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Vikings at Bears Week 4 Preview: Don’t Mess This Up

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In an evenly matched divisional game, the difference between Minnesota and Chicago might be which quarterback makes fewer mistakes.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Washington Redskins Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

My youngest daughter turns four next week. It’s such a fun age, especially for someone with her rambunctious personality. My wife and I are the annoying couple that’s always posting Instagram stories of our kids, but we just can’t help it when it comes to our little entertainer. She’s constantly cracking us up with her dancing or goofy sayings. Our brave and spunky thrill seeker that isn’t afraid to try new things and always keeps us on our toes.

That said, fellow parents know that this age can be tricky at times. Our little one is potty trained, outside of the occasions where she inexplicably stares you dead in the eye and refuses to go to the bathroom. Her happy-go-lucky attitude can toggle to pure rage at a moment’s notice if someone else happens to be playing with a toy she suddenly wants. She and her big sister can be playing together nicely for hours, yet a single word or action can set off her nuclear time bomb of a temper. (On the off chance that she’s reading this, I’m sure my wife would like me to point out that she gets that temper from me. Sorry again, honey.)

We bring our soon-to-be-four-year-old to an in-home daycare that’s led by a very kind but very old-school provider. She has been doing daycare for almost 40 years and has developed a very specific set of rules for her kids to follow. Unsurprisingly, our little one has trouble following those rules at times. Picking her up after work in the afternoon is always an adventure. Most days, we get a positive report that she played nicely and listened well. But sometimes I feel like I’m picking up Junior from Problem Child. “She kept taking the two-year-old’s favorite dolly and hiding it? She tried to claim every block in the playroom and screamed anytime someone tried to use one? And she’s wearing a different outfit because she refused to go potty even though she was standing right next to the toilet? Oh.”

We know our daughter is a good kid overall, and we realize that she’ll grow out of it. Our parenting struggles are far from unique. We just roll with the punches that come with having a kid that’s almost four.

So what does any of this have to do with Sunday’s crucial divisional matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears? I believe that both fan bases have the same realizations with their quarterbacks that we have with our youngest daughter.

Think about it. Bears fans are well aware that Mitchell Trubisky is capable of doing some amazing things; the same holds with Vikings fans and Kirk Cousins. But we always know that the unfathomable blowup could happen at any moment. Trubisky air mailing an easy throw to his left and Cousins getting strip-sacked after a complete lack of pocket presence are the NFL equivalents of our kids having a meltdown over a pack of gum at Target. We can’t explain why, and we wish it didn’t happen, but we know it’s bound to from time to time.

We already know all about how Cousins has (and hasn’t) performed through the first three games of the season. In the two victories, he has been asked to do about as much as I’m asked to do on shopping trips with my wife: keep everything moving, don’t drop anything, and watch the star of the show do most of the work. Cousins has attempted a grand total of 31 passes in the victories over the Falcons and Raiders, including zero in the fourth quarter of either game. In 2018, he averaged 37.9 attempts per game. That isn’t to say that he did nothing in those games, especially in last week’s win over Oakland. Chad Graff of The Athletic wrote about how Cousins acquitted himself well in Week 3, even if the one game was never going to silence his critics. We covered how nice the opening touchdown pass in Monday’s Five Game-Changing Plays article. Cousins also had a couple of nice passes to Irv Smith Jr., who was a welcome addition to the passing game last week.

Most importantly, Cousins placed his passes well against the Raiders and avoided disaster. On a couple of occasions, Oakland correctly diagnosed designed rollouts. Instead of throwing it away or turning it into a negative play, Cousins made nice touch throws over the free edge rusher.

Of course, sandwiched between those two quiet yet efficient game manager performances was the turd sandwich Cousins served us in Green Bay. In a big road game against tough opposition, he came up short in the game’s biggest moments, further adding to the reputation he hasn’t been able to shake over the past four-plus seasons as a full-time starter. Sunday’s matchup is exactly the type of game where Cousins has struggled historically.

Speaking of historically struggling, Trubisky had an extremely rough start to his season against the Packers and Broncos. He had an abysmal 4.83 yards per attempt and a 65.0 quarterback rating through the first two games. If it wasn’t for an extremely generous roughing the passer call that led to the game-winning field goal, Trubisky would have been held to under 100 yards passing in Denver. Statistically, Trubisky had a much better game against Washington on Monday. He completed 80% of his passes, had a 116.5 quarterback rating, and tossed his first three touchdowns of the season. His touchdown pass to Taylor Gabriel on 3rd & 17 late in the first half was a beautiful throw. Other than that, he didn’t exactly have to sling the ball all over the field to beat the Redskins. Of his 25 completions, 21 of them came shorter than ten yards past the line of scrimmage.

