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Vikings at Bears Week 11 Preview: Mack The Knife (And Other Sharp Weapons)

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The Bears have been one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 season. Can the Vikings slice their way to the top of the NFC North on Sunday night?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears
Khalil Mack is the most dangerous of the arsenal of weapons Chicago has this season.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Not gonna lie—I miss the old Chicago Bears.

For most of the past five years, the Minnesota Vikings haven’t had to worry all that much about their rivals just over 400 miles to the southeast. The Milquetoast of the Midway have brought up the caboose in the NFC North every season since Mike Zimmer took over. Chicago hasn’t won the division for seven years running. Soldier Field used to be a villainous vortex that vexed the Vikings from victory; now Minnesota is looking for its third win in four trips.

Sadly, the salad days of Jim Tressman and John Fox are long gone. Matt Nagy has the Bears playing some surprisingly good football in his first year as Head Coach. Throughout the season, I have been extremely hesitant to buy into Chicago being a serious contender for the NFC North crown. But now that we’re over halfway in and the Bears are sitting atop the standings, we’re pretty much forced to pay attention to them.

It’s no secret that General Manager Ryan Pace is attempting to copy the blueprint that has been so successful for teams like the Eagles, Rams, and Chiefs over the past couple years. The basic plan is simple: take a quarterback early in the first round. Give him an innovative coach that will cater to his strengths and hide his weaknesses. Surround him with as much top-end talent as possible while he’s on his rookie deal—since you aren’t paying top dollar at quarterback, you should have more to spend elsewhere. Finally, cross your fingers and hope your young signal caller develops quickly enough to make your team a contender before his next big payday. Of course, that’s much easier said than done; the current crop of rookie quarterbacks is going to need a lot more help if they want to follow in the footsteps of Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Patrick Mahomes. (Especially in the coaching department.) But after an extremely forgettable rookie campaign where Fox barely even took the training wheels off Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears might be onto something with their second year QB.

Before I begin any praise of one Mitchell David Trubisky, I must start with this: I still don’t really trust him. Has he made some impressive strides with better coaching and weapons surrounding him in his sophomore season? Absolutely. However, there have still been plenty of instances where the Bears have been succeeding in spite of their quarterback play. Trubisky is still very capable of some simply mind-numbing decisions and throws.

That atrocious pass came with a clean pocket; six of his seven interceptions this season have come without pressure. But it isn’t like Trubisky has excelled under duress. According to Pro Football Focus, his quarterback rating is 37.5 points worse and his adjusted completion percentage drops almost 20% when he’s pressured. Matthew Coller expertly broke down how Trubisky has struggled against the blitz. Steve Palazzolo pointed out that he has been one of the worst quarterbacks versus the blitz since 2015 according to PFF rating. Trubisky has been very fortunate that more of his ill-advised passes under pressure haven’t been picked off.

After racking up ten sacks with minimal blitzing in their last outing against the Lions, it appears that the Vikings defense should be poised to force Trubisky into plenty of bad decisions. Chicago’s offensive line is definitely a step up from Detroit though. Their line has the third highest pass blocking efficiency in the league and only the Saints have allowed fewer pressures according to PFF. (The Bears have allowed 62 total pressures compared to the Vikings’ league-worst 137.) However, losing Kyle Long to a foot injury two weeks ago will hinder a unit that has been otherwise healthy throughout the season.

If the Bears take a step back in their pass blocking, it could be a long day for Trubisky. Many of the sacks that Minnesota racked up in Week 9 were due to excellent pass coverage and the pre-snap deception we’ve come to know and love from Zimmer’s defense. This Danielle Hunter sack was set up by Harrison Smith flying back into deep coverage from the line of scrimmage just before the snap. The change in coverage took away Matthew Stafford’s primary read and allowed Hunter to swoop in. If the Vikings frustrated a veteran like Stafford so well, they should be able to confuse Trubisky too.

That said, the Lions just gave away their main target in the passing game; the Bears just got theirs back in the form of Allen Robinson. Trubisky had more yards last Sunday than the previous two games combined, both of which Robinson had missed. Remember that Trubisky praise I was talking about earlier? Here it comes. Take a look at how he has stacked up to Kirk Cousins statistically this season:

Trubisky vs. Cousins through 9 games

QB Comp % Total yds Total TD Total TO Rating QBR ANY/A
QB Comp % Total yds Total TD Total TO Rating QBR ANY/A
Trubisky 65.5 2,624 22 9 101.6 73.7 7.32
Cousins 71.3 2,765 18 11 102.2 65.1 6.87

I couldn’t believe how two quarterbacks with very different perceptions stacked up so similarly on the stat sheet. Of course, this is where the “lies, damned lies, and statistics” argument comes in. Am I trying to convince you that Trubisky has performed comparably to Cousins overall this season? Absolutely not. Trubisky’s stats have been padded by a few huge performances against lousy teams. Throwing for six touchdowns against a team that doesn’t have a real NFL defense helps counteract the fact that he has had a quarterback rating of under 85 in the majority of his games this season. Trubisky has looked pretty bad in a few games that Chicago still ended up winning because of their defense. But being in the same statistical ballpark as Cousins is a testament to how well Nagy has put his young quarterback in positions to succeed.

