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Big Plays by Vikings D Key in Beating Bears

But offensive struggles continue...

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Vikings came away with a victory against the hapless Bears, 19-13. But it wasn’t a victory that inspired confidence in the Vikings’ ability to beat any but the worst teams in the NFL.

The main issue was the continued offensive struggles. The Vikings had just 220 yards on offense- just 4.0 yards per play- and scored just 13 points against a Bears defense ranked 30th in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed going into the game. Nobody was able to step up in Justin Jefferson’s absence, while the drops and turnovers continued. Turnovers could’ve been worse had TJ Edwards been able to stay inbounds prior to securing a fumble recovery in Vikings territory. It was a close call. The Bears were able to get to Cousins and affect his throw on one play- a blitz by TJ Edwards that Alexander Mattison was unable to pick up- leading to what was officially ruled a fumble by Cousins.

What saved the day for the Vikings was a terrible Bears offense that lost Justin Fields about halfway through the game, leading to the estimable Tyson Bagent making his first career start after a college career playing D-II ball for Shepherd College.

The Vikings were able to pressure the Chicago QBs most of the afternoon- the Bears have given up the most pressures in the league this season- which led to a ‘flying fumble recovery’ by Jordan Hicks in the first half after Justin Fields’ arm was hit throwing the ball, resulting in a duck that Hicks made a great over the shoulder catch for the interception. Hicks also picked up a fumble on a strip sack of Tyson Bagent in his first series that Hicks scooped, stayed in bounds, and took to the house. Another great play by Hicks to capitalize fully on the turnover and turn it into six points.

The only real hiccup for the Vikings defense was allowing a late touchdown drive, led by Bagent, and a couple explosive throws over the middle that allowed the Bears to quickly drive the field and bring it to a one score game. Fortunately for the Vikings, Bagent made a rookie mistake in going for the hero ball on first down and throwing it short, resulting in an easy interception for Byron Murphy Jr. to essentially seal the victory for the Vikings.

But the Vikings struggled to get much going most of the game against a Bears defense that has struggled all season. Drops once again cut at least a few drives short, while conservative play calling in the second half led to several short and scoreless possessions. Overall, the Bears held the ball for nearly ten minutes more than the Vikings, despite being the only team to lose the turnover battle to the Vikings this season.

Key Takeaways

The Vikings still have everything to prove in being an effective offense without Justin Jefferson. Nobody was able to step up in Jefferson’s absence, as the Bears were able to hold the Vikings’ receivers in check most of the game. Cousins was held to just 174 net yards passing, and no receiver had more than 50 receiving yards. Jordan Addison had just 28 receiving yards, and the lack of a real receiving playmaker allowed the Bears to focus more on stopping the Vikings’ rushing attack (they allowed just 2.1 yards per carry) while yielding just two passes for over 20 yards. TJ Hockenson, Jordan Addison, KJ Osborn, Alexander Mattison, and Brandon Powell all had drops, three of those ending drives.

TJ Hockenson led all receivers with 50 receiving yards (6 receptions on 8 targets) but seems to have lost some confidence the last couple games. He had a key drop (on not an easy catch) and just seems more tentative as a receiver since he gave up a fumble against the Chargers. He’s taken some shots in contested catch situations over the middle which may be influencing his concentration in those situations and causing the drops.

It wasn’t surprising that the Vikings went with KJ Osborn as WR2 in Jefferson’s absence, but its not one that is likely to be particularly helpful. There really wasn’t a good alternative this week to replace Osborn, who had another drive-ending drop against the Bears, but his production is likely to be limited and he’s not one that is a threat to take the lid off the defense. That allows an opposing safety to be deployed and make plays elsewhere, while in single-high safety coverage that safety can cheat toward Jordan Addison and limit his big play ability.

On several occasions, it looked like Kirk Cousins had the time and was looking downfield, but nobody was open- forcing him to take a checkdown. And some of those resulted in incompletions or effectively negative plays, including a baffling intentional grounding call and the near fumble recovery by the Bears on a backward toss to Cam Akers. All that and a ground game that produced many negative plays from a down-and-distance perspective, led to an offense that struggled to get in sync almost all afternoon. The only exception was the two-minute touchdown drive to end the half.

Overall, this game was a bit more reminiscent of last season, where the Vikings didn’t play well but managed to make enough plays to come away with a one-score win.

Individual Standouts

Jordan Hicks. Hicks had an exceptional game with a difficult interception and an excellent runback on a scoop and score for a key defensive score when the offense was struggling. He also led the team in tackles with 10 combined.

Greg Joseph. Joseph missed his first field goal of the season (a 57-yard attempt) but converted two 50+ attempts that proved to be the difference in the game. He also missed his first extra point attempt- which was blocked- but that didn’t appear to be Joseph’s fault.

Danielle Hunter. Hunter had two sacks, two QB hits and the hit that caused the interception by Jordan Hicks (which incidentally was officially ruled a fumble- as was the Cousins’ interception when his arm was hit). Hunter also had 7 tackles.

Byron Murphy Jr. Murphy had the game-ending interception, but also a couple other passes defensed and a tackle-for-loss on a bubble screen to DJ Moore. He had a total of four combined tackles. He was shadowing Moore for most of the game and largely held the Bears’ main receiving threat in check all afternoon.

