By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The Bears play host to a familiar foe led by a familiar face this Sunday. The surprising 6-4 Vikings ride the sturdy, surgically repaired legs of Adrian Peterson to Soldier Field, in what’s become a must-win game for the Bears. This game has wild card implications, as the winner will sit no worse than second in the NFC North.
Recent history proves teams must be able to throw the ball to win championships, it’s an undeniable fact. Since 2000, three Super Bowl champions have ranked dead last in rushing. The Vikings are one of the most one-dimensional offenses in the league, boasting the league’s third best rushing attack, and the third worst passing attack.
It’s easy to understand why there’s such an imbalance on the Vikings offense, they have the league’s best running back. Think about it for a moment, on December 24th, 2011, Peterson tore both his ACL and MCL. On November 14th, 2012, Adrian Peterson became the leading rusher in the NFL, where he remains today (the Vikings were idle in Week 11). This is truly a remarkable accomplishment and a testament to Peterson’s perseverance, dedication, and drive.
Having a running back of Peterson’s pedigree affords opportunities in the play-action game, which suits offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s passing scheme. Musgrave features a lot of boot action, waggles, and rollouts, to get the defense to flow to the opposite side of the field, which in turn opens up the backside, and simplifies the reads for a quarterback by cutting the field in half.
The Vikings spent the 12th overall pick in 2011 on Christian Ponder in hopes he will be their franchise quarterback. I called this pick a reach at the time, but there’s a caveat to that assessment. At the time of the 2011 draft, the NFLPA was locked out, so teams with questions at quarterback – like the Vikings who were fresh off the Donovan McNabb debacle – needed insurance at the position. Thus, quarterbacks like Ponder, Jake Locker, and Blaine Gabbert were “overdrafted” in my estimation.
Ponder has shown some promise. He is athletic, has good footwork in and out of the pocket, and while he doesn’t have elite arm strength, he is accurate with his throws, particularly on the run. Musgrave keeps it simple and safe for Ponder, who ranks in the top 10 in completion percentage, but is in the bottom five in yards per attempt. The simplified passing attack has less to do with Ponder and more to do with the limited weapons he has to work with.
One weapon Ponder was developing is a strong rapport with his wide receiver Percy Harvin. Prior to suffering an ankle injury in the Seahawks game, Harvin was having a career year, and on pace to put up over 1,300 receiving yards. Known primarily as a returner – a role he is still effective in – early in his career, Harvin has turned the corner as a big-play receiver in 2012. Harvin was averaging almost 14 yards a touch. Productivity like that is difficult to replace.
The Vikings second leading receiver – Michael Jenkins – is also hobbled with a foot injury. Both Jenkins and Harvin’s status for Sunday is unknown. Not having either would mean the Vikings would have to turn to the uber-athletic, yet inconsistent Jerome Simpson, former Bears training camp wonder Devin Aromashodu, and rookie Jarius Wright. Clearly, this group doesn’t have anyone requiring a double team, which allows teams – in theory – to scheme to stop the run.
Aside from Harvin, second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph is Ponder’s second favorite target. An athletic tight end willing to patrol the middle of the field can be a young quarterback’s security blanket, so pairing Rudolph with Ponder in the draft made a lot of sense. The Vikings typically look for Rudolph in the red zone – he leads the team with six receiving touchdowns – off of play action bootlegs. Seeing how effective the 49ers Vernon Davis was against the Bears on Monday night, you can expect Rudolph to be featured in the game plan.
With the new stadium deal secured, General manager Rick Spielman has a bit more breathing room to build a proper foundation. Spielman wisely spent the Vikings first-round pick this past April on left tackle Matt Kalil (USC), who looks to be a franchise cornerstone. Kalil is a prototypical left tackle, long arms, great feet, and the nastiness scouts look for. Kalil comes from a strong NFL blood line, as his father (Frank) was drafted by the Bills, and his brother (Ryan) is a Pro Bowl center for the Carolina Panthers.
The Vikings are slowly assembling pieces on offense, with (seemingly) the two most important – left tackle and quarterback – taken care of. However, the Vikings don’t have the necessary talent at wide receiver, both guard spots, and right tackle, to contend. The hope is Spielman will be able to fill in the gaps before Peterson’s productivity declines. Seeing the cyborg-like recovery Peterson has made, that decline could be years away.
Defensively, the Vikings have an established veteran star at every level. During their 4-1 start, their formula for success was to run the ball, convert high-percentage passes, and play stout run defense. Over the past five games, the Vikings are 2-3 and only their running game has remained consistent, and there’s been a precipitous drop-off in run defense. They’ve surrendered 144 rushing yards per game and six rushing touchdowns.
Up front, Jared Allen is still a premier defensive end and one of the most relentless pass rushers in the NFL. While Allen hasn’t registered a sack in his last two games, you have to imagine after watching Aldon Smith and the 49ers defensive line do as they pleased against the Bears, Allen is ready to break his slump. The last time Allen went up against J’Marcus Webb, he tallied 3.5 sacks, so the Bears would be foolish to leave him single-blocked.
On the interior, veteran Kevin Williams isn’t what he used to be, but he can still win single-block opportunities. Rising star Letroy Guion should return from a turf toe injury, which should be a shot in the arm to the Vikings recently sagging run defense. With Allen commanding a double team, there will be several “singles” for the Vikings defensive tackles to collapse the pocket from the inside.
Strongside linebacker Chad Greenway is a tackling machine who makes plays all over the field. Prior to the bye-week, Greenway led the league in tackles. Not only is Greenway active in run support, he’s adept at dropping into coverage and taking away the underneath zones. Greenway is flanked by Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson.
In the secondary, ageless veteran Antoine Winfield is having another stellar season. Winfield has always played bigger than his stature, drawing opponent’s top receiving threat, and is always willing to stick his nose in run support. With Chris Cook out with a broken arm, AJ Jefferson has big shoes to fill as the starter opposite Winfield. The Vikings safeties – Jamarca Sanford and rookie Harrison Smith (Notre Dame) – are young, unproven, and vulnerable.
Prior to the season, the Vikings were written off by most pundits, as this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. While they’ve exceeded expectations, this roster is far from complete, and they are forced to play nearly flawless football to win. Both of these teams struggle to move the ball through the air, so this game will be a close to the vest, grind it out game, reminiscent of the old black and blue NFC Central days.
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.