With last Sunday's win at the Metrodome over the Arizona Cardinals, the Minnesota Vikings have once again raised hopes that this season will not end up on the scrap heap. Coming up is a good test of whether the late-game rally against Arizona was a one-off or the start of something good-the Chicago Bears. The Bears, while not stunningly great, are a good test because if the Vikings are going save their season they need to be able to win in the NFC North.
Lovie Smith's 2010 Chicago Bears are a better team than they were a year ago. During the off-season there were upgrades on the roster and the coaching staff with the intention that Jay Culter would become as effective as they hoped when they acquired him from the Denver Broncos. However, since Cutler's line has been somewhat shaky in 2010 the Vikings defense may be able to continue their rediscovered love for pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Nope, the upgrade I'm most concerned about for Sunday's game isn't on Chicago's offense, it's defensive end Julius Peppers.
When the Vikings played the Carolina Panthers last season at Bank of America Stadium, they lost 7-26. I remember December 20, 2009's loss with unusual vividness because my sister had just brought my beautiful newborn niece home from the hospital and this was baby girl's very first Vikings game. We put the baby Helga horns on Rookie (being a newborn is no reason not to show your horns) and sat down to watch the game. Unfortunately, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers pushed Bryant McKinnie around at will, severely limiting Brett Favre*. The game was so bad that at times I had to cover Rookie's eyes. It's just a good thing Rookie, being a newborn, slept through most of the football game and was probably not tainted by the experience.
I, however, was not so lucky. The vision of Julius Peppers smiling on the sideline after rushing through the Vikings' offensive line, getting to the quarterback, and stalling a Vikings offensive drive is one that tends to stay with a person. After the game, I read an interview with former Vikings quarterback, Tommy Kramer. He said the way Peppers pushed McKinnie around it looked like McKinnie was on roller skates. I had to agree with Kramer, Peppers pushed McKinnie around so efficiently it really did make you want to check McKinnie's footwear for wheels.
So, you might imagine the dread I felt when I heard that the Chicago Bears had signed Julius Peppers in free agency and the Vikings would now have to face him twice a season.
While Peppers is credited with only two sacks in 2010, he does have 20 tackles, two forced fumbles, and one interception. It's possible that because Chicago's defense has put such emphasis on stripping the ball, Peppers will be playing McKinnie differently from the way he played him last season. But that's probably just wishful thinking on my part.
No, for the Vikings offense to sustain last week's success, they need to protect quarterback Brett Favre-it isn't rocket science, but if they were doing it consistently, we wouldn't talk about it every week. The offensive line struggled early in the season with different players at center nearly every week, but, for the last few weeks, John Sullivan has started at center providing more continuity. With the Vikings trying to save their season and reasserting themselves as a contender in the NFC North, Favre's pass protection needs to give him time to connect with receivers again the way he did last week against the Arizona Cardinals when he passed for 446 yards.
Frequently noted for uneven performance, 6'8" 335lb Bryant McKinnie has teased us since 2002 with flashes of the kind of solid play that got him voted to the Pro Bowl last season and justifies keeping him on the roster. Following last year's loss to Carolina and his poor performance against Peppers, McKinnie took a lot of criticism, rightly so, and used it to motivate himself to play better. I'm hoping that this year the motivation comes before he faces Peppers rather than after. Considering the state Brett Favre is in with an injured elbow, a fractured left foot, and stitches in his chin, the last thing he, or the Vikings offense, need is another injury or set-back.
It probably isn't fair to single out Bryant McKinnie when the offensive line as a whole has struggled this season. Phil Loadholt and Visanthe Shiancoe have both been penalized for holding, Adrian Peterson and Naufahu Tahi have struggled in blitz pick up, and, like I mentioned before, there has practically been a revolving door at center. However, fair or not, if McKinnie has Julius Peppers lining up against him, he's the one who will get credit for if Peppers runs untouched through the line and Favre ends up staring into his smiling face.
So tonight, as the snow falls gently, I'm going to hope that my sister dresses Rookie in her Vikings gear for tomorrow's game and that this match-up between McKinnie and Peppers goes much better than it did last season. Unlike Rookie, I remember it too well.
*I believe that was the game where Brad Childress wanted to take Favre out when it was clear the Vikings wouldn't be able to win, thinking to prevent the starting quarterback from injury. Favre, being Favre, refused.