Vikings at Bears: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings at Bears: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings Barroom Assistant Editor Drew Mahowald takes an extensive look at the Vikings at Bears Week 8 matchup.

Everything that could’ve went wrong, did.

The Minnesota Vikings came off their bye week in Philadelphia last week against the Eagles and laid a big fat egg. The final score read 21-10, but void the garbage time touchdown from Minnesota and in reality the game was just a good old fashioned blowout.

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Quarterback Sam Bradford was given what seemed like just milliseconds to throw. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner put together his worst performance of the season, including the use of ROTATING OFFENSIVE TACKLES, which is the worst maneuver I’ve ever seen from an offense, especially one with holograms for book ends on the offensive line. Combine that with Philadelphia’s strong group of pass rushers and Bradford’s cement feet and the Vikings passing attack had no chance.

The special teams was even worse. The Vikings allowed Josh Huff to scamper 98 yards for a kick return touchdown, which is somehow being blamed on kicker Blair Walsh. Furthermore, Marcus Sherels muffed a punt, which is more rare than a presidential candidate telling the truth these days.

It was really the perfect storm for a Vikings loss. Mike Zimmer’s defensive unit was fantastic once again, allowing just one offensive touchdown for the fourth consecutive game and forcing four Eagles turnovers.

The Vikings have a chance to bounce back on Monday night at Soldier Field against the division rival Chicago Bears. Prior to last season, Minnesota hadn’t earned a win in Chicago since Adrian Peterson’s rookie season, and it took 224 rushing yards and three touchdowns from him to get that win.

It’s no secret that quarterback Jay Cutler, likely returning this week from injury (although head coach John Fox may not like it), has been terrific in his career at Soldier Field against the Vikings. In fact, he’d be undefeated in his career in such games if not for late-game heroics by Teddy Bridgewater last season.

One thing football fans know full well is that beating divisional opponents on the road is no easy task, no matter how depleted that opponent is. Minnesota is the favorite on paper, but there are a few players and key matchups that will ultimately decide the fate of this game.

Key Matchups

WR Alshon Jeffery vs. CB Xavier Rhodes

Since returning from injury Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers, Xavier Rhodes has been arguably the best cornerback in the NFL.

Indeed, the Rhodes his way have been closed all season, all while facing elite receivers such as Kelvin Benjamin, Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins.

Rhodes’ next test is Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery, another player that deserves consideration with the above trio to be categorized as elite. Historically, Jeffery has had his way with the Vikings, recording 612 receiving yards and six touchdowns in seven games.

Jeffery and Cutler have built impeccable chemistry over the past few seasons. It’s good enough to where defensive backs can do their job to perfection and still give up a big play.

Take last season at TCF Bank Stadium, for example. Terence Newman, who was filling in for an injured Rhodes at the time, blankets Jeffery perfectly. However, Cutler trusts Jeffery enough to throw behind him and Jeffery turns to look for the ball just in time. In this scenario, there is nothing a cornerback can really do to prevent a touchdown, especially against a specimen like Jeffery.

Newman (23) blankets Jeffery (17), but a perfect timing on a throw like this is virtually impossible to defend.

Newman (23) blankets Jeffery (17), but a perfect timing on a throw like this is virtually impossible to defend.

As long as Rhodes stays healthy (knocks viciously on wood) for the duration of Monday night, there’s a good chance he will shadow Jeffery across the field. Rhodes has traditionally excelled against the big-bodied, lengthy, physical receivers like Jeffery.

However, Jeffery is the exception. He has generally had Rhodes’ number, and a lot of that is due to Cutler and the chemistry the duo has developed.

Here, Jeffery runs a fade with a double-move against Rhodes, who is in man-to-man coverage in a Cover 1 look with Harrison Smith playing centerfield. Cutler’s throw is an absolute dime and all Jeffery needed to do was get a step on Rhodes and high-point the ball, which he does extremely well.

Rhodes (29) covers Jeffery (17) relatively well in the Cover 1 look, but Cutler's throw and Jeffery's ability to win the contested catch prevail.

Rhodes (29) covers Jeffery (17) relatively well in the Cover 1 look without biting on the double-move, but Cutler’s throw and Jeffery’s ability to win the contested catch prevail.

Chicago’s offense hasn’t been spectacular by any means this season (although Brian Hoyer had been playing efficient football until his broken arm last Thursday). That could change on Monday as the Cutler-Jeffery duo is rekindled.

That duo gets a stiff test in its first outing back in action in Rhodes. Will Rhodes continue his elite shutdown play against some of the top receivers in the NFL? Or will Cutler and Jeffery rediscover their success and make a couple of big plays?

The winner of this matchup will likely be from the winning team on Monday night.

OLB Willie Young vs. Minnesota OTs

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio boasts plenty of talented and athletic pass rushers. Of them, Willie Young has been the cream of the crop in 2016.

Young has recorded six sacks through his team’s first seven games, good for sixth in the NFL. For the most part, Young uses his strength to push opposing tackles backward, thus collapsing the pocket and leaving the quarterback nowhere to go.

Young (97) uses a bull rush on Colts RT Joe Haag to bring down Andrew Luck.

Young (97) uses a bull rush on Colts RT Joe Haag to bring down Andrew Luck.

Young has done most of his damage from that left side against opposing right tackles. But that hasn’t been exclusively where he has lined up. He’s versatile enough to move around in Fangio’s creative pass rushing scheme and against an offensive line like Minnesota’s, Fangio can get even more creative.

For those doubting whether Young can get to the passer from the right side, just ask Eagles eight-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters.

