Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears – Week 2 Preview

Week 2 – Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears

Part 2 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season

 

After a tough Week 1 win, the Chicago Bears now face their first divisional game of the season. The Bears are 5-1 against the Minnesota Vikings over the last three seasons, and they hope that trend continues.

Being Marc Trestman’s first divisional game, he will want to start off strong, especially at home. The Bears have had one game to test out their new offense, and now one week to work out the kinks.

The Vikings finished 10-6 last season, beating out the Bears for the last wild-card playoff spot. Adrian Peterson carried the team, nearly setting the NFL record for most rushing yards in a season, all coming off an ACL injury that kept him out of the preseason. Quarterback Christian Ponder was mediocre in his second season, but he did show improvement from the year before. To help him develop, the team signed Green Bay Packers‘ wide receiver Greg Jennings, and used a first-round pick on wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson this offseason.

 

Key Matchups

Vikings DE Jared Allen versus Bears LT Jermon Bushrod

Jared Allen has been a dominant pass-rusher his whole career, getting to the Pro Bowl five of the last six years. While his overall tackle numbers have been down, he’s maintained double-digit sacks the last six seasons, and at age 31, still has a few solid seasons left in him.

The Bears signed Bushrod this offseason to solidify the left tackle spot that was previously manned by J’Marcus Webb. He comes over from New Orleans where current Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was his offensive line coach. He did a fantastic job protecting the blind side of Drew Breesbut is known to be a slightly better run-blocker than pass-blocker.

This won’t be the first time Bushrod and Allen faced off. They met in both 2010 and 2011, and Bushrod didn’t allow a single sack and limited Allen to four tackles. As terrific a pass-rusher as Allen is, Bushrod seems to have had his number in the past. Still, it’s tough to bet against Jared Allen, and given the inexperience of the new Bears offense, in the matchup, the advantage goes to Allen. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bushrod handle him given their history.

Vikings CBs Chris Cook and Josh Robinson versus Bears WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery

Chris Cook is the lone returning starter, while Josh Robinson takes over for the departed Antoine Winfield. The group as a whole struggled in 2012, so the team used a first-round pick on Xavier Rhodes, who is currently the team’s nickelback.

Cook and Robinson had a tough task defending Calvin Johnson in their week-1 loss to the Detroit Lions. Johnson was held to just four catches for 37 yards, although he did drop a sure-fire touchdown.

Marshall and Alshon Jeffery both had good games in the Bears’ week-1 win, with Marshall corralling eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. Jeffery caught five passes for 42 yards. Marshall is an elite receiver, while Jeffery is coming into his own as an NFL receiver. The two are a tough assignment for any opposing corner, just for their size alone. Robinson is only 5’10”, so he could struggle with Marshall and Jeffery who are both 6’4″. But Cook is 6’2″ and has the size to matchup with bigger receivers.

Vikings RB Adrian Peterson versus Bears Front Seven

Adrian Peterson is a freak of nature. He tore his ACL in December of 2011, and was somehow ready to play week one of 2012. Nobody expected him to be very effective right away following an injury of that magnitude, but he proved everyone wrong by rushing for the second most yards in a season in NFL history.

The Bears front seven has some new faces this year. Linebackers James Anderson and D.J. Williams have replaced Nick Roach and future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher. The defensive line is relatively the same, with the only changes coming in the rotational players. This group has always had a great balance of coverage and pass-rushing ability. They have, however, struggled against the run at times.

In the first game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bears held running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to just 25 yards on 14 carries, but the group did look shaky at times. Meanwhile, Peterson started off his season with a 78-yard touchdown run, and finished with 93 yards and two rushing touchdowns against the Lions.

Peterson is a monster and can make even the best defenders look silly. He averaged over six yards per carry last season, and no defense was able to slow him down. In this matchup, Peterson has the advantage. He rushed for over 100 yards in both games against the Bears last season, and now, fully healthy, he’s primed to have another great season.

 

Biggest Questions

Will Christian Ponder be good enough to make the Bears respect the Vikings’ passing game?

Last season, Ponder was unimpressive. He threw for just under 3000 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, ranking 31st, 25th and eighth, respectively. While the low interception total was promising, the team showed its lack of confidence in him by signing quarterback Matt Cassel to be his backup. The feeling around the league is that the Vikings are not afraid to bench Ponder for Cassel if he struggles.

Ponder’s struggles allow opposing defenses to focus most of their attention on Peterson and the running game. Obviously, it didn’t affect Peterson that much, but if Ponder had been better, it makes you wonder if Peterson could have broken the record.

Regardless, a better passing attack is always better for the running game, and vice versa. With defenses focusing on No. 28, Ponder’s receivers should be more open, but he needs to be more accurate.

If Ponder does improve, the Bears will be forced to drop more players back in coverage, making it easier for Peterson to run all over them. If he stays stagnant, the Bears will stack the box. It’s that simple.

Will the Bears be able to slow down Adrian Peterson?

Peterson showed that he was the best running back in the NFL last season. There was just no stopping him. He can be slowed down, but never stopped. The Bears need to find a way to minimize his effectiveness to force Ponder to throw the ball. It is a group effort to stop Peterson, and the Bears will need everyone to step up.

The defensive line needs to read and react quickly on every play. They cannot just pin their ears back and pass-rush, because they need to watch Peterson at all times. They also need to fight through their blocks and get to Peterson. The Vikings’ offensive line is solid, but not exceptional. They’re weakest at the guard spots, so the Bears’ defensive tackles need to power through and get to Peterson in the backfield.

The linebackers must also be on their toes. The play may call for them to drop back into zone, but if Ponder hands the ball off, they must switch into attack mode and get to the ball carrier. The situation in the secondary is much the same as the linebackers. The play the defense calls will usually have them back in coverage, but if Peterson gets the ball, they need to go after him.

