This Sunday at Chicago will be the next real challenge for the Vikings offense as a unit. For the Vikings defense, it’s a chance to show they’re the better defense on the field - a battle among the top defenses in the league the past two years.
For coach Mike Zimmer, the challenge is to get his team ready to rumble Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, and prove they’re the tougher, more physical, and talented football team.
Both teams want to win the same way: tough defense, dominant ground game, winning the turnover battle.
Last year, the Bears came out on top in both games largely by winning the battle in the trenches - particularly the Bears’ defensive line against the Vikings offensive line.
Will that change?
Looking at the Recent Past
Looking back to the Vikings-Bears match-ups last season, it’s hard to get past how badly the Vikings offensive line struggled against the top Bears defensive front.
In the first match-up at Solder Field, the Vikings rushed the ball a total of 14 times for 22 yards. Dalvin Cook had 9 carries for 12 yards. They lost that game 25-20. Both teams had 3 turnovers, and Cousins was sacked twice, going 30/46 for 262 yards, 2 INTs and 2 TDs.
The Bears ran the ball 39 times for 148 yards, and Trubisky had 165 yards passing on 31 attempts, 1 TD, 2 INTs for a 61.9 passer rating. The Bears dominated time of possession, holding the ball 9 minutes longer than the Vikings. Both teams were very similar on 3rd/4th down conversions.
The problem was that the Vikings offensive drives started out like this: punt, fumble, punt, punt, interception, punt.
It wasn’t until the end of the 3rd quarter before they scored - a field goal. At that point it was 14-3. The Vikings attempted to rally after that, but it was never really close - the last Vikings touchdown- making it 25-20- came with 48 seconds left in the game.
That game was similar in some respects to the Monday night game the Bears played at Washington, where they got off to a sizable lead in the first half, largely on the strength of their defensive takeaways, and coasted through the second half to a fairly easy victory, 31-15. The Redskins had 5 turnovers, ran the ball 21 times compared to throwing it 43 times.
Looking back on these games is instructive to seeing how the Vikings may be able to turn the tables on the Bears, and come out with a key division win on the road - which would also leave the defending division champs with two division losses at home - not exactly a recipe for another division title.
Recipe For Success
Looking at the Bears games last season, and so far this season, perhaps the biggest indicator for success against the Bears has been not to get behind early. In the games the Bears have lost, the Bears have usually been behind at halftime.
The Bears offense is not explosive, and certainly not made for late game comebacks. When they fall behind, the pressure mounts on Mitch Trubisky to deliver, and that’s not a recipe for success for Chicago.
From the other side, the Bears’ recipe for success is to dominate defensively early on, hopefully create some turnovers, allow the offense to get a lead, forcing the opposing offense into more passing situations, which is ideal for the defensive front and secondary to feast.
But the Bears’ defense also tends to tire as the game goes on, so if their opponent can avoid becoming one dimensional, they can have more success later on. The key for an opposing offense is to get past the initial defensive onslaught, and make them play the whole game against a balanced attack.
But Can the Vikings Have Success Running Against the Bears?
Looking back at the two games against the Bears last season, it would seem implausible that the Vikings will have much success running the ball against the Bears on Sunday. After all, the Vikings ran for less than 100 yards in both games combined last season, and the offensive line lost the trench battle fairly decisively - particularly in Week 17.
The Bears defensive front is pretty much the same unit that held the Vikings to 22 and 63 yards rushing in their contests last season, so what changes?
Well, obviously the Vikings scheme is different, and their ability to run the ball effectively has been on display for three games now - averaging 193 yards a game. The Vikings offensive line, while they have a new rookie center, Josh Kline at RG, and Pat Elflein moved over to LG, it’s not drastically different in overall talent-level than last season. And Josh Kline may or may not play on Sunday depending on if he clears concussion protocol by then.
But the scheme change, and don’t forget offensive line coaching change, is making a difference in the running game. The reasons may be two-fold.
First, the Vikings were running mostly an inside-zone scheme last season. That asked the Vikings interior offensive line (the weakest part of the OL), to do the more difficult jobs against defensive linemen that were often quicker and stronger - and the Bears’ defensive front was both. That’s probably not the best use of the personnel the Vikings had last season.
This season, the Vikings are running mostly an outside zone scheme, which is a little more dependent on the tackles to make their block, one way or the other - either pushing their man outside for the back to cutback inside, or pinning him inside so the back can get around the corner outside. The back, usually Dalvin Cook, is keying off of the tackle’s block and cutting back or going outside accordingly. The interior linemen still need to make their blocks to stop pursuit or open an interior seam, but it’s not quite as difficult an assignment as an inside-zone scheme.
Here is an example of a successful outside run the Vikings had against the Bears last season at Soldier Field:
You’ll notice in the clip that #71 Riley Reiff is able to stand up #90 Jonathon Bullard and move him outside with a little help from #79 Tom Compton, who then moves to the second level to block #58 Roquon Smith. #65 Pat Elflein is able to maintain his block on #98 Bilal Nichols just long enough to give Dalvin Cook enough space to get by him. On the backside #74 Mike Remmers is able to get to the second level to cut down a linebacker, while #75 Brian O’Neill is able to tie-up #96 Akiem Hicks long enough so his pursuit is ineffective.
