Bears vs Vikings : After the Green Bay Packers dropped their record to 4-5-1 with a dispiriting loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night, it sure looks like the battle for the NFC North crown is going to come down to a race between the Chicago Bears, who currently sit in first place with a 6-3 record, and the Minnesota Vikings, who are right behind them at 5-3-1.
Lucky for us, the Bears and Vikings actually play each other this week, on Sunday Night Football. It’s the first of two games the teams will play against each other over the final seven weeks of the season, with the rematch coming in Week 17. Whoever wins the first matchup will get a leg up on being able to actually clinch the division before that final game, so it’s pivotal to come away with a victory.
We’ve got exciting players and intriguing matchups all over the place, so let’s break down what you should be on the lookout for when these two old-school rivals take the field.
Right now, the Bears have one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. Starting with their 48-10 destruction of the Buccaneers the week before their bye, the Bears have scored 48, 28, 31, 24, 41, and 34 points. That’s an average of 34.3 per game, second behind only the Saints during that timespan. Given their recent performance one might think the Bears should continue rolling, but they’re running up against a Minnesota defense that is finally getting healthy and dominant again after some early-season hiccups.
Job No. 1 right now against the Bears is shutting down Mitchell Trubisky, who, while inconsistent on a play-to-play basis, has been absolutely rolling for several weeks now. Since Week 4, Trubisky has completed 63 percent of his passes at 9.2 yards per attempt while throwing 17 touchdowns against four interceptions. He’s added 256 yards and two more scores with his legs. It’s important for the Bears to keep Trubisky holed into the pocket and going through his progressions, which is when he tends to make bad decisions. If allowed to throw quickly, he’s usually on the money. If allowed to escape the pocket and run, he’s usually going to make something happen. But if he has to hang back there, stay patient, read multiple layers of coverage, and wait for somebody to pop open, well, he tends to do some boneheaded things on occasion.
His primary receivers are Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, rookie Anthony Miller, tight end Trey Burton, and running back Tarik Cohen. That is a whole lot of threats for a defense to deal with, and with the exception of Gabriel and Cohen, none really provide similar looks. Robinson will likely receive shadow coverage treatment from Rhodes, which leaves Gabriel working against Trae Waynes and Miller locking horns with Mackensie Alexander in the slot. Expect the Bears to target Miller over the middle on seams and crosses in order to open things up for everyone else. Burton, though, may have the best matchup of all, as the Vikings have been shredded by several tight ends this season. George Kittle (5-90-0), Jimmy Graham (6-95-0), Zach Ertz (10-110-1), Ricky Seals-Jones (5-69-0), and Chris Herndon (4-42-1) have all had big games against the Vikes this year.
Minnesota’s run defense has been even better this season than its passing unit, and Jordan Howard could find tough sledding on the ground against one of the NFL’s best defense fronts and fastest linebacking corps. Griffen, Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Sheldon Richardson, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Ben Gedeon all flow to the ball extremely well, and they have Sendejo and Harrison Smith to clean up behind them. The Vikings don’t stop very many runs behind the line of scrimmage but they are extremely tough to run on in short-yardage situations, so even setting up good down-and-distance runs may not prove all that successful.
The first thing the Bears have to deal with is Vikings wideout Adam Thielen. That is … not easy.
Luckily for the Bears, their corners (Prince Amukamara, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan) are all playing well this season. Callahan, who works as the team’s primary slot corner, is playing especially well. Sports Info Solutions has charged him with just 18 completions allowed for 188 yards all year, with zero touchdowns against two interceptions. There are 126 defensive players who have been targeted at least 25 times by opposing quarterbacks in coverage this season. Among that group, Callahan’s 55.8 passer rating allowed ranks 12th-best. He also hasn’t played against Thielen just yet, but he is a strong option on the inside.
On the perimeter, Amukamara and Fuller will have to deal with the likely return of Stefon Diggs, as well as Laquon Treadwell and Aldrick Robinson at different times throughout the game. Like Callahan, both outside corners are having strong seasons. Among the same aforementioned group of 126 players, Fuller ranks 21st in passer rating allowed on throws in his direction, and Amukamara ranks 31. Both players are easily inside the top 25 percent. Fuller plays strictly on the left side of the field (99 percent of his snaps) and Amukamara plays strictly on the right (also 99 percent), so each outside receiver will see plenty of both guys as the Vikings move them around the formation.
The Bears have the league’s No. 1 overall defense by DVOA, and they’re been strong pretty much everywhere. They’re No. 2 against the run and No. 4 against the pass. They’re No. 5 against No. 1 wideouts. No. 12 against No. 2 wideouts, No. 10 against the slot, and No. 8 against running backs in the passing game. The only place they’ve been below-average is against tight ends, where they rank 20th. This provides opportunity for Kyle Rudolph to get back on track. Rudolph hasn’t topped 50 receiving yards since Week 4 and has two or fewer catches in two of the Vikings’ past three games. He just has not been as big a part of the passing game this year as in years past, and he’s been coming up empty in the red zone. Perhaps working against the interior of Chicago’s defense will be good for him.
Of course, what the Vikings love more than almost anything else in the passing game is to work play-action. Of Cousins’ 363 pass attempts, over 20 percent have come after a play-fake, per SIS. On those plays, Cousins has a 104.2 passer rating. In order to make the play-action game as effective as possible, it’s important to get Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray going on the ground. Cook has been in and out of the lineup all year due to various injuries, but in the Vikings’ final game before their bye he looked as explosive as he has all year, totaling 109 yards on 14 touches. Murray will presumably still factor into the game plan so the Vikes don’t push Cook too hard, but in order for them to be at their best, the sophomore needs to be an offensive focal point.
Listen to Will Brinson, Pete Prisco and R.J. White break down Vikings-Bears and every game on the Friday edition of the Pick Six Podcast: