Durkin: Know Your Opponent – Minnesota Vikings
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A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent, this week: Minnesota.
By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The Bears get another chance to display their “talents” to a national audience this Sunday Night, when they take on the Minnesota Vikings in the “third place in the NFC North” bowl. Will the Bears pick up their first NFC North victory of the season, or will they fall to 0-3 in the division? Let’s take a look at the Vikings’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the key match-ups in a game the Bears must have.
Much like the Bears, the Vikings are a team heading in the wrong direction. They are plagued by similar afflictions: an aging defense, limited weapons in the passing game, and a questionable offensive line. The parallels don’t stop there, as their success is ultimately in the hands of, or more appropriately, on the legs of their explosive star running back, Adrian Peterson.
Peterson is the best running back in the NFL, still operating in the prime of his career. He inked a new 7-year, $100 million contract at the beginning of the season – with $36 million guaranteed – and a $1 million incentive for every season he rushes for over 1,250 yards. This off-the-field financial security will allow Peterson to focus all of his attention to punishing opposing tacklers.
First year offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave came under fire for his second-half play calling in losses to the Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs, but he didn’t make the same mistake this past weekend against the Arizona Cardinals. Musgrave wisely fed the beast known as “Purple Jesus”, and Peterson responded with 122 rushing yards and three first-quarter touchdowns, leading the Vikings to their first victory of the season. Seeing how the Bears defense has been a doormat for opposing rushing attacks this season, they can expect a heavy dose of Peterson this weekend — a guy who has historically owned them throughout his career.
As prolific as Peterson and the Vikings rushing attack is, their passing attack is a mess. Quarterback Donovan McNabb had been cast off by both Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan, but found a soft landing in Minnesota, thanks to the gaping hole left by Brett Favre’s (long overdue and much-appreciated) retirement. Unfortunately for Vikings fans, McNabb has reached the twilight of his career. Everything that made McNabb an impact player at his position for years has faded away. McNabb is slow, inaccurate, appears to be out of shape, and simply doesn’t have the escapability he once had to keep plays alive and make plays down the field.
Combine McNabb’s deteriorated skill set with a limited set of wide receivers and a porous offensive line, and you’re left with a challenged offense. Percy Harvin– the de-facto No. 1 wide receiver — would be better suited as a slot receiver, where he would have the space he requires to operate effectively. Instead, Harvin is forced to fight through press coverage at the line, where he is physically re-routed by opposing corner backs, which disrupts the timing of an offense.
Defensively, the Vikings strength is their front seven. Defensive end Jared Allen leads the NFL with 8.5 sacks, defensive tackle Kevin Williams still commands a double team, and linebackers Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson are impact players. The Vikings have been very stout against the run this season, which will be an issue for the Bears. If the Vikings are able to neutralize the Bears running game and make them one dimensional, it could be a long day for the Bears.
On the other hand, the Vikings secondary can be exploited. They have surrendered a 50-plus yard pass play in three of their five games this season. Veteran corner back Antoine Winfield is the anchor, but is dealing with a neck injury. His counterparts — Chris Cook and Cedric Griffin — are average starters at best. Unfortunately, the Bears awful offensive line may not provide Cutler enough time to take advantage of this questionable group.
Granted, the lockout impacted every team in the NFL in some fashion, but its effect on the Vikings had a two-fold significance. First off, it limited first-year (holdover) head coach Leslie Frasier’s access to players, and negated crucial off-season workouts and mini-camps. Secondly, and more significantly, it forced the Vikings to look to the draft to address their quarterback situation.
The Vikings severely reached for FSU quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th-overall selection. In any other year, Ponder would never have been a first-round draft pick, but now he’s the franchise quarterback and it is yet to be determined if that’s a good thing or not. This reach for a quarterback prevented the Vikings from addressing other glaring needs on their roster, as they could have used an impact player at a variety of positions this season from their first round selection.
Expect another sloppy game on Sunday Night featuring two mediocre-to-bad teams. The talent differential between the top of the NFC North (Green Bay and Detroit) and the bottom (Chicago and Minnesota) is vast. Neither of the bottom two teams are going to make the playoffs, so this game is purely for pride, as the loser will certainly man the basement of the NFC North this season and beyond.
What to watch when the Bears have the ball:
Bears Offensive Tackles vs. Jared Allen: Jared Allen leads the NFL in sacks this year, and judging by the play of the Bears offensive tackles, he will pad those stats on Sunday. It is obvious that J’Marcus Webb should not be starting at left tackle for the Bears, but Jerry Angelo has given the Bears nothing else to work with. Hopefully the Bears will get Gabe Carimi back this weekend, otherwise, Jared Allen is going to eat J’Marcus Webb and Lance Louis’ lunch. Yes, I’m assuming that we’ve finally seen the last of Frank Omiyale – Angelo’s No. 1 free-agent target in 2008 – who is truly one of the worst offensive lineman I’ve ever seen play. Look for the Bears to use tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth as blockers this weekend, as the tackles need all the help they can get. Poor Jay Cutler.
What to watch when the Vikings have the ball:
Bears Defensive Tackles vs. Interior of the Vikings Offensive Line: The disappearing act performed by Bears defensive tackles continues. The Tampa-2 is predicated on pressure from the front four, and the Bears simply aren’t getting any contributions from the interior of their defensive line. Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson is the Vikings best offensive lineman, but much like former Bear Olin Kretutz, he is living more off of reputation these days. Matt Toeina is scheduled for an MRI on his knee, which would be a big dent to an already limited group. If Henry Melton, Amobi Okoye, and Antony Adams are unable to get penetration against a soft Vikings interior this weekend, you can pretty much write them off for the season.
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Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.