Breaking down Sunday's Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings game (8:15 p.m., Eastern, NBC) ...
1. File this under 'Stating the Obvious': Minnesota has to win the turnover battle. The Bears simply thrive on them. They lead the league with 25 (17 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries) and they're 5-1 in games in which they win the turnover tally, including an Oct. 19 battle against Minnesota when they totaled five against the Viking's lone fumble recovery. On that 58-degree afternoon at Soldier Field, the Bears spun the bonus field position into 14 crucial points in an uncharacteristic-of-the-NFC North 48-41 shootout win.
Five weeks later, Minnesota has come to fully understand the power of the turnover -- just ask the Jaguars, who fell behind them 14-0 thanks to two quick turnovers last week. But as easy as it is to say "Minnesota wins if it induces turnovers," let's accept that the Vikings aren't going to force Chicago into any stupid errors.
After 225 carries, which is fourth-most among all running backs, Matt Forte has just one fumble. No Bears back, tight end or receiver has more than two fumbles, so there aren't any butterfingers here. And quarterback Kyle Orton has thrown just four interceptions, which ties him for second-least among 10-game starters. Currently, he's a on a six-game, 185-pass interception-less streak. If he finishes with six, as he projects to, it will be the second-lowest total for a 15-game Chicago Bears starter ever. You can start to see how he beat out Rex Grossman now, no?
On the other end, it should go without saying: The Vikings simply cannot afford to turn the ball over and give the Bears a short field. As well as Orton has played in '08, Chicago's offense still isn't built to pull off multiple 70-yard drives in one game. As evidence, look at the Bears' two losses in the last three weeks.
Against Green Bay on Nov. 16, they had an average starting position of their own 26; three times they started inside their own 11. And Chicago only crossed midfield once before the fourth quarter started. Against Tennessee a week before that, Chicago's average starting position was its own 21; it started at or inside of its 10-yard line eight times. Again, it crossed the Titans' 40 just once before the fourth quarter. Through both games, the Bears' opponents had just two turnovers (read: they never treated Chicago to an abbreviated field) and the Bears scored just 17 total points.
Enter Minnesota. After Gus Frerotte's four-interception day in the first go-round, coach Brad Childress needs to reign in his quarterback, settle his beef with Adrian Peterson, and plot out a run-heavy assault on Chicago's defensive ends, where they're most susceptible. (See: Ryan Grant's 25 carries for 145 yards, mostly off-tackle). Which brings us to...
2. The Vikings' running game: It shouldn't be this hard, guys. There's been all sorts of drama in Minnesota's running game lately, mostly focused around Peterson. First he was fumbling too much. Then he got benched late in a 17-19 loss to Tampa Bay. And last week he sat the opening two series against Jacksonville -- something about showing up late for a team meeting. All of this has provided Vikings fans a convenient scapegoat: "If only Brad Childress would just give the ball to AP..." and so forth.
But here's the reality: Peterson does fumble a lot. Only Larry Johnson has more, and we already covered the Bears' defense in relation to turnovers. He's also sustained his fair share of injuries during his short career.
Furthermore, Chester Taylor's as good a backup as you'll find in this league, and he's been perfectly effective as a complementary back. In the 25 games Peterson and Taylor have suited up, Minnesota is 8-3 when both backs get at least nine carries. When both guys gain at least 50 yards, they're 4-0. When both score, they're 4-1.
If Childress is going to attack the teeth of the Bears' defense, along the line, he'll want both guys to contribute. The Packers' one-two attack of Ryan Grant (25 carries, 145 yards) and Brandon Jackson (10 and 50), should have provided the perfect template.
3. Of course, Minnesota might be just as well off sticking to the pass; it's worked wonders for plenty of other mediocre quarterbacks this year. Consider the passers who've torched the Bears for over 280 yards: Kerry Collins (his best game); Dan Orlovsky (also his best); Frerotte (ditto); Matt Ryan (yep, him too); and Brian Griese (mmm hmm...). Five guys have ripped the Bears for two touchdowns each. In total, opponents have added up 2,868 passing yards on the Bears, third-worst in the league, and they're doing it at a slow 10.51 yards per completion pace.
