The biggest storyline from the Minnesota Vikings’ 20-17 win over the Chicago Bears on Monday night was Sam Bradford’s early exit from the game after re-aggrivating his knee injury. But there was more to take away from the victory than just Bradford’s injury. The second half held several good signs for the Vikings’ chances going forward. Let’s have a look:
Nick Easton’s strong game
Through the first four weeks, starting left guard Nick Easton was the Vikings’ lowest rated offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus. Of course, four weeks is hardly enough to paint a picture of whether the Vikings made the right move by cutting 2016 starter Alex Boone after training camp. But his grade and previous weeks’ film did indicate that Easton’s transition from center to guard had some rocky moments. Against the Bears, he took a step forward.
The Vikings’ reasoning for cutting Boone was on display on Jerick McKinnon’s 58-yard touchdown run. Easton flew off the line and chop blocked a linebacker to open up a massive hole. Center Pat Elflein, who is exceptionally quick for a center, then led McKinnon to daylight.
McKinnon’s touchdown was not the only time Easton did a solid job in run blocking. On the play below, he double team blocked Akiem Hicks, a 330-pound D-lineman, then got to the second level and sealed off the middle linebacker. McKinnon gains seven yards on the play – though if he hadn’t cut outside it might have gone for even more.
On Case Keenum’s 22-yard run, Easton kept his eyes to the left and right hand out to feel for the rusher, then once he was sure there wasn’t a delay blitz, he helped out Elflein, creating a massive hole for the Vikings’ QB. It might be a routine play for an interior lineman, but it was well executed and led to a big gain.
Anthony Barr on the rush
Leading up to the season, head coach Mike Zimmer and linebacker Anthony Barr expressed confidence that Barr’s game would bounce back to 2015 form. So far, it has. Pro Football Focus has Barr ranked as the sixth best interior linebacker in the NFL. Against the Bears, he was terrific. According to PFF tracking stats, he rushed 10 times, a season high. On one of them, a 4-yard loss by Tarik Cohen, Barr’s athleticism was on display.
Barr was also strong again in coverage – which he has been all year, ranking sixth in the stat “yards allowed per coverage snap.” He gave up just one catch in his coverage against Chicago – a team that routinely has success passing to its running backs and tight ends. Another key stat for Barr: He has allowed just one broken tackle so far this year. Last season he gave up a broken tackle on nearly one of every four attempts.
In Week 3, Case Keenum went off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by chucking the ball downfield again and again to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The Bears were intent on not allowing the Vikings’ receivers to get behind them. So offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur took what he was given.
Here’s one example.
The Bears are in a deep zone with one safety 25 yards off the line of scrimmage by the time the play ends, so the Vikings set up a screen look to the right side with Jerick McKinnon, but run the play back to Kyle Rudolph on the other side after drawing the defense toward the running back. It only resulted in a 6-yard gain, but the Vikings used a death-by-1,000-cuts approach against the Bears and it worked.
Chicago’s defense is hardly a redux of the 1985 version, but they have some solid players up front that the Vikings’ offensive line handled nicely in the second half. At the center of their success was Easton, who hadn’t impressed through the first four weeks, but is showing steady improvement. If Keenum has to play for a long period of time, the Vikings will have to keep using their mobile O-line as a strength because opponents will continue to focus on Thielen and Diggs.
And with Barr back playing at a high level, the Vikings’ defense is an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses. There is no weakness. Coming into the year, it appeared his play would be the difference between a good and great defense. If he sustains this level of play, they can be great.