But even the most ingenious offensive minds can’t succeed without their players executing. Last week against Detroit was probably Trubisky’s best game of the season. Earlier in the year, Nagy was calling a lot of quick-read plays that didn’t call for Trubisky to go through many progressions with an occasional deep shot mixed in. When plays broke down, Trubisky usually tried to scramble his way out of it or try one of the aforementioned risky passes. Last week against Detroit, he largely stayed in the pocket and made some impressive downfield passes.

The Vikings still need to be wary of the Chicago quarterback using his legs; Trubisky has 320 yards and three scores on the ground this season. Tackling in space will be paramount against everyone on the Bears’ backfield. The running back duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen has combined for 37% of the team’s yards from scrimmage this season. Cohen is tied with Taylor Gabriel for the most receptions on the team and is second among all running backs in yards per route run. Tight end Trey Burton can create plenty of mismatches, especially in the red zone, where he already has four touchdowns. Again, this isn’t the annually anemic Bears offense we’ve grown accustomed to over the past handful of seasons. They have proven to be dangerous at times this season.

Now that we’re about 1,000 words in, I suppose we should talk about the really dangerous part of this Chicago Bears team—their defense. We’re practically mandated to start this conversation with Khalil Mack, an All-Pro in his prime that has pushed the Chicago defense from “very good” to “great” this season. We could go through all sorts of examples of Mack blowing up plays in the backfield, beating double teams, getting game-changing strip sacks, and being a general terror to opposing offenses, but you’re probably aware of that already. Mack has rightfully heeded a lot of headlines with his heft of highlights. You have likely seen the play where he plowed through two Detroit blockers to sack Stafford about 100 times this week. Since Mack plays a lot of snaps at each end of the line, both Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill have a monumental task in front of them on Sunday night. Their play needs to be all that and a bag of chips (literally, from extra blockers) to even stand a chance against Mack.

While you obviously have to account for Mack on every snap, ignore the rest of this Bears defense at your own peril. After watching Vic Fangio’s defense this season, I’m not sure there’s a single facet of it you can point to and say “there’s a definite weak point that an opposing offense could exploit.” They’re pretty damn good across the board, which is why Chicago is near the top of nearly any statistical or analytical category. They’re fourth in yards allowed, second in takeaways, and second in points allowed per drive. They have allowed only two rushing touchdowns on 3.6 yards per carry, both league bests. Pro Football Focus has them as the top ranked run, coverage, and overall defense. Football Outsiders has them as the top ranked defense in DVOA by a pretty healthy margin. There are dangerous players you need to account for all over the field. Andrew Krammer showed that the entire Bears front seven can antagonize offenses with a variety of fronts and disruptive players. While Mack gets most of the publicity, Akiem Hicks remains one of the best unheralded players in the NFL. Run defense is where Hicks really excels; he consumes more large bodies than Galactus and still manages to make a ton of plays.

Establishing the run will be extremely crucial for both teams, although it may prove to be extremely difficult. Both defenses have been excellent against the run this season. Conversely, the run blocking of both offenses has left a lot to be desired, especially with Minnesota. The Vikings could really miss David Morgan this week. The only team that has had much success on the ground against the Bears this season has been the Dolphins, who used a lot of trap blocking on north/south runs with Frank Gore to get chunks of yards. If Morgan can’t go on Sunday night, the degree of difficulty of pulling off plays like this to open space for Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray increases.

Running the ball effectively could keep Chicago’s potent pass rush at bay while keeping their opportunistic secondary guessing. It sounds like Stefon Diggs will be back after missing the last game with a rib injury. Adam Thielen was limited on Wednesday, but he has also had a week to rest after seeing a season-low 45 snaps against the Lions. Even with their full compliment of wide receivers, the Vikings may find it difficult to enjoy their usual prosperity through the air. Bryce Callahan is one of the best slot corners in the league. Kyle Fuller is making his new 4-year, $56 million contract seem like a great investment. Prince Amukamara is still solid. Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos are among the better safety tandems in the NFL. Veteran Danny Trevathan remains a presence in the middle and eighth overall pick Roquan Smith is making more of an impact each week. Again, if you’re trying to find an obvious vulnerability on this Chicago defense, you might have better luck finding Waldo or Carmen Sandiego.