The vast majority of Trubisky’s success on Monday came from the scheme that Matt Nagy installed. There were tons of quick-hit slants, screens, and passes to the flat where Trubisky usually got the ball out to his first read. Like the Vikings, the Bears have also incorporated a lot of play action and designed rollouts to help ease the pressure on their quarterback. It finally worked against Washington.

After watching the Bears offense this season, I think the best way to attack them on defense is to make sure you aren’t attacking too much. The Vikings have learned the hard way that biting on misdirection and letting Trubisky out of the pocket is a maddening way to give up yards and lose games. Zimmer is likely coaching up his charges to stay at home and take away the quick reads. If Trubisky doesn’t have a clear path to quickly throw or run after Nagy’s built-in trickery, bad things tend to happen for him. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are among the lead leaders in total pressures, but containing might be the more important task this week.

This is probably oversimplifying things a bit, but I think the winning team on Sunday night will be the team that forces the bad version of the opposing quarterback to show up more often. The difference between the performances of Trubisky and Cousins could very well decide the outcome, because Chicago and Minnesota are evenly matched teams. The Bears are currently two point favorites, which is basically a wash after Vegas accounts for home field advantage. It makes sense when you look at the big-picture numbers. Both teams are 2-1 with a rough loss to the same divisional foe and two wins over teams that don’t exactly look like Super Bowl contenders.

The defenses of the Vikings and Bears have been incredibly similar through three weeks. Some numbers reflecting just how close they are thus far:

  • Football Outsiders DAVE*: Bears 3rd, Vikings 5th
    (*DAVE is a combined measurement of performance and projection that’s helpful to use early in the year before there’s much data to use.)
  • Pro Football Focus overall defensive ranking: Bears 6th, Vikings 8th
  • Takeaways: Bears 6, Vikings 6 (tied for 6th in the league)
  • Scoring drive percentage allowed: Minnesota: 21.2% (4th), Chicago: 24.2% (6th)
  • Yards allowed: Bears 8th, Vikings 12th (Rankings that would be better if not for garbage time numbers from Washington, Atlanta, and Oakland)
  • Expected points added: Bears 8th, Vikings 9th
  • Net yards gained per attempt allowed: Vikings 6th, Bears 7th
  • Yards per play allowed: Bears 5th, Vikings 8th

Everyone assumed that the Bears were a regression candidate because Vic Fangio left; surely his departure would have some sort of negative impact. So far, the answer is an emphatic “nope.” Chuck Pagano has the defense picking up right where they left off. They’re the same ball-hawking, quarterback-terrorizing unit that carried the Bears to a NFC North title last year. There are no glaring weak spots along the defensive line, linebacking corps, or secondary. The Bears are very good at defending the pass and even better at defending the run. And yes, Khalil Mack is still probably the best edge rusher in the league. Mack’s strengths as a pass rusher line up much too well with Cousins’ weaknesses as a passer.

Assuming the Vikings can hold onto the ball long enough to sustain drives against Chicago, the new and improved running game will face what will likely be one of its toughest tests of the season. Dalvin Cook has looked like the best back in the league through three weeks. Alexander Mattison has been an outstanding when rotating in. The zone blocking scheme has worked incredibly well and the offensive line has done a great job consistently getting to the second level. This run from against Oakland shows how well the blocking can work when executed properly. Garrett Bradbury and Riley Reiff both slow down their initial assignment and then give Cook a 15-yard convoy for an easy first down.

Injuries on each side of the ball could have an impact on just how effective the Vikings’ run game is on Sunday. Josh Kline has been one of the biggest pleasant surprises on the team since arriving from Tennessee; he and Brian O’Neill have been the best performers along the line this year. Kline missed practice on Wednesday and is still in the concussion protocol after leaving the Raiders game. Dakota Dozier has done pretty well in a backup role the past couple games, but this is a matchup the Vikings need to be at full strength for. For Chicago, Akiem Hicks also left his Week 3 game early and didn’t practice on Wednesday. Hicks absolutely annihilated the Vikings in their game at Soldier Field last season. According to PFF, he had five pressures, a sack, five tackles, and five “stops” (a play that results in a negative outcome for the offense depending on down and distance) that game.

Regardless of whether Hicks is available, one would assume that the Vikings will have to air it out a bit more on Sunday. Getting Laquon Treadwell back is nice because it was basically free and it spawned some really good Reddit posts. But I doubt that he’ll have much of an impact in the offense on Sunday. As Daniel House of Vikings Corner pointed out in his article about the success of the run game, the Vikings have had three or more wide receivers on the field for only 21.3% of their offensive snaps this season. Instead, Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak are still leaning heavily an heavier formations. The Vikings have had multiple running backs on 40.2% of their snaps and multiple tight ends on 48.2% of their snaps. As long as Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are out there, Olabisi Johnson and Treadwell probably won’t see a ton of action.

