Pregame: Josh McCown rekindles tough memories in Vikings-Bears
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Chicago Bears quarterback Josh McCown has started about as many games as Christian Ponder in his 11-year career.
McCown will start in place of the injured Jay Cutler for the fourth time in five games on Sunday while looking to notch his third victory in three career starts against the Minnesota Vikings - none more infamous than the 2003 season-finale loss to the McCown-led Arizona Cardinals that gave the Green Bay Packers the division title and subsequent playoff berth.
The Vikings have been mathematically eliminated from the 2013 playoffs, but they'll continue to try and play spoiler with Ponder at the helm for the ninth time this season. At 13-20-1 as a NFL starter, Ponder will begin what is likely his last month as the Vikings' top quarterback on Sunday.
Ponder led the Vikings to a 21-14 victory against the Bears at the Metrodome last season, but threw for just 91 yards and an interception as running back Adrian Peterson tallied 170 total yards and two touchdowns.
It seems like eons ago that Peterson was held on two tries from the Bears' 6 in a 31-30 loss on Sept. 15.
But Peterson and running back Toby Gerhart should be leaned upon heavily on Sunday as the Bears' league-worst rushing defense will be without defensive tackle Henry Melton and linebacker Lance Briggs. Defensive tackles Stephen Paea and Jerimiah Ratliff are also listed as questionable.
Meanwhile, the Vikings are as healthy as they've been since September. Only tight end Kyle Rudolph (foot) and cornerback Josh Robinson (chest) are ruled out, while coach Leslie Frazier said safety Harrison Smith (foot) could've potentially played this week had injured reserve policy not dictated he sit until Dec. 15.
"[Smith] really looked pretty good. I was telling [head trainer] Eric Sugarman a little bit ago that, that rule is a good rule, but man, I wouldn't mind if [Smith] could play this week because he moved around well enough where you had no qualms putting him in the ball game," Frazier said. "He looked good, so we will get a chance to take a look at him next week and hopefully we will have him the following week to play."
Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes and receiver Joe Webb were cleared to practice late this week after suffering concussions in Green Bay. Rhodes should start alongside Chris Cook at cornerback with safety Robert Blanton continuing to get reps as the slot cornerback with Robinson out.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Sunday.
For the purple
Ground and pound - Even though Peterson played through a groin injury, the Vikings ran for a season-high 232 rushing yards in the tie at Lambeau Field. Peterson's 32 carries were two short of his career high while Gerhart spelled him to the tune of 91 yards on drives that led to scores in the fourth quarter and overtime. Gerhart had four carries before the Nov. 17 loss at Seattle and has accounted for 158 yards on 15 carries since. The Bears defense has been ravaged by injuries and now allow a league-high 145 rushing yards per game after they allowed 258 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns in a loss to the St. Louis Rams last week. Peterson made up for a lame passing game last season when he ran for two first-quarter touchdowns in the 21-14 win over the Bears at the Metrodome.
Pass protection - The Packers blitzed Ponder on 17 of his 37 dropbacks [46%] last week and he excelled. Ponder completed 11-of-13 passes for 162 yards, a touchdown and a 144.2 passer rating as he executed plays that got the ball out of his hands quickly - and when he didn't, the Vikings often kept six to seven in pass protection to allow adequate time against the rush. Receiver Jerome Simpson caught passes for 23 and 31 yard gains in single coverage for the Vikings' longest plays through the air and should continue to see those looks on Sunday. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is out, so cornerback Tim Jennings will likely shadow the Vikings' top receiver on Sunday.
Press coverage - Rhodes, one of the Vikings' three first-round draft picks in April, had his best game of his young career before exiting with a concussion in Green Bay last week. Rhodes batted away at least three passes in man coverage and the Vikings are hoping to do some more of that against Bears receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. "You feel like [we] match up a lot better with the size that we have outside," Frazier said about Cook and Rhodes. "Now we have to go out and execute between the two of them. You're right, this is kind of what you want for this type of situation." Rhodes will start in place of Robinson, who started in Week 2's loss and allowed five catches on five targets. Rhodes didn't allow a catch on two targets in that loss.
For the blue
Matt Forte, the receiver - Forte tied his career high with 10 receptions against the Vikings at Soldier Field in September. The Vikings struggled containing Packers running back Eddie Lacy in the passing game as he grabbed receptions for gains of 10, 13 and 16 yards that helped lead to three fourth-quarter scoring drives for the tie. In deeper zone coverages, Vikings linebackers failed to account for Lacy as he leaked out of the backfield. Linebacker Erin Henderson is scheduled to return after missing last week for 'personal reasons' that Frazier and Henderson say are separate from his Nov. 19 arrest for suspicion of drunken driving. Linebacker Audie Cole will get his second straight start as he and linebacker Chad Greenway will be the main line of defense against McCown's checkdowns and screens to Forte.
The Black Unicorn - Self-named the 'Black Unicorn,' Bears tight end Martellus Bennett had his only multi-touchdown game of his career in Week 2, which included the 16-yard touchdown catch with 10 seconds left over Cook for the win. Bennett (6'6") is a decent complement to receivers Brandon Marshall (6'4") and Alshon Jeffery (6'3") in the Bears' passing attack and will likely be featured against a Vikings defense that allows league highs in points per game (31.5) and passing touchdowns (24).
Out - TE Kyle Rudolph (foot), CB Josh Robinson (chest)
Probable - RB Adrian Peterson (groin), CB Xavier Rhodes (concussion), WR Joe Webb (concussion), DT Kevin Williams (quadriceps), RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), DT Fred Evans (knee), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), S Andrew Sendejo (foot) and DE Brian Robison (Illness)
Out - LB Lance Briggs (shoulder), QB Jay Cutler (ankle), S Anthony Walters (groin)
Questionable - CB Derrick Martin (hamstring), DT Stephen Paea (toe), DT Jeremiah Ratliff (groin), S Major Wright (hamstring)
Probable - K Robbie Gould (Illness), RB Matt Forte (knee), WR Brandon Marshall (quadricep)