The result was a 7 yard run by Dalvin Cook on 2nd and 10, leaving the Vikings with a manageable 3rd and 3. Here is the following play:
As you can see here, #75 Brian O’Neill let #99 Aaron Lynch go inside and pinned him there, which Dalvin Cook keyed off of, and broke outside. It took a nice tackle from the Bears’ CB to limit the run to 5 yards, but that was enough to move the chains. One of only five 3rd down conversions the Vikings had that game.
And unfortunately the 12 yards Dalvin Cook gained on these two plays were all he netted for the entire game.
Fast forward to this year, and the Vikings offensive line is now coached by perhaps the most knowledgeable active offensive line coach when it comes to teaching outside zone concepts - the most experienced anyway. That should help the Vikings offensive linemen better execute their assignments against a stout Bears’ defensive front.
Of course last season the Vikings weren’t known so much for running the ball, particularly outside zone runs, whereas this year that will undoubtedly be the Bears’ primary focus in defeating. But it takes work and discipline at every level to defeat the outside zone run, and it can be taxing over time. Trying to hold your ground, defeat the block and get to the ball carrier each and every play will wear a defensive player down over the course of the game. The key is to run enough to wear them down.
The Bears defensive front has some injury issues with Akiem Hicks (knee) and Bilal Nichols (hand) that while they may not keep them out, may reduce their effectiveness on Sunday after a short week following their game Monday night.
The other thing that’s different compared to last season for the Vikings is the commitment to the run. Last year’s offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was never committed to the run, while Kevin Stefanski, running Gary Kubiak’s offense, is. So far the Vikings have run the ball over 60% of the time, and stayed committed to running the ball even after going down 21-0 against the Packers, so pretty good chance that continues at Soldier Field.
In 2017, Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was committed to running the ball at Soldier Field - mainly inside zone against Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Leanord Floyd. This was the return of a gimpy and totally ineffective Sam Bradford in the first half, which ended with the Vikings down 3-2. But after a lot of 3- and 1-yard runs well into the 3rd quarter, this happened:
The Vikings ultimately won that game at Soldier Field 20-17, having rushed for more net yards (159) than they passed for (141).
I don’t think you could say the Vikings offensive line was better in either 2017 or 2018 than it is now - probably about the same overall. The Bears’ defensive front was also about the same - although the addition of Khalil Mack obviously added to their pass rushing prowess. The key is simply the commitment to the run, which will eventually wear down the Bears’ defense.
Changing to an outside zone scheme may also be more effective, given personnel on both sides of the ball.
Winning the Turnover Battle
The Vikings and Bears are tied now for takeaways so far this year, after the Bears picked up 5 against the Redskins Monday night. The Bears were especially prolific at generating takeaways last season - and scoring points on defense - so limiting turnovers will be key for the Vikings. Not giving a Bears offense that currently ranks #26 in points and #29 in yards a short field should help limit what Mitch Trubisky and company can generate on the scoreboard.
Part of limiting turnovers may be how the Vikings approach the passing game. Focusing more on quick hitters off of play-action, while using bootlegs for deeper shots down the field, may limit Cousins’ exposure to strip sacks. Beyond that, the lesson of the Green Bay game- and last year’s Bears games- will hopefully be firmly in mind for Cousins in his decision-making. And the play-calling from Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak when it comes to avoiding interceptions.
The Vikings have been much more effective in recovering fumbles this year, so hopefully that will carry forward against the Bears. Mitch Trubisky should be good for at least one interception as well, as he continues to struggle with accuracy.
Hopefully the combined effect will give the Vikings the turnover advantage, or at least not give it to the Bears, which makes it more difficult for them to score points and win.
A better game plan, and hopefully better execution seems likely to make Sunday’s game against the Bears more competitive than they were last season. If the Vikings stick with the run as expected, it’s difficult to see that causing a loss. It would have to come somewhere else - most likely turnovers. The Bears are also committed to the run, so shutting down Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery will be a key task for the Vikings defense. Putting Mitch Trubisky in frequent third-and-long situations isn’t likely to lead to extended drives, and if it comes down to it, this may be the one team where the Vikings have an advantage in the kicking game - particularly with Eddie Pineiro playing through injury.
A more decisive win by the Vikings, if the offense has good success, could be something of a statement within the division and NFC. The Vikings offense and defense are both top 10 in points / points allowed, and knocking off the reigning division champ at home puts them in a good position moving forward, while putting the Bears in a division hole having lost both division games at home so far.
Getting through the initial Bears defensive onslaught will be key, and hopefully Kubiak and company will have a good game plan in hand to keep the Bears’ defense off-balance, and their offense playing from behind.
The Vikings are 2 point underdogs on the road against the Bears. What will the result be?
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Vikings lose, but cover the spread
Vikings lose and don’t cover the spread