It may be the most wonderful time of the year for retailers and little kids, but for NFL players it’s the most painful. Ask the Bears. The team’s emotional leader, Brian Urlacher, is out, as is ballhawk Tim Jennings. Earl Bennett is likely to miss the game, though Devin Hester and Alshon Jeffery may return. For Minnesota, Percy Harvin is done for the season, and Jared Allen continues to struggle with a bad shoulder and back.
Roster depth will help decide this important NFC North matchup. Here’s how we at Football Outsiders and ChicagoSide see it.
BEARS ON O
Minnesota remains a tough team to run against (9th overall), but offers gaps in the passing game (25th). The Viking secondary is strong in the run game, ranking in the top five in Open Field and Second Level Yards, meaning the unit needs to spend less time in practice tackling and more time working on coverage technique. Jay Cutler had his most efficient game in the air a week ago, and was effective taking what Minnesota’s Cover-two zone gave him the week before, completing almost 75% of his passes in the Bears easy win.
Brandon Marshall had a strong game against Seattle, helped by a curious decision by the Seahawks to play far more zone coverage than they have all season. Perhaps they were preparing for the loss of their starting cornerbacks to suspension. Regardless, Marshall was effective carving out space, and he’ll get another opportunity this weekend unless the Vikings make like the Seahawks and change their standard m.o.
Chicago’s offensive line remains middle of the pack in Adjusted Line Yards, and the backs are still unable to get much on their own in the second level. That combined with Minnesota’s below-average pass defense points to putting the game in Cutler’s hands. Which of course means putting the game in Brandon Marshall’s hands.
BEARS ON D
Two weeks ago Adrian Peterson rushed for 108 yards and six yards per carry against Chicago. That actually qualifies as a good effort by the Bears defense, as All Day has exceeded those numbers in every other game of the last six, culminating in an exceptional 21-210-10.0 last Sunday. Still, the Vikes lost that game, which goes straight to the heart of Minny’s offensive issues. QB Christian Ponder ranks 26th in our table. He gave away the Packers game a week ago, and despite Russell Wilson’s heroics, the Bears pass defense remains No. 1 (their 7.7% DVOA against the pass in the ‘Hawks game was by far their worst performance of the season). That’s a mismatch in Chicago’s favor.
Taking on Ponder should feel like sweet relief after getting tortured by Wilson’s read options and accurate throws outside the pocket. Wilson became the first opponent (of ten) to attempt thirty or more passes against the Bears without throwing a pick. Clearly, injury and exhaustion led to some of the late-game breakdown, but it could have been expected. Seattle is our third-ranked offense in DVOA during the fourth quarter and overtime, in large part because Wilson is that much harder to contain on tired legs. The Vikings are only 14th in the measure, and Chicago is ranked second in fourth quarter defense, but nonetheless it would behoove the Bears (and their skittish fans) to build a bigger lead going into the final minutes.
Watch out for flags, however. Only five QBs have gotten more help from the refs than Ponder, who is 6th in pass interference yardage.
With Harvin out, the Vikes top wideout is Michael Jenkins, he of the -22.5% DVOA and 50% catch rate. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has eight TDs but exactly a 0.0% DVOA. Nevertheless, he becomes the Vikings top pass threat by default.
Chicago should try to get Minnesota to line up in shotgun formation as often as possible. Thanks to Peterson’s bullish runs from standard sets, the Vikes are third in the NFL in yards per play from non-shotgun formations. But when Ponder takes the long snap, the team is 29th in yards per play. Stopping the Vikes on first down runs, where they are sixth overall, is critical to Chicago’s success. The Bears can sell out by putting all eleven men in the box if they so choose. The Vikings can’t throw it on first down in any case. They rank dead last in the league in that stat.
ODDS & ENDS & PEYTON MANNING
The special teams matchup is basically a wash, with Chicago ranking fourth and Minnesota fifth, although without Harvin returning kicks the Vikings aren’t the same team. Playing indoors has helped inflate the Vikes’ numbers a bit, while being outdoors depresses Chicago’s a touch, but the fact remains these are two strong units.
The Bears still have a healthy 19.7% shot at playing in the NFC title game, according to our Playoff Odds. They have a 4.6% chance of winning it all as well. That’s higher than the New York Giants, by the way, though I’d bet if you asked one hundred football fans in the Apple and the Loop which team had a better crack at the Lombardi Trophy, a big majority would side with the G-Men.
In case you were wondering, there is a 2.4% probability of a “Jay Cutler Reunion Game,” pitting Denver against Chicago in the big game, Cutler v. Peyton Manning. But for that to have a chance to to happen, and for the Green Bay game next week to generate the kind of excitement it should, the Bears need to bounce back from last week’s disaster and take care of the Vikings.