to make big plays against Chicago's secondary.

If the Vikings point back to a moment when their season took a downward turn, they need go no further than Week 1. In a road matchup with the defending division champion Chicago Bears, the Vikings outplayed Chicago for 55 minutes of a 60-minute game, only to get beaten in the waning seconds.

That Bears team was living off of 2001 glory. That has changed, and it could be a vastly different Bears team that comes into the Metrodome Sunday. The Bears offense has a different look, as one of the key offensive linemen and the player who scored the winning touchdown in Week 1 are both on the shelf.

Quarterback Jim Miller had little in the way of job security coming into the season. With veteran Chris Chandler brought in as a backup, Miller was on a short leash. All it took was an injury to Miller, so Chandler will be starting. Neither is typically asked to carry the offense, but either is capable of doing it sporadically if necessary.

The focus of the offense remains running back Anthony Thomas. One of the reasons the Bears fell behind to the Vikings was that the defense stuffed his running lanes and took him away from the offense. No other runners on the team have seen much action, and most of them would be viewed as fullbacks by other teams — Daimon Shelton, Leon Johnson, Rabih Abdullah and Stanley Pritchett. The Bears love the power running game, and the A-Train is the man who makes it tick. Expect to see the Bears force him down the Vikings' throats often.

The receiver corps took a hit when David Terrell was sidelined for two months with a broken foot. While not used often, he had two game-winning TDs, including one against the Vikings. The starters remain Marty Booker and Dez White, and Booker is the main worry. He lit up the Vikings for almost 200 yards receiving in Week 1 and will likely be the go-to guy again. The player to watch, however, could be Marcus Robinson. He's finally healthy and has put up some huge numbers against the Vikings.

The tight ends are also hurting with Fred Baxter and John Davis both injured, Dustin Lyman got much of the practice time this week. Baxter and Davis are both likely to play, but they won't be full strength.

On the offensive line, the Bears took a serious hit when guard Rex Tucker was lost for the season with a knee injury. Second-year man Mike Gandy has moved into his spot and will be making just his second NFL start against the Vikings. He will line up next to left tackle Marc Colombo, a rookie who just recently cracked the starting lineup. While there is plenty of inexperience on the left side, the right side is about as good as it gets. Center Olin Kreutz, RG Chris Villarrial and RT James "Big Cat" Williams are all very solid and will be the likely focus of a directional running game.

Just as the offensive line has been forced to make changes, so has the defensive front for the Bears. Nose tackle Ted Washington, one of the best run stuffers in the business, has been sidelined with a leg injury and replaced by second-year man Alfonso Boone. While Boone is a decent prospect, Washington was one of the best in the league and, teamed with Keith Traylor, the interior line was one of the primary reasons the Bears won the division last season. They are joined by defensive ends Philip Daniels and Keith McKenzie (with Bryan Robinson sitting out because of an arrest two weeks ago for driving under the influence). As impressive as this group was last year, they can be beaten now.

Just as injuries have taken a toll on the defensive line, the linebacker corps took a blow when Warrick Holdman, an aggressive outside linebacker, was lost for the season with a knee injury. He has been replaced by 10-year veteran Mike Caldwell, who steps in alongside Brian Urlacher and Rosevelt Colvin to form a strength of the Bears defense. While the loss of Holdman is huge, having a veteran with the experience of Caldwell to step in is a big plus and a solid move on the part of the Bears to make sure they had reserve strength.

In the secondary, the Bears are good, but not great. With R.W. McQuarters likely out due to injury, second-year man Reggie Austin has stepped in to join fourth-year man Jerry Azumah at the corners. Once again, the Bears were better last year with McQuarters and Walt Harris, forcing Austin and Azumah to learn on the fly.

At safety, the only unit that remains intact on the defense, Mike Brown and Mike Green have formed a big-play tandem that finds a way to pull the Bears out of the fire in close games. However, even this unit has taken a hit, as rookie Bobby Gray, the top backup, has been lost for the season.

The Bears are far from the 13-3 team that shocked the NFL last year, not because of some aberration in the schedule last year, but more due to injuries everywhere on the field. The Vikings will be at home with a partisan Metrodome crowd in front of them, looking for some revenge from a lost win in Week 1. This Bears team is able to be taken out, but whether the Vikings can do it is yet to be seen. VU


KEY MATCHUP
Derrick Alexander vs. the Bears secondary — In the season opener, the Bears showed the Vikings what several teams have shown them since — if you're going to publicize this silly Randy Ratio and vow to throw to him 40 percent of the time, he'll be double- and triple-covered on almost every play.

The Bears did it. Buffalo did it. Carolina did it. Everybody did it. What needs to happen for the Vikings to be successful and open up the game for Moss is for another receiver to emerge as a big-play threat to take the heat off of Moss and force defenses to quit blanketing him on all plays.

The onus of that responsibility will fall on Derrick Alexander. While Moss will be doubled constantly, Alexander will draw single coverage with either Jerry Azumah or Reggie Austin. Both of these guys became starters just this year, after the free-agent defection of Walt Harris and an injury to R.W. McQuarters. While both are improving, they are raw and capable of being beaten — and beaten badly.

In the opener, Alexander hadn't earned a starting spot, and D'Wayne Bates may not be able to play because of back pain. This game could go a long way to determining who gets that gig for the foreseeable future.

Alexander has the speed and veteran savvy to make big plays — he's done it many times in the past. If he can make a big play on the inexperienced corners of the Bears, it not only will help the Vikings offense but likely loosen things up for Moss to make a big play or two.

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