The good news for Vikings fans? The vulnerabilities in Minnesota’s defense are starting to disappear as well. As Arif wrote last week, the Vikings have cleaned up some of the major areas of concern that were plaguing them for the first month-plus of the season. They’re getting healthier too. We won’t know more about their status until later in the week, but eventually getting players like Anthony Barr, Andrew Sendejo, and Xavier Rhodes back to full strength can only help their ascendancy. If the Vikings can match the Bears when it comes to consistency and big plays on defense, I like their chances.

This game has all the makings of coming down to the wire. If it does, the Vikings might actually have an advantage in the kicking game. Cody Parkey hit the goalpost so many times last week that he should be making Dude Perfect videos. Then again, Mason Crosby won Special Teams Player of the Week after his disaster against Detroit, so you never know. The Bears have also duped the Vikings on several special teams plays in recent years; I would very much appreciate Mike Priefer preparing his charges for any fakes in a game where points could be at a premium.

Detractors of the Bears can point to the fact that they haven’t beaten a team that has a winning record yet. But guess what? Neither have the Vikings. This is a “prove it” game on many levels for each squad. The winner of this game will earn a huge advantage in the NFC playoff picture while the loser will be sent back to the Wild Card pack. The Bears have exceeded expectations and shown that they’re a force to be reckoned with. But they haven’t faced a defense like Minnesota’s yet. The Vikings are rested, getting healthier, and playing their best overall football of the season. I shudder at the thought of what the Bears defense might do to Minnesota’s shaky front line, especially if they jump out to an early lead. Hopefully John DeFilippo has been hard at work coming up with ways to neutralize some of Chicago’s strengths over the past two weeks. On the other side of the ball, I have faith that Zimmer and George Edwards will scheme up ways to make “Bad Mitch” appear and force a couple crucial mistakes.

For those of you that might not be hip to ditties from the late 50’s, the title of this article is a reference to a classic song about an anti-hero that meant trouble for anyone that crossed his path. In order to stop Chicago’s version of Mack the Knife—and the rest of their weapons on both sides of the ball—the Vikings will need to bring all of their big guns to this knife fight. I think this one will be closely contested and far from pretty at times, which is basically the modus operandi when these two teams get together at Soldier Field. In the end, I think the Vikings will escape Chicago as the new leaders in the North.

It’s time to unleash the fury on Mitch.

Prediction

Vikings 23, Bears 20


And now for the rest of my Week 11 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Packers over SEAHAWKS

I’d love for Seattle to put Green Bay back into a downward spiral, but I don’t think they will. I guess the Vikings will have to pull a Pedro Cerrano and do it themselves next week instead.

FALCONS over Cowboys

Flip a coin on this one. It seems to be what each of these teams do before kickoff to decide whether or not they’re going to be any good every week.

RAVENS over Bengals

Baltimore is in turmoil up to its ears, but do you think I’m going to pick a team that just willingly hired Hue Jackson? Plus we might get Lamar Jackson, and you know how I feel about quarterbacks out of Louisville.

Panthers over LIONS

It certainly seems like Detroit is heading to the post office with the remainder of their 2018 season, doesn’t it? That’s why I’m making this one my Survivor Pool pick, now 7-3 on the season after Philly pooped the bed at home against Dallas last week.

COLTS over Titans

I’m 2-7 picking Titans games this year, so congratulations in advance to Tennessee on their third straight win.

GIANTS over Buccaneers

How the hell do you get over 500 yards of offense and end up with only three freaking points? Only the Bucs!

Steelers over JAGUARS

Congratulations to Le’Veon Bell for officially becoming the football version of that guy from the office that somehow just took a year-long sabbatical to backpack across Europe. You’re not sure how he’s pulling it off both financially and logistically, but deep down you’re kind of jealous that he’s able to do it.

Texans over REDSKINS

The stat of the week that has been going around is the fact that Washington hasn’t had a single lead change yet this season. With the boring brand of football they’re playing, I’m just fine with enforcing sudden death in the first quarter of this one.

CHARGERS over Broncos

Is there anything worse in fantasy football than drafting a Denver running back? I feel like no position on any single team has tortured more of us over the past decade. Every year it seems like the guy you drafted too early gets hurt or buried on the bench while some other jerk in your league picks up the actual good Denver running back that you had never heard of until he scored 28 points against you in Week 3. I hate fantasy football.

CARDINALS over Raiders

No thanks. I’m good.

SAINTS over Eagles

It appears that reports of the Eagles’ demise may have been greatly...accurate. [Lets out quiet Dr. Evil laugh]

RAMS over Chiefs (in Mexico LA)

Turns out that playing on the field that looks like Bane just got done with it might not be the greatest idea. The fact that a Shakira concert left the Azteca Stadium turf in shambles is high comedy. But Whenever, Wherever this game is played, it should be an amazing shootout.

Last week: 8-6
Season so far: 93-53-2