Week 13 – Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Part 13 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season
The Chicago Bears head to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in the second of their divisional matchups. The Bears came away with a win the first time around, but only after some late-game heroics by Martellus Bennett. They are now 6-5 and in the hunt for the division title. The Bears need to a win here to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Bears will once again feature Josh McCown as Jay Cutler recovers from an ankle injury, but that has not slowed the Bears offense much at all. It is their defense that they should be worried about, a problem that hasn’t existed in Chicago in quite some time.
The Minnesota Vikings on the other hand are 2-8-1, coming off of a tie with the Green Bay Packers. They were formidable in the first game between these two, and they are certainly looking to get the win on their home turf. They may be out of the playoffs, but that shouldn’t stop them from getting motivated for a big divisional game. This Vikings’ team has been consistently inconsistent, with the exception of the ever-steady Adrian Peterson. While a win in this game would not have much impact on their season, it would be a moral victory that means a lot against a division rival.
Bears Run Defense versus Vikings RB Adrian Peterson
The Bears’ defense has really failed to stop runningbacks this season. They have allowed a 100-yard rusher in five of their last six games, including the last four straight. Runningbacks have had huge holes to run through, and they have had poor tackling to avoid. A big issue for this defense has been injuries, as they have been missing their top three defensive tackles and two starting linebackers, but that still does not excuse their horrendous performances. Even the healthy players have been making bad reads and taking poor angles, displaying a lack of discipline. They are going to need to be on top of their game if they hope to slow down Adrian Peterson.
Coming off of a big game against the Packers, Peterson is going to be roaring to go against the Bears. He is having another excellent season, on pace for 1,450 yards and nearly 15 touchdowns. Only one team, the New York Giants, has been able to keep him under 60 yards in a game. When these two teams played the first time, Peterson rushed for exactly 100 yards on a little under four yards per carry. If the Bears want to come away with another win, they need to hold him to another similar performance. If they allow him to have a big game, it is going to be really tough to come out on top.
Bears TE Martellus Bennett versus Vikings Linebackers and Safeties
Another player who had a big game in the first matchup between these two teams is Martellus Bennett, who had seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings’ defense had no answer for him, as four of his catches went for 15 or more yards. He provided a valuable target over the middle for Cutler, while opening up the outside for Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. That was one of Bennett’s best games of the season, and another big one would be great for the Bears’ offense.
The Vikings’ defense has had to make some lineup changes of their own since these two teams first played. Safety Harrison Smith is on injured reserve while his backup has a foot injury, linebacker Erin Henderson is dealing with personal issues, and two of their top three cornerbacks have both missed some practice this week and are in danger of not playing. Their banged up defense has to do a better job of containing Bennett to give themselves a better chance to win.
Bears Special Teams versus Vikings Special Teams
Rarely is there a game where both team’s special teams will be so talked about. It’s rare that two teams with great kick returners face off, so when they do, it makes every kickoff and punt all the more important. Both Devin Hester and Cordarrelle Patterson have been dynamic returners, and every opposing special teams unit has to be on top of their game on every return to prevent a big play.
Hester seems to have found the return man “mojo” that he has been lacking over the last few seasons. The Bears decided to have him play only special teams this season, and it helped him regain his focus. Although recently, they have had him doing some defensive back drills at practice. He is sixth in the league in yards per kickoff return and 11th in the league in yards per punt return. He is one of only 10 players with a punt return touchdown this season, and he has gotten very close to the endzone on multiple kickoffs. Hester has not been as dominant as he was when he was younger, but he has been very effective.
Patterson, on the other hand, leads the league in yards per kickoff return and has two return touchdowns. He has broken some huge returns, and he has found a way to contribute in a number of different ways. Marcus Sherels handles the punt returns for the Vikings, and he has been very good as well. He is in the top five in the league in yards per punt return, and he too has found the endzone on a return. Both Sherels and Patterson, like Hester, are threats to score on every kick, and both special teams units have to really play well to keep the opponent’s returner under control.
Will Christian Ponder put together another strong game?
The highly criticized Christian Ponder has been really up and down this season. Last week against the Packers was one of his good days. He was 21 of 30 for 233 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks earlier, against the Washington Redskins, Ponder went 17 for 21, good for 81-percent, for 174 yards and two touchdowns on route to a win. Other games he has been really bad, such as two weeks ago against the Seattle Seahawks, in which he only 13 for 22 for 122 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. For Ponder, it has been a season of highs and lows.
One thing that seems to correlate with his success is the play of Adrian Peterson. In that game against the Packers, Peterson had 146 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries. His great running opens up the secondary for Ponder and makes the throws much easier for him. In the Seattle game though, Peterson had only 3.1 yards per carry – only 65 yards on 21 carries. With Adrian struggling, the Vikings relied on Ponder to move the offense, which made it much harder for him to throw. Ponder is far from a great passer, and he needs all the help he can get to play well.