Last but not least, the Bears defense needs to actually tackle Adrian Peterson. He was tied for the lead in broken tackles last season, breaking a tackle on over 11% of his touches (Football Outsiders). When the first player gets to Peterson, he needs to wrap him up and bring him down. If he can’t wrap him up, he at least needs to significantly slow him down, enough for a second player to reach him and make the tackle. The Bears were very sloppy with their tackles in their first game against the Bengals, and it must improve if they hope to stop Peterson.

Will the Bears offensive line be able to protect Cutler from the Vikings’ pass-rushers?

The Bears must protect Cutler in order for the team to be successful. Plain and simple. For the second week in a row, this offensive line will face a tough test. Last week they were able to keep him well protected, not allowing a single sack. The Vikings defensive line generated 35.5 sacks last season. They retained the entire group and used a first round pick on defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd from Florida.

Kevin Williams missed the Vikings’ first game with a knee injury, and his status for this game is still up in the air. His presence on the defensive line is important to the unit, although Fred Evans had a good game against the Lions in his expanded role from the injury. Between Williams, Evans, Floyd, and other starter Letroy Guion, Bears’ rookie guard Kyle Long will have another test week two.

Long isn’t the only Bears lineman who faces stiff competition; the aforementioned Bushrod faces Allen, and rookie right tackle Jordan Mills will be up against Brian Robinson, who was second on the team in sacks with 8.5. In addition, the Vikings third, rotational defensive end Everson Griffen joined in the fun with 8 sacks. So even when a starter leaves the field for a breather, the Bears’ line will still face tough pass-rushers.

It is critical that the Bears protect Cutler from these great pass-rushers so the offense can run like it is supposed to. Otherwise the Bears could be in for a long day. They showed how successful the offense can be when Cutler is protected; now they need to duplicate it.

 

Team Comparison

Offense

A lot of the team’s comparison comes down to the quarterback. Most would agree that Cutler is superior to Ponder, and it is the quarterback that often determines the effectiveness of the offensive weapons. Even the best receivers cannot make plays if the quarterback cannot get them the ball proficiently. While Ponder is far from completely inept, he has struggled at times. That can neutralize the effectiveness of the receivers.

What helps Ponder immensely is having Peterson in the backfield, making it easier for receivers to get open and easier for Ponder to make plays for reasons previously discussed. Also, the Bears and Vikings have similarly talented offensive lines, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Aside from quarterback, these two offenses are at nearly the same level.

Defense

Both the Vikings and the Bears have formidable pass rushes, although both were only able to generate one sack during their week one games. The two team’s groups actually have a lot of parallels, each with one big-time DE, a solid DE opposite of them, a third DE who makes a solid rotational impact, an extremely talented three-technique DT, and a good but not great nose tackle.

The Vikings ran the majority of their week one defensive snaps out of the nickel formation, utilizing rookie Rhodes as often as possible. This in-turn relies on mostly only two linebackers instead of three. Both defenses have solid veteran players manning the middle of the field, with Pro Bowls from each group. In the secondary, the Bears Pro Bowl corners trump the Vikings’ duo, although neither group played exceptionally well week one. The safeties of both teams are young and upcoming, and both are improving yet again this season.

Defensively, these teams are quite similar. Neither group is significantly better than other. Both groups have been successful in the past and are continuing it this year. Neither offense will have it easy in this game.

 Special Teams

Blair Walsh of the Vikings is regarded as one of the best young kickers in the league. He hit 92-percent of his field-goals including 10 for 10 on kicks of 50 yards or more. The Vikings used a fifth-round pick this past offseason on punter Jeff Locke. He was considered one of the best punters in the draft, and so far he has looked pretty good.

The Bears have their own powerful punter-kicker pair. Adam Podlesh had a fantastic week one game, pinning the Bengals inside their own 15 yardline three times, crippling their offense. Meanwhile, Robbie Gould set a Chicago Bears record with a 58-yard field goal. Both are on top of their games.

The biggest special teams story to watch is Devin Hester, who has had four return touchdowns against the Vikings in his career, three punts and one kickoff. The Bengals didn’t allow Hester to make many returns week one, but the Vikings have been more confident kicking to him in years past. If he can return one for a touchdown in this game, it will greatly shift the outcome in the Bears’ favor.

The Vikings have their own formidable kick returners in Marcus Sherels and Cordarrelle Patterson. Both had return touchdowns last season, although Patterson’s was as a collegiate player with Tennessee. Now in the NFL, he’s the Vikings’ kickoff returner, and his explosive play seems to have translated well. Both teams’ returns have the ability to take a kick all the way in an instant, and a big play by either teams’ returners could have a massive impact on the game.

 

Conclusions

The Bears are a much improved team offensively from last season, and with this game now their second with the new offense, they have a pretty good idea what to do to be successful. All the Bears need to do is score quickly and force the Vikings to play catch up. When the Vikings are losing, they are forced to go to the passing game to catch up, reducing Peterson’s effectiveness and forcing Ponder to make plays that he does not appear to be capable of making consistently.

For the Vikings, they need to get Adrian Peterson going early and control the clock. If they can get a few long drives going and build a lead, Jay Cutler may begin to start forcing the ball a little more and being more risky, possibly leading to turnovers. The Bears were faced with that situation week one, trailing by 11 mid-way through the third quarter, but Cutler was able to keep his calm and lead the team back for the win. Every circumstance is different though, and who knows how quickly he could go back to old habits when the pressure is on.

The Bears are favored to win this game, but the Vikings certainly have a chance. This will in no way be easy for Marc Trestman and company. Both teams need to be on top of their games, and fans should get a pretty good show on Sunday.

 

Game Prediction: Minnesota Vikings 13 – Chicago Bears 24