Young (97) is most known for using a bull rush. But here, he swims around Jason Peters to bring down Carson Wentz.

Young (97) is most known for using a bull rush. But here, he swims around Jason Peters on the twist stunt to bring down Carson Wentz.

The weakest part of Minnesota’s entire roster is the offensive tackle position. Just over two weeks ago, general manager Rick Spielman had to bring a guy in off the street in Jake Long to solidify the depth. Of course, Norv Turner and offensive line coach Tony Sparano took that the wrong way and employed a rotation at offensive tackle, which is a worse idea than bringing Eddie Lacy to a buffet.

Chicago’s pass rush is no joke, and Young has been the most effective of the bunch. T.J. Clemmings, Jeremiah Sirles and (maybe?) Jake Long have their work cut out for them.

X-Factors

Bears X-Factor: DL Pernell McPhee

Chicago appears to be getting one of its studs on the defensive line back for a full slate of snaps on Monday night. McPhee returned for just 19 snaps last Thursday against the Packers and with 11 days of rest should be good to go against a reeling Vikings offensive line.

McPhee is another versatile player for Fangio to employ. Expect to see him all over the 3-4 defensive front, whether on the inside or the outside. McPhee carries a lot of mass at 6’2″ and 280 pounds, that doesn’t mean he can’t move well.

Both games against Minnesota last season, McPhee was a bright spot for the Bears. In game one at Soldier Field, McPhee constantly put pressure on Teddy Bridgewater and recorded this nasty sack while making Matt Kalil (who’s better than Minnesota’s current tackles) look like a rag doll.

McPhee (92) shoves Matt Kalil aside and gets to QB Teddy Bridgewater in a flash.

McPhee (92) shoves Matt Kalil aside and gets to QB Teddy Bridgewater in a flash.

Rushing the passer isn’t all that McPhee does. His combination of speed and mass allow him to clog running lines faster than most defensive linemen, especially when offenses try sending a fullback at him. That just won’t work.

McPhee (92) blasts FB Zach Line (48) before wrapping up RB Jerick McKinnon for no gain.

McPhee (92) blasts FB Zach Line (48) before wrapping up RB Jerick McKinnon for no gain.

Chicago is slowly starting to regain some of its key players lost earlier in the season due to injury. McPhee might be the most impactful returnee, or at least he is on the defensive side. Between Young, McPhee and Leonard Floyd, Fangio has an abundance of athletic freaks on his defensive line to get creative with.

Adding McPhee back into the mix only adds more options into the playbook. Expect to see No. 92 lined up in many different locations taking advantage of the porous Minnesota offensive line.

Vikings X-Factor: OC Norv Turner

If it was ever possible for a coach on a 5-1 team to be on the hot seat, Turner is there. After last week’s loss to Philadelphia, head coach Mike Zimmer took multiple shots at Turner’s offense and the offensive line, and with good reason.

Turner reverted to his 2015 ways against the Eagles. Bradford took seven-step drops all day, which just cannot happen with an offensive line as bad as Minnesota’s. There was a refusal to use screen plays or draws to neutralize Philadelphia’s ferocious pass rush. And the rotating offensive tackles idea has already been mentioned, but that was straight trash.

Chicago presents a solid opportunity for Turner to bounce back. While the Bears do boast a talented pass rush and two very good 3-4 inside linebackers in Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, their secondary leaves a lot to be desired. Tracy Porter’s best seasons are at least four years in the rearview mirror. Bryce Callahan and Cre’von LeBlanc are both talented players but also experiencing growing pains every week. Safety Harold Jones-Quartey struggles more than he excels. Centerfield safety Adrian Amos is really the best contributor that secondary.

Turner must let Bradford take advantage of a rather weak secondary. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen will win one-on-one matchups on the outside, but it won’t matter if Bradford is on his back. Here are three objectives for Norv to accomplish on Monday:

  1. Use more three-step drops. The best way to negate a terrible offensive line is to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands.
  2. Run more draws and screens. Don’t be so freakin’ predictable in the 2nd or 3rd and long situations. Put the defense back on its heels for once.
  3. Establish some sort of ground game. Chicago will likely be without run-stuffing magician Eddie Goldman, leaving the opportunity for Minnesota’s ground game to finally show some competency.

If Turner does all of those things (or even two of those things), the Vikings will walk out of Soldier Field with a win on Monday night.

Prediction

Weather conditions for the Windy City on Monday night look just that — windy. Combine that with a playing surface at Soldier Field that is subpar, and the result is poor playing conditions.

Defensively, Minnesota will record another stellar performance aided by the conditions. Turnover-prone quarterback Jay Cutler will cough the ball up four times and the Bears will register just one offensive touchdown, no more or less than the Vikings have surrendered in their past four games.

Offensively, Minnesota score enough to win the game, but that isn’t really saying  much. As long as Turner starts to use a quick-hitting passing attack once again, the Vikings should be able to produce enough big plays against Chicago’s secondary.

Vikings 19, Bears 8

Be sure to check out the latest edition of the About The Labor podcast, previewing Monday night’s matchup.

And. take a listen to BJ Ridell’s rant on offensive coordinator Norv Turner

Norv Turner Strikes A Nerve

And, take a quick history of the Vikings – Bears rivalry. 

Vikings History: Chicago Bears

 

Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is a student at Saint John's University (MN) pursuing a degree in media communications and a career in sports media. In addition to serving as an assistant editor at the Barroom, Drew also writes about the Minnesota Timberwolves for OnTheProwlMN.com. You can follow Jim Kleinsasser's #1 fan on Twitter at @DrewMahowald.



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