Pregame: Battles in the trenches matter most in Vikings-Bears
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings' victory at the Detroit Lions last season is their only NFC North road win in the last 10 road trips.
Quarterback Christian Ponder's lone division road victory wasn't of his own volition, as he threw for just 111 yards and was backed up by special teams touchdowns from former receiver Percy Harvin and cornerback Marcus Sherels to seal the one-score victory.
Stumbling out the gate, the Vikings didn't give any reason for optimism in 2013 after last Sunday, when they committed four turnovers and allowed 469 yards on defense to a Lions team that continuously shot itself in the foot.
But every time the Lions gave the Vikings one step forward, they took two steps back.
"Road games are tough in general, divisional games which are on the road or at home are tough and when you combine those things it's tough for an offense," Ponder said. "For us, it's not allowing those factors to affect us. Again, watching that film, Detroit's a great defense and they're going to make plays, but a lot of it had to do with what we did to ourselves."
To avoid an 0-2 hole in the division, the Vikings have to find a way to win at Soldier Field in Chicago, something they haven't done since running back Adrian Peterson's rookie year in 2007.
For the purple:
Vikings' D-Line vs. Bears' O-line -- The big talker is veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams. The 33-year old is returning from a hyperextension and bone bruise in his right knee and has practiced just twice since the Aug. 25 injury. Coach Leslie Frazier and teammates seem confident in Williams' ability to bounce back quickly and they'll need him after getting schematically beat down by Lions' running backs in Week 1. A healthy and aging Williams was already scheduled to be cut back to around 35 snaps per game. Expect that number to be even lower on Sunday since he's nursing the knee.
The Bears will certainly take a page out of the Lions' notebook in how to stunt and fool the Vikings' intense pass rush off the edges. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford often got the ball out of his hands in three-step drops that amounted to only 2.5 seconds at times. Bears' quarterback Jay Cutler said "that's the idea" in a conference call with local media this week and it'll be key for the Vikings' interior linemen to read screens and not let the Bears' offensive linemen release free to the next level. Defensive ends Brian Robison and Jared Allen got to Stafford last week, but weren't able to bring him down because of his quick release. Cutler hasn't been as effective as Stafford in that area, but will likely look to shed the ball quickly on Sunday.
The Bears' offensive line did not allow a sack to an improved Cincinnati Bengals pass rush in their Week 1 victory.
Vikings' O-line vs. Bears' D-line -- It's all about the trenches for Minnesota. After getting manhandled by the Lions' defensive line, the Vikings' offensive linemen have a shot at redemption. Not only to create running lanes for Peterson, but to protect young Ponder, who showed last week he struggled mightily against eight-men boxes and the blitz. Two of Ponder's three interceptions came against Lions' loaded fronts and the Bears will certainly do a little bit of the same. Center John Sullivan will play through a knee bruise after Lions' defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's illegal low block that earned him a $100,000 fine, the largest in NFL history.
Bottom line is the Vikings can't allow 16 quarterback pressures like they did vs. the Lions. The most they allowed in 2012 was 15, at Chicago.
For the blue:
Jeff Locke vs. Devin Hester -- Rookie punter Jeff Locke struggled mightily in his NFL debut, netting just over 35 yards on each of his five punts. Locke's hangtime struggled as well, but he said this week it's a "quick fix" as he claims his steps were off on every punt and it's something that shouldn't bother him moving forward. In his second test, he'll face legendary Bears' return man Devin Hester. The Bears have reserved Hester solely as a punt and kickoff return guy and stopped masquerading him as a receiver or cornerback. However, in his eighth season, Hester hasn't returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown since 2011.
Julius Peppers vs. Matt Kalil -- Vikings' second-year left tackle Matt Kalil has stumbled out of the gate so far with bad outings in the preseason and a terrible season opener at the Lions, in which he allowed multiple tackles for losses on Peterson and four quarterback pressures on Ponder. Kalil didn't allow a sack to Peppers in two games last season as a rookie and will need some of his first-year magic against the Bears this time around. Kalil was often stuck out of position in Detroit and didn't stick to his blocks when he released on linebackers. Like Locke, Kalil said his mistakes are easily correctable and feels his matchup with Peppers will be similar to last year, if not more in his favor.
Matt Forte vs. Vikings linebackers -- Dynamic running backs destroyed the Vikings last week as their defensive game plan focused on eliminating the big play. They did just that with Lions' receiver Calvin Johnson, but allowed the big play instead to Reggie Bush. The Vikings will need to find a balance between playing deep cover 2 and applying pressure on Cutler and running back Matt Forte, who caught four passes for 41 yards in the Bears' season opener. The Vikings will likely play more base defense instead of nickel, meaning linebacker Marvin Mitchell should see more than the 15 snaps he played in Detroit. Forte is a different kind of back than Bush, who ran circles around linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson. Forte tends to lean into contact instead of run away from it, which should be good for the Vikings' front seven, who has shown to be a little more bulk than finesse.
The Vikings should enter Chicago at full strength, with seven people listed as probable for Sunday's game.