The way 2018 is shaping up, this will not be the last time that a matchup is declared “the biggest game of the season” for the Chicago Bears. At stake, this week is the possibility of establishing a commanding lead at the top of the NFC North and sending a message to the rest of the Division and the primetime, national television audience.
Coming off a bye week, the Minnesota Vikings should be well rested and will return key starters on both sides of the ball. Standout Linebacker and team captain Anthony Barr was a limited participant in training after missing several weeks with a hamstring injury. Starting receiver Stefon Diggs is back to full participation after the rib injury he sustained against the Saints in week 8.
The narrative among Vikings media and fans is that the Bears are an upstart that they’ll dispose of, an inconvenience on their road to another divisional crown. They believe that they should win, they believe that they will win, and they believe that the Bears are not a true threat.
Back at Soldier Field again and on a three-game win streak, the Bears opened as a three-point favorite. The team exudes an air of quiet confidence and the feeling around the city seems to be changing too. What will they be facing on Sunday?
The Vikings Offense is stacked with talent at the skill positions. Kirk Cousins, the one-time highest paid player in the league, trades off his accuracy and is third in the league in completion percentage at 71.3%. Cousins doesn’t just throw check downs though, he is not afraid to stretch the field with 47% of his touchdown passes going for more than 15 yards.
Cousins effectively has two number one receivers in Diggs and in Adam Thielen who leads the league in receptions. There is also a competent supporting cast in Laquon Treadwell, Aldrick Robinson and Kyle Rudolph who have combined for over 700 yards and six touchdowns. The Vikings run a pass-heavy offense and rank fifth in the NFL in passing attempts compared to twenty-eighth in rushing attempts.
On paper, their backfield also looks strong.
Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook both have big-game potential but the run game has been hugely inconsistent, failing to reach the 100-yard mark on six occasions this season. It doesn’t figure to get any easier for them against the NFL’s number one rush defense measured by both yards allowed and touchdowns conceded.
The Vikings lack of success on the ground points one of the team’s major weakness. The Offensive line has not looked good so far this season allowing nearly three sacks a game and failing to generate any kind of push in their zone/stretch dominated scheme. The key to a successful outside zone game is that your covered linemen work hard to make it to the second level of the defense. The Vikings appear to be consistently failing to make to achieve this meaning that running lanes are not opening up and that it’s easy for their opponent’s front seven to string plays out to the sideline or simply swallow backs up.
One reason for the Vikings issues may just be lack of talent. Until a recent injury, former Bears backup Tom Compton was starting for the Vikings. If he’d been starting for the Bears this season it would have been considered a problem.
The Vikings defense is fast, aggressive and they like to blitz. A lot. They sacked Matthew Stafford a franchise record ten times in their Week 9 (24-9) victory over the Detroit Lions with six different players getting in on the action. By far their most dominant pass rusher is Danielle Hunter, the 6-foot 5 former track star and high jumper signed a huge extension with the Vikings in the offseason and has quickly got to work on earning his salary.
He’s recorded team highs for sacks (11.5), tackles for loss (13) and QB hits (15), he also recovered a fumble and returned it for a TD against the Lions. Hunter lines up on both edges and will be a handful all day for Charles Leno and Bobby Massie. Former Jet and Seahawk Sheldon Richardson also generates a lot of pressure up the middle and has recorded 12 QB hits so far this season.
The Vikings Defense is great on third down (led the NFL in third-down conversion %) so the Bears offense will need to ensure they keep themselves in manageable yardage situations.
The secondary has not looked like the force that it was in 2017. Andrew Sendejo has missed the last four games and Xavier Rhodes seems to be constantly on the injury report. Teams have gone after Trae Waynes who has given consistently allowed big plays to his side of the field. Looking at the defense across a span of games, their opponents have had success in taking the top off and running crossing routes, getting linebackers isolated on speedy receivers. There has also been some fairly suspect tackling in space by the defensive backs.
In terms of evaluating touchdowns conceded, several key themes emerge. The Vikings have most commonly allowed QB keepers (3), passes to TEs (3), passes to running backs and slot receivers (6). This seems to match up well with the Bears strengths offensively as over half of the Bears offensive touchdowns have come via these routes.
If this game turns out to be a tight one, as many believe it will be, then one factor that could sway things in the Vikings favor is their kicker. Dan Bailey was a surprising cut from Dallas Cowboys in pre-season and the Vikings were glad he was available when they cut fifth-round pick, Daniel Carlson. Carlson missed three field goals in the Vikings week 2 tied game at Lambeau Field and was immediately shown the door.
Bears kicker Cody Parkey missed four kicks last week against the Lions but still has a job. Had Bailey still been available, the Bears would probably have snapped him up. He is the second most accurate kicker in NFL history, whereas some fans doubt whether Parkey is even the most accurate kicker on the Bears roster…
This may not be a popular view but I believe Cody Parkey will address his issues and rebound. He certainly seems to have the support from his teammates and fans should get behind him too. A reliable kicker is vital to success in the NFL and the Bears will need Parkey to be on form and full of confidence if they’re to make a successful push towards post-season action.
This will, no doubt, be a big test for the Bears. In evaluating the performance of both teams on the season to date, there’s no reason to believe that the Bears shouldn’t be victorious. To stand the best chance of winning, they’ll need to:
- Dictate the tempo of the game on offense as they did successfully against the Lions.
- Find a way to keep Danielle Hunter quiet – he accounts for a third of their sacks. Given time, Mitchell Trubisky will find the holes in the Vikings secondary.
- Attack on Defense. The Vikings line is shaky, Cousin’s gets noticeably agitated by pressure and it affects his accuracy. The Bears have only one fewer sack than the Vikings but fourteen separate players have contributed to their total of thirty.
- Get an edge from a noisy home crowd. Turn up ready to turn it up Bears fans!
A win on Sunday will propel the Bears into winnable games against the Lions at Ford Field on Thanksgiving followed by the 2-7 Giants. The Vikings play the Packers, who will be smarting after their narrow defeat on Thursday, followed by tough road trips to Patriots and Seahawks.
Make no mistake, this game is huge for both teams in terms of position but also momentum. The time to take over the Division is now.
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Image: USA Today