Josh Metellus. Metellus had the strip sack that resulted in the defensive touchdown for the Vikings and was effective blitzing off the edge. He had a sack, two TFLs, and three QB hits along with 8 combined tackles.

Kirk Cousins. This was a forgettable game for Cousins on the stat sheet, but his performance was better than what showed up on paper. His fumble- which looked like an interception- was the result of a QB hit after Alexander Mattison was unable to block the blitzing TJ Edwards. He also had a few balls placed where they needed to be to Jordan Addison, TJ Hockenson, Brandon Powell, and KJ Osborn that while difficult catches, are catches you expect to be made most of the time. But for Osborn and Hockenson lately, those more difficult catches have not been made, despite the ball hitting them in their outstretched hands. Cousins was also called for a very questionable intentional grounding penalty despite CJ Ham being within a couple yards of the pass. Cousins said after the game that the ref told him that the call came from upstairs, but clearly that was a missed call with Ham being right there. That penalty led to a 2nd-and-20 and ultimately a three-and-out for the Vikings in the middle of the fourth quarter.

But the reason I put Cousins on here despite a lackluster offensive performance, is that Cousins’ accuracy often goes underappreciated. He made the throws, but the drops proved costly and were a significant reason the Vikings never seemed to get on track offensively except for the two-minute drill TD to end the first half- one of their few drives without a drop or turnover.

Bottom Line

The Vikings got the win over one of the worst teams in the league in Chicago but didn’t look all that great doing so- especially offensively. Beating the Bears by six may have beat the spread, but it was hardly impressive. It showed the Vikings have yet fix the problems with drops- which now are more of an issue than the turnovers- and don’t have the answers yet in Justin Jefferson’s absence.

It wouldn’t be surprising for most defenses to play more single high coverage now, with the free safety cheating toward Addison and the strong safety available to cover Hockenson if need be rather than a linebacker, leaving Osborn in single coverage and forcing him to beat them rather than Addison or Hockenson and having more of a presence in the box to defend the run. The Vikings don’t have an answer for that yet. Getting Jalen Nailor back would be helpful, but unclear when that will be. I believe he’s eligible to come off IR this week, but whether he does and Kevin O’Connell decides to install him in the offense in a meaningful way is unclear. He continues to give KJ Osborn the most snaps of any receiver other than Justin Jefferson, which is undeserved given his production. But it’s difficult to image the Vikings passing offense improving much unless they have another deep threat on the field besides Addison. Osborn isn’t that guy. Neither is Brandon Powell.

Defensively, the Vikings lost Marcus Davenport with an injury to his other ankle than the one that had kept him off the field previously. Given Davenport’s history, it doesn’t seem like an injury he’ll return from in a few days or a week, but we’ll have to wait and see. Davenport has made a difference when he’s been on the field, and his absence will hurt.

That’s a lot for the Vikings to deal with for their upcoming match against the 49ers on Monday night in primetime at US Bank stadium. The 49ers lost to the Browns narrowly and may have lost both Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel for the game against the Vikings, depending on the extent of their injuries. Both left the game against Cleveland and did not return. Not having either player on Monday night would be a significant loss for the 49ers offense. It was no coincidence that Brock Purdy had one of his worst games against the Browns- who have a great defense- missing two of his key offensive weapons for much of the game.

The Vikings also lost Ezra Cleveland later in the Bears game, who was replaced by Dalton Risner. Unclear the extent of Cleveland’s injury- which appeared to be an ankle injury- or whether he’ll be available Monday night as well. I would imagine the Vikings offensive line would be able to hold up reasonably well against the 49ers defensive line, good as it is, but the problem will be how well the receivers and backs can do against a solid 49er secondary. The 49ers defense is one of the top units against both run and pass, so the Vikings’ offense will have its work cut out for them. They’ll need to be much better than they were against the Bears to have a chance against the 49ers, even if they’re without McCaffrey and Samuel on offense.

Defensively, the Vikings can build on a few things from the Bears game, and hopefully they can more confidence a unit, which they’ll need to stop the 49ers offense. The 9ers offensive line isn’t good except for LT Trent Williams, but Kyle Shanahan is a master at creating a balanced run-pass attack that attacks all areas of the field. The key will be for the Vikings to excel at tackling on the periphery, where the 49ers get most of their yards-after-catch, and forcing Brock Purdy into more difficult down-and-distance situations where the blitz can get home.

But overall, the 49ers are a tough matchup that will give the Vikings plenty of problems, with or without Samuel and McCaffrey. The Vikings will need to play a clean game to have any chance against the 49ers- something they haven’t done yet this season. They probably also need to come up with some surprises on offense if they want to compete against a 49ers’ defense allowing just 14.5 points per game and an offense that’s averaged over 30 points per game. Fresh off a narrow and disappointing loss in Cleveland- their first regular season loss in 16 games- the 49ers will likely be eager to get back in the win column in prime time against the Vikings.

But a win against the 49ers at home in prime time would be just the catalyst the Vikings need to stack wins heading into a stretch of six games against mediocre opponents- the Packers, Falcons, Saints, Broncos, Bears, and Raiders.

Stay tuned.