By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (5-10) visit the Vikings (6-9) on Sunday afternoon to conclude a disappointing season. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Cutler returns
Jay Cutler is back in the saddle at quarterback. Giving him a clean pocket will be the first challenge for the Bears’ offensive line, which is on its ninth different starting combination. In the Week 11 meeting, Cutler threw it 43 times for 330 yards in Chicago’s win. He wasn’t sacked but was knocked down five times and hurried twice.
For the season against the blitz, Cutler has thrown nine touchdowns, five interceptions and been sacked 14 times, with a 97 rating. The Vikings will blitz. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer is seething over the play of his defense in last week’s loss to Miami, as it allowed 35 points and 37 first downs while committing 11 penalties.
Zimmer will have the Vikings ready to play, and he loves to dial up pressure. The Vikings blitz frequently with five, six, seven or eight guys at the line of scrimmage. They are top 10 in sacks, knockdowns and drawing holding penalties.
Against the Dolphins, the Vikings were carved up by Ryan Tannehill when they rushed with four, as he completed 27 passes, four for touchdowns. At right defensive end, Everson Griffen needs to be slowed. He leads the Vikings with 12 sacks but had none against Jermon Bushrod and only one hit on Cutler in the teams’ last matchup. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr is out of the equation with a knee injury. On the back end of the Vikings defense, Harrison Smith needs to be accounted for. He intercepted Cutler in the first meeting and recorded his fifth pick Sunday against the Dolphins.
Defense: Compete with fire
Getting mentally right to compete with fire could be the difference on this day for Chicago. Young linebackers Christian Jones and Jon Bostic will be key figures for the Bears. Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is on a four-game streak of completing 70 percent of his passes and subsequently has three games with at least a 114 rating.
Eight of his 17 pass plays earning 25-plus yards have come in the last four games, with more than 600 yards after the catch, representing Minnesota’s best streak of the season. Vikings running back Matt Asiata is a thumper with nine rushing touchdowns, tied for second among backs in the NFL. In the last two games, he’s picked up 11 first downs running the ball, but he’s been over 70 yards rushing only twice this season.
The Bears’ defensive line is short after Willie Young’s injury, so it creates more opportunities for David Bass, who played one of his best games against Detroit.
Special teams: Play smart
There are signs of stability and playmaking throughout the Bears’ special teams units as the season comes to a close. The play of Sherrick McManis, punter Patrick O’Donnell and rookie DeDe Lattimore deserves mention. The kick coverage unit has risen to the top of the league in average even without the injured Robbie Gould during the last month. They are coming off a penalty-free game against the Lions, and repeating that discipline against the Vikings will be a strong finish to the season.
End-of-season games are hard to figure. Effort is often a roller-coaster ride, depending on the circumstances.
The Bears are wrapping up one of the most frustrating and perplexing seasons in recent franchise history with unfulfilled expectations devolving into uncertainty for 2015. Once 3-3, the last nine games have been a nightmare.
Under a first-year coaching staff, the Vikings started 2-5 without Adrian Peterson and have split their last eight games. Pending free agents throughout the league often “play it safe,” hoping to avoid an injury that could jeopardize their market in March. Young players still looking to impress typically let it all hang out.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.