The Vikings need to have another nice game from Ponder if they want to win, which means they need a big game from Peterson too. The Bears’ defense has been struggling, so this game should provide an opportunity for him to do so. If he can’t, the Vikings may opt for another quarterback once again.
Can the Bears generate a pass-rush against a weak Vikings’ offensive line?
The Bears’ pass rush has really regressed this season after overachieving last year. Their defense is 30th in the league in sacks with only 19 as a team. They really have failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and it has been a big reason for their defensive failures as a whole. Passers have had all day to throw, allowing them to tear up the Bears’ secondary. Getting their pass rush back on track in this game would go a long way, especially as the Bears’ defensive line gets healthier.
The Vikings’ offensive line has not been very good in pass protection recently. They have allowed eight sacks on Christian Ponder over the last two games. Injuries have forced them to make a few changes along the line recently, but the five players they started last week were the same five players that started week one. They need to be on top of their game to make sure that Ponder has time to throw and keep the offense moving.
Can the Bears’ defense stop the bleeding?
The Bears’ defense has been really bad as of late. Over the last three games the Bears have allowed 83 points and 577 rushing yards. That’s more rushing yards allowed than passing (548 passing yards). Because opponents have been able to rush so effectively, they have not had to throw as much. When they do throw however, it is much more deadly because the defense is so focused on trying to stop the run.
It makes for a dangerous combination when this defense faces Adrian Peterson. It is easy, relatively speaking, for him to have a big game against any defense, let alone one struggling as much as the Bears’. If he plays well, it will most likely mean that Ponder plays well, which would only help Peterson play even better. If the defense is on their heels all game again, it is going to be tough for the Bears to come out on top.
The inconsistencies of Ponder along with the recent potency of Josh McCown make the Bears’ quarterback situation the more desirable of the two by far. Runningback is a different situation, as the ever-dominant Adrian Peterson is still the consensus top rusher in the league. Matt Forte has been very good, however. The wide receiver position swings back in favor of the Bears because of their league-leading duo of Marshall and Jeffery. Jerome Simpson of the Vikings is quietly having a strong season though.
Injuries have hindered the Vikings at the tight end position as Kyle Rudolph has battled a foot injury. John Carlson has been decent in place of him, but the Bears’ Bennett has been the more dynamic and poignant player. The offensive line issues of the Vikings have been well discussed, while the Bears’ offensive line has been the most solid and consistent it has been in years. They get the advantage there as well.
Conversely, the Bears’ defensive line struggles were thoroughly displayed, while the Vikings’ line has been pretty good. They have not been spectacular, but they have been respectable. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ linebackers have really had some issues. Pro Football Focus has their Chad Greenway rated as the worst 4-3 outside linebacker in the league, and the aforementioned Erin Henderson is having issues of his own. The Bears have been forced to start two rookies at linebacker due to injuries, but they have performed fairly well, all things considered.
Injuries have given both teams issues at the cornerback position. Charles Tillman is on injured reserve for the Bears, while Xavier Rhodes, Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, and A.J. Jefferson have all battled injuries, and three of the four have missed one or more games this year. The Bears have had the one reliable player in Tim Jennings, though. The safety position for both teams have had similar situations. The Bears have yielded the same two starters all season, but both have struggled greatly. There is a chance that Major Wright misses this game, however. For the Vikings, Harrison Smith is on injured reserve and Jamarca Sanford has been injured at times too. Neither team’s secondaries have been much to boast about.
Robbie Gould and Blair Walsh have been two of the best kickers in the league this year, both connecting on over 90-percent of the field goals and coming in clutch for their respective teams. Punters draw a more distant comparison, as the Vikings’ Jeff Locke has been much better than the Bears’ Adam Podlesh, who is near the bottom of the league in yards per punt. The two kick returners will play a big role in this game, and neither is significantly better than the other.
This game will be only the second time Marc Trestman has faced the same team twice in the season. His first opportunity in a rematch resulted in a second loss to the same opponent, the Detroit Lions, although the second game was a closer one. After narrowly escaping with a win during these two team’s first game, it will be important to see if Trestman makes any key adjustments. The team he has on the field for this game will be a much different looking group, almost entirely due to injuries, and the team he sees across from him will show some changes as well.
These two teams put on quite the show last time, and it is fair to expect nothing less in this one. They are both full of explosive, big-play competitors that should provide an entertaining game, regardless of the outcome. The Vikings are clear out of the playoff race and looking to play spoiler to the Bears, who need every win they can get if they hope to reach the postseason. With the Lions winning on Thursday, the Bears need this win to keep up in the divisional race. The Vikings will do everything in their power to prevent that.
Game Prediction: Chicago Bears 30 – Minnesota Vikings 24