By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (2-4) host the Vikings (4-2) on Sunday at noon. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Protect Cutler
Protecting quarterback Jay Cutler will be a big task for the Bears offensive line. The Vikings destroyed Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford last week, taking advantage of an overwhelmed front five. They hit Stafford 13 times and sacked him seven times.
Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer has crafted one of the premier pressure packages in the NFL. He dials it up from just about everywhere. Six different Vikings accounted for those seven sacks, and nine have accounted for their 17 for the season. They’re one of the top five defenses in knocking the quarterback down.
On the edge, Everson Griffen excels at converting speed to power and will be a challenge for Bears left tackle Charles Leno, as will Brian Robison on the other side with Kyle Long. Young Minnesota linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks will show blitz, forcing the protection plan to be spot on. Kendricks had an impactful October with four sacks.
If the Bears can get running backs Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford rolling, it should back the Vikings off a bit. The Vikings are allowing nearly six yards a carry on first down, which ranks among the worst in the league.
Flashing on tape, as always, is free safety Harrison Smith, who’s excellent on the blitz and arrives at the ball from the back end with a purpose. Taking some shots deep with Alshon Jeffrey and Marquess Wilson — in particular against cornerback Xavier Rhodes — could result in some flags, as Rhodes owns the most penalties defensively in the league with 10 and will play physically regardless of the calls. He’s also been charged with permitting four touchdowns.
Defense: Bash Bridgewater
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will craft a plan that will focus on stopping the unique skill set of star Vikings running back Adrian Peterson while keeping track of some speedy weapons in the passing game. Last wek, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater completed 25 passes to 11 different players.
The surprising and rising star right now is rookie receiver Stefon Diggs, whose speed is a threat all over the field. His attitude and swagger are backed up by his production. He has at least five catches and more than 80 yards in the three games he’s played this season. Mike Wallace is as fast as any receiver in the game, and Jarius Wright is quick and fast out of the slot.
Bridgewater’s numbers against the blitz, in the red zone and in the fourth quarter haven’t popped, but his accuracy is excellent. He’s arguably coming off his best game as a pro. Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner uses all of his running backs and has a quality tight end in Kyle Rudolph to create matchup advantages for Bridgewater.
The Bears defense is improving but also changing in terms of personnel virtually every week. Their chemistry is coming, and veteran Antrel Rolle could return at safety. The Vikings are vulnerable against guys like Pernell McPhee and Jarvis Jenkins, given their early season success rushing the passer. The Vikings offensive line has been intact for all six games, taking every snap, but only one starter is in the same spot as he was a year ago. Minnesota has struggled at times with pass rushers.
Special teams: Make the bigger play
In the first six games, the Bears have made plays on special teams that have resulted in points or game-turning moments, like McPhee’s blocked field goal attempt in the win at Kansas City. Conversely, they have also been burned by early kick return touchdowns, a fake punt in Detroit and the Seattle punt return surprise by Richard Sherman. If plays are going to be made on special teams, the Bears have to make the bigger ones.
Minnesota’s special team unit has speed with kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and punt returner Marcus Sherels. Kicker Blair Walsh is a weapon who’s outstanding beyond 50 yards, and he’s hit his last 10 field goal attempts after a sluggish preseason and September.
Intangibles: Rebuild the momentum
By rebuilding the momentum cobbled together in wins over the Raiders and Chiefs, the Bears have to stop that of the Vikings, who won their first road division game since 2012 against the Lions last Sunday.
Minnesota hasn’t won in Chicago since 2007. Only three players remain from that roster, including Peterson, who was in his rookie season and torched the Bears then. At 4-2, the Vikings are a wild-card threat in the NFC and have a coach in Zimmer who commands the locker room. The Vikings play hard, fast and physical for Zimmer, and the Bears have to respond in kind.
The Bears have to start winning in the division, and it’s something coach John Fox harps on. It all begins and ends with the division and regaining home-field advantage.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.