Minnesota Vikings vs. Chicago Bears: Key Matchups for Vikings to Avoid 0-2 Start

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor ISeptember 12, 2013

Week 2 of the NFL season has the Minnesota Vikings heading to the Windy City to take on the Chicago Bears in an NFC North matchup that may loom large in how the division shakes out over the season.

We're going to go over some key matchups for the Vikings against the Bears that will be crucial for Minnesota to stay out of an 0-2 hole to start the season.

The less said about the Purple's Week 1 loss to the Lions the better, but you can almost feel Vikings fans gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly this week.

I don't know if you've heard, but the sky is falling in 16 cities across the country.

Such is the pain and passion that comes with being an NFL fan these days. The 16 teams that lost their first game on the NFL schedule this past weekend have thrown their fanbases into panic mode.

The Vikings are one such team, and if you read the newspapers or websites and listen to sports talk radio, you know the drill in Minnesota. Christian Ponder is not the answer at quarterback. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave needs to go. Matt Kalil must be playing hurt. The defense misses Antoine Winfield more than anyone imagined it would.

It's time for everyone to take a deep breath.

There is no doubt it was a bad loss to the Detroit Lions, losing a very winnable game is tough to take, but it was only one game. 

Week 2 offers another road contest, as the Vikings travel to Chicago to take on the 1-0 Bears at a stadium where the Vikings are just 1-9 in their last 10 games. On the bright side, it's the first September game the Vikings have played in Chicago since 1998, so the weather shouldn't be a factor.

Here are four key matchups that will go a long way in determining Sunday's outcome.


Vikings Defensive Line vs. Jay Cutler

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is 5-1 in his last six starts against the Vikings. The big-armed Chicago signal-caller has a history of giving up a lot of sacks, but the Chicago front office has spent the last couple of years trying to put a better offensive line in front of him.

After being dropped 38 times last season, Cutler wasn't sacked in last week's season-opening 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. That's a very impressive stat, considering no team has sacked the quarterback more over the last two seasons than the Bengals.

The Bears overhauled their offensive line in the offseason and have four new starters on what appears to be a vastly improved front. Center Roberto Garza returns for his ninth season starting at center, but everyone else on the line is new. 

Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was the marquee signing in the offseason, but left guard Matt Slauson has been just as good at left tackle after starting for the New York Jets for three seasons.

The Bears start a pair of rookies on the right side, first-round pick Kyle Long at guard and a surprise starter in fifth-round pick Jordan Mills at right tackle.

Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams didn't play in the loss to the Lions but is expected to return to the under tackle spot this week and should fortify the middle of the line for Minnesota. 

That should help, as the Vikings defensive line was nearly a no-show against the Lions, failing to register a sack against Matthew Stafford, who carved up the Minnesota defense, completing 28 passes for 357 yards and two touchdowns.

The highlighted matchup along the line will be Bushrod against Jared Allen. Allen got two hits on Stafford but was clearly frustrated at his inability to get any sacks. The Vikings' left side of the line has to take advantage of lining up against two rookies starting for the Bears. Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans all have to contribute to make Cutler uncomfortable in the pocket.


Christian Ponder vs. the Bears Secondary

The walls continue to close in on Christian Ponder after a shaky performance against the Lions. Ponder was picked off three times against the Lions and now faces a Bears secondary that is a level above Detroit's.

The Vikings split their two games with Chicago in 2012, but Ponder wasn't very good in either game, throwing for just 250 yards and one touchdown in the two games, with a quarterback rating of just 56. 

The Bears defense led the NFL in takeaways in 2012 with 44, including a league-high 24 interceptions. Chicago's secondary is led by a pair of All-Pro cornerbacks in Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings. Jennings led the league with nine interceptions in 2012, and Tillman had two picks in last week's win over Cincinnati.

For the Vikings passing game to be successful against the Bears, Ponder has to be more accurate and has to do a better job of surveying the entire field. Along with his three interceptions against Detroit, he had two other balls that should have been picked off.

To be sure, the Vikings offensive line has to do a much better job of giving Ponder time to throw. Ponder was sacked three times and flushed out of the pocket on numerous occasions. 

With all of that in mind, it's incumbent on offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to simplify things for his quarterback. The Vikings have to get more than just five receptions out of Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph, the duo that is expected to lead the team in catches.

The Vikings did throw more deep balls against Detroit than usual, and look for that to continue with both Jerome Simpson and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson taking shots downfield against the Bears.

As always, the Vikings passing game will feed off of the running game. Adrian Peterson went for over 100 yards in both games against Chicago, and he'll need to have another big game for the Vikings to win.

Ponder needs a solid game for both his confidence and his team's confidence in him. Another poor game from the Minnesota quarterback, and plenty of seats will get pretty hot in the Vikings organization.


Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes vs. Brandon Marshall

If you had told the Vikings that they would hold Calvin Johnson to just four catches for 37 yards, they would've taken it in a heartbeat and assumed that it came in a convincing victory.

It turned out that shutting down Johnson was about the only positive for a Vikings defense that had no answer for Reggie Bush.

It doesn't get any easier in Week 2 for the Vikings secondary, as it gets to lock horns with Brandon Marshall of the Bears. The 6'4", 230-pound Marshall is a matchup nightmare for cornerbacks, as he combines size and speed as well as any receiver in the league.

Marshall dominated the Vikings last season to the tune of 22 catches for 252 yards in two games. The Vikings will take the same scheme against Marshall that worked so well against Johnson in Week 1. The Vikings drafted Rhodes for his ability to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and both he and Cook are bigger corners who won't back down from intimidating receivers like Marshall.

Of course, for the secondary to be successful, the defensive front will have to do a better job of pressuring Cutler than it did Stafford. If Cutler is given time to set up in the pocket and survey the field, he can be deadly.

Marshall caught eight passes for just over 100 yards against the Bengals and scored the winning touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter. The Vikings would love to keep Marshall off of the scoreboard, but as long as they get a victory, it won't matter what Marshall does.


Adrian Peterson vs. the Bears Defense

It was a very strange opening game for returning MVP Adrian Peterson. After taking his first carry 78 yards for a touchdown, Peterson was completely shut down the rest of the way, picking up just 15 yards on his final 17 rushes.

That can't happen if the Vikings have any hope of having a successful season.

The Bears defense completely stifled the Bengals running game in Week 1, limiting the Bengals to just three yards a carry and 63 yards overall rushing.

Obviously, the Bengals don't have a back nearly as good as Peterson, and the Vikings star has a good history against Chicago, rushing for over 100 yards four times, including both games last season.

The simple fact for the Vikings offense is that the line has to play much better for the team to win. Peterson never had anywhere to go after his first carry and was hit behind the line numerous times. The hope was that Minnesota's offensive line would be a strength this year after playing every game together in 2012. 

That certainly wasn't the case against the Lions.

Head coach Leslie Frazier has said on many occasions that the Vikings are a run-first offense, which makes sense on a team that employs the best back in the game. If they can't do a lot better than 15 yards on 17 carries, it's going to be a long, disappointing season. 


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