The Minnesota Vikings’ 2011 season is bruised and battered. An 0-4 start bled out what confidence they had before the campaign began, but a resounding victory against the Arizona Cardinals last week left a sliver of hope shining through what was considered a closed window of opportunity.
The odds may not be in their favor, but another win this week will move them one step closer towards becoming only the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 0-4.
This weekend, the Vikings head to Soldier Field to take on their NFC North rivals, the Chicago Bears. With both teams slumping so far this season, it will be a big test to see whose season is still alive and who will soon be playing for pride.
For the Vikings, this game will be a perfect gauge of whether there’s any hope left in the arm of quarterback Donovan McNabb. Although the Bears aren’t exactly pushovers of the defensive side of the ball, they are 27th in the NFL in passing defense. They’ve given up passing performances of 319, 270, 297, 374 and 219 yards, averaging 284 passing yards allowed per game. If those numbers aren’t enough to give the Vikings offense some optimism, the fact that the Bears have only intercepted four passes might.
To make matters even worse, it’s very possible that the Bears could be without their All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers, who’s dealing with a sprained MCL. Tagged with a “doubtful” status, Peppers probably won’t see the field. Even if he does play, it’s more than likely that he won’t be his usually self. And with a defense that has only racked up nine total sacks on the season, the potential loss of their best pass rusher could be a huge blow.
If Peppers can’t go on Sunday night, the Bears will insert Nick Reed into the lineup as his replacement. Although Reed played in all sixteen of the Seattle Seahawks’ games last year as a rookie, he has had a minimal impact so far in 2011 for the Bears. Despite playing in all five games this season, he has only racked up three total tackles while providing Peppers with the occasionally breather. Considering that the Bears will already be breaking in two new safeties, the last thing they need is more fresh meat out on the field.
In hopes of alleviating their coverage woes, the Bears’ defensive coaches have decided to do a little mix and matching when the Vikings come to town. Whether it’s a desperation attempt or a genuine, talent-based switch, I highly doubt that a struggling secondary needs to be nurturing new blood.
Adding insult to injury, the Bears have swapped out their two starting safeties for two players who have a combined three starts in the NFL. Starters Brandon Meriweather and Chris Harris will ride the bench as second-year player Major Wright and rookie Chris Conte take the field in their places. Despite the fact that Wright flashed some playmaking abilities last season, Conte has yet to prove that he’s capable of being a serviceable NFL starter. He’s raw and could prove to be a liability for the Bears’ defensive backfield.
Enough about the Bears, though.
This is a big opportunity for the Vikings to gain some momentum as well as some confidence if they can take advantage of the Bears’ defensive shortcomings. The passing game has been far from impressive this season. Five weeks in, they are 31st in the NFL with 155.8 yards per game, all thanks to the subpar passing performances of McNabb.
Whether it has been an unwillingness to throw deep or a fixation with throwing at his receivers’ feet, McNabb hasn’t been the playmaking signal-caller that the Vikings were hoping for when they traded for him back in July. His mechanics have also come into question, but I think the Vikings’ coaching staff has finally come to the conclusion that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
If McNabb and the Vikings have any hope of salvaging what remains of this season, the passing attack will need to soar to new heights against Chicago. McNabb will need to stop throwing at the ground and his receivers will need to find better ways to get open against this patchwork secondary. If they can effectively move the ball through the air on their way to a victory, enough confidence could be mustered to put up a fight next week against the Green Bay Packers.