Let that last part be a lesson, Gus. The shorter the better against these Bears. In '08 Chicago has used a mixture of Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher and Corey Graham, a fifth-round pick in '07 who's filled in when injuries dictated it. They're all pretty similar, so it shouldn't matter Sunday. Each one is impressively athletic with top-notch speed and impeccable tacking and ball-ripping skills, but none is particularly aggressive at the line of scrimmage. You won't see much bump-and-run from these guys. Instead, you'll see a lot of close play on deep balls. They seemingly dare opponents to throw it up, and the trio tends to fare well against this.
The problem arises when opponents start to work the middle of the field. Against solid running teams like Tennessee, for example, Chicago committed its linebackers to the line of scrimmage and they successfully held the Titans to 20 yards on 29 carries. But that left plenty of open room across the middle of the field. Without Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs trolling that space, the defensive backfield was effectively forced to take a few steps off the line of scrimmage to prevent anything from slipping by. As a result, Collins was able to work the middle of the field, often hitting receivers without a defender within five yards. (For Chicago, there seems to be a daring mentality in play. "Go ahead and come across the middle; we'll blow you up." And safety Mike Brown does blow people up. But how often can that work?)
Same thing against Green Bay a week later. When Grant started off hot, the Bears moved their backers up to help and set Graham and Vasher as much as 10 yards off of the ball on pass plays. Then, picking up near midfield of the Packers' second drive of the game, they pulled this off:
On first down at the Bears' 45, Vasher lined up five yards off Donald Driver, who took a quick hit for 15 yards. On first down from the Bears' 30, Vasher was five yards off and quickly backpedaling when Aaron Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for 18. Then it was Tillman giving up seven yards at the line of scrimmage to Driver, who took a quick slant to the three-yard line. And finally, Greg Jennings cut across hard at the goal line, which left no chance for Graham, who gave him five yards off the ball again. Touchdown Packers.
This week, if Frerotte can get the ball to speedy receiver Bernard Berrian with room to maneuver in the flat, the Bears could be in for another long day of chasing.
4. In the end, none of this will matter if the league follows through on the four-game suspensions of Vikings defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams before Sunday. As of Wednesday morning the NFL had yet to execute the suspensions of nine players, including the Williamses (cumulative mass: 12-foot-8, 628 pounds), who tested positive for steroid masking agents. Neither Viking had commented, though both appealed to the league in person last week.
So, just how decimated would Minnesota be if the suspensions went into effect by Sunday? Against Chicago, it would be a huge problem. Although he was limited to 56 yards in his first effort against Minnesota, Forte is still fifth in the NFL with 909 rushing yards. He's critical in moving the chains for the Bears' offense and he's best used straight up the middle.
Beyond the Williamses, Minnesota doesn't have a single interior lineman with more than three tackles, which means there could be some shuffling along the line (perhaps moving an end to down lineman). With sole possession of first place in the NFC North on the line, now is as bad a time as any for the change.
What seems more likely is that the league saves the suspensions for the last four games of the year, opting not to so directly mess with a playoff race. In that case they'd make an announcement early next week, allowing Childress to fully digest the situation before hatching a game plan. That isn't to say that Minnesota would be off the hook by avoiding the messy situation against Chicago. After Detroit and Arizona, miserable running teams by any measure, the Vikings face Atlanta and the New York Giants over the final two weeks, likely with the NFC North crown on the line. And those two teams currently boast the league's top two rushing attacks.
This game should be far more run-centric than the first, especially if the Vikings' suspensions go through. Since their 90-point shootout with the Vikings, the Bears have lost focus on their passing game. They only connected with receivers five times against Tennessee; four against Green Bay. Likewise, Childress will be feeling the pressure to use Peterson for the sake of saving the season and his job. If the NFL doesn't pull the trigger (my guess: it won't), Minnesota takes it 28-20. If the league does, I like the Bears by a reversed score.