Speaking of Diggs, can we please stop freaking out about him? Yes, it stinks if you have him on your fantasy football roster. Yes, there have been a few occasions where he got open and Cousins didn’t get him the ball. But he’s still half of what is one of the very best wide receiver duos in the NFL. He only had three catches for 15 yards last week, but he also drew two crucial defensive penalties that kept drives alive. He probably won’t put up the gaudy numbers from the 2018 season just because the offensive identity has changed so much from a year ago. But I think he’ll be just fine going forward.

The Vikings have had the home team jump out to a 21-0 first half lead in all three of their games so far. If either team gets a lead of ten or more points at any point in this game, that might be enough to doom their opponent. Both teams are very well-suited to play with the lead and both quarterbacks seem to be ill-equipped to play from behind. When the underlying theme of the game appears to be “the quarterback that sucks the least wins”, fans of each team might actually feel more comfortable when their defenses are on the field.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer a day after both the Twins and Minnesota United FC clinched postseason berths—shout to Twinkie Town and E Pluribus Loonum—but I think the feel-good Minnesota sports stories might be ending on Sunday. While there is a definite path for the Vikings to win in a place that has traditionally been a house of horrors, I envision many more ways that things could go horribly wrong. The Bears have proven they can mask Trubisky’s deficiencies well enough to win. The Vikings haven’t proven they can win the big road game with Cousins at the helm. I can’t pick my favorite team to win in these spots until I see proof of them actually winning in these spots.

Please, Kirk. Prove me wrong. Show us that you’re past this “phase.” Behave yourself. Don’t have an accident all over Soldier Field.

Prediction

Bears 20, Vikings 17


And now for the rest of my Week 4 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

PACKERS over Eagles

Philadelphia needs this one a lot more than Green Bay, but the Eagles are still pretty beat up. Regardless of the outcome of this game, I hope both fan bases have a truly terrible time.

FALCONS over Titans

Regardless of the outcome of this game, I’m sure that both fan bases will remain justifiably disappointed in their teams.

Patriots over BILLS

I like Buffalo’s chances of sneaking into the AFC playoffs like they did in 2017. But all the Bills Mafia broken tailgate tables in the world wouldn’t make me like their chances of taking down the champs this week.

RAVENS over Browns

For all the preseason hype Cleveland got, Baltimore simply looks like the better team right now. The Browns are discovering that offensive line and play calling are still pretty important.

Chiefs over LIONS

OK, Patrick Mahomes. It’s time to put an end to all this “undefeated Lions” nonsense. (Please.)

COLTS over Raiders

I can’t wait to see how David Carr tries to defend his little brother online after Derek gets outplayed by Jacoby Brissett.

Chargers over DOLPHINS

If any team could screw up the BINGO free space on the schedule that is the Miami Dolphins, it’s the Chargers. But I’m still picking blindly against Miami in my survivor pool every week until they actually beat one of the gigantic spreads Vegas gives them.

GIANTS over Redskins

DANNY DIMES BABY! Never mind that Daniel Jones’ premiere should have been a loss, or that losing Saquon Barkley for at least a month will be rough. They’re no longer the biggest train wreck in their division! I’m picking Jones to go 2-0 before the Vikings (hopefully) bring him back down to Earth next week.

TEXANS over Panthers

Speaking of young quarterbacks that had amazing debuts against bad defenses—ladies and gentlemen, Kyle Allen! Houston is going to be a much tougher test than Arizona though. Allen was strip-sacked twice by Chandler Jones last week; J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus could repeat that feat on Sunday.

RAMS over Buccaneers

I’m not saying that the Rams are regretting the Jared Goff contract extension. I’m not saying Goff is living up to the extension either. Good thing they’re playing the Bucs this week, who have already proven very adept at beating themselves.

Seahawks over CARDINALS

Both teams have to be looking at last week’s game tape and wondering, “What the hell was that?” I think Russell Wilson will have his second straight big game of fantasy scoring, except it won’t be in garbage time this week.

Jaguars over BRONCOS

I am 1000% in on the Gardner Minshew Era, even if Jalen Ramsey is taking the week off. Also, how the hell does this Denver pass rush have zero sacks through three games with Fangio at the helm?

Cowboys over SAINTS

Last Sunday I joked on Twitter about how Teddy Bridgewater was leading the Saints to an early lead without even taking a snap. This Dallas team looks legit, and I don’t think they’ll beat themselves as much as Seattle did last week.

STEELERS over Bengals

This will be the fifth Monday Night Football game of the season. The combined records of the teams when entering the game, including this week: 1-11. ESPN executives must be thrilled!

Last week: 12-4
Season so far: 32-15-1