Vikings to face ‘new and improved’ Chicago Bears

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Khalil Mack
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Khalil Mack /

As the Minnesota Vikings prepare to play the Bears in Chicago, they are preparing to meet a 6-3 team with a new head coach and an ascending young defense which now includes 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, Khalil Mack.

For a nearly a decade, the Minnesota Vikings played a Chicago Bears team “led” by the quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler is now a bit of an afterthought in the NFL, not because he’s retired (which has not been announced officially), but because nobody ever really liked the guy.

But here’s the thing. Cutler beat the Vikings like a drum in Soldier Field. If he was a lousy leader–and he was–he had toughness, heart, and a golden arm that torched the Minnesota defense time and again, no matter which team was better in any particular season.

In Cutler’s eight seasons in Chicago, the Bears were 7-1 against Minnesota at home, a record that included an overtime defeat of the Brett Favre-led team in 2009 that stole home-field advantage in the playoffs and gave it to the New Orleans Saints.

We can all remember what happened there in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.

The Bears are a different team these days, and a better one. At 6-3, they are atop the NFC North, hold the 5th rank in total offense and 4th in total defense in the league.

Of those three losses, one came in the season opener where they let the Packers off a 20-3 fourth-quarter hook, and two and three came in weeks six and seven where they dropped tight games at Miami and at home against the Patriots.

Since then, they’ve won three-in-a-row, outscoring their opponents 99-41.

What new Bears’ head coach Mike Nagy has brought to Chicago is balance. A disciple of Andy Reid, he’s spent the last decade in Kansas City and Philadelphia as an offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, and offensive assistant.

Nagy, only 40, was given play-calling duties as OC in Kansas City last year and kept a run-to-pass ratio consistent with his play-calling. It’s something he has done in Chicago also to some success, though Bears’ primary running back Jordan Howard is averaging a mere 3.4 yards a carry.

Picking up the running game slack has been utility back Tarik Cohen, an elusive speedster who is used from the backfield and the slot, and young Bears’ quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has 320 yards rushing and three touchdowns himself in 2018.

In Nagy and Trubisky’s passing game, the Bears employ an interesting tandem of 5-foot-8 Taylor Gabriel and 6-foot-3 Allen Robinson, both veterans, with Robinson being the outstanding ‘money’ player.

Although Robinson once had a 14 touchdown, 1400 yard season in Jacksonville (with Blake Bortles as his quarterback!), nothing he has done since qualifies as close to those stunning stats, and he has been solid, if fairly unimpressive, in game logs for 2018.

Meanwhile, Trubisky has thrown for 2300 yards in nine games. He’s picked up Nagy’s playbook and seems to have a reasonable command of an NFL offense that he showed little of in his rookie season. It’s obvious he misses his favorite target of a year ago in tight end Zach Miller (who tore up his knee in 2017 and faces a long road back to the NFL), but former Philadelphia Eagle Trey Burton has been a strong surrogate for the young QB, contributing a surprising five touchdowns this season.

Chicago’s offense is, in full examination, above average, but not intimidating.

As a Vikings fan, you need to look over the defensive side of the ball to get nervous about the game on Sunday night.

At season start, the Bears’ front office made the decision to trade for linebacker/defensive end hybrid Khalil Mack in a stunning deal with Oakland. The two-time First Team All-Pro Mack arrived and augmented an already solid Chicago defensive line.

I should say, augmented, turbo-charged and rocket-boosted an already solid defensive line.

Although Mack sat out the two games prior to the Bears’ win over the Detroit Lions last Sunday with an ankle injury, he has seven sacks and an interception for a touchdown in 2018. Mack, with his relentless ability to rush the passer, has transformed their Bears’ into something that vaguely resembles a unit from the 80’s when Buddy Ryan was trolling the sidelines.

Chicago’s defense has already created more turnovers through nine games (24) than they have in any full season over several years. Offenses are converting a mere 34.4 third-down percentage against them, and, after six sacks of Lions’ QB Matthew Stafford last Sunday, the Bears now have 30 sacks as a team on the year.

Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings /

Minnesota Vikings

Some credit goes to Vic Fangio, the Bears’ defensive coordinator of the last four years, whose defensive unit went from last in the league in his first season in Chicago (2014) to ninth last year. Fangio and the Bears’ front office have added excellent pieces to this squad, especially veteran DT Akiem Hicks, linebackers Leonard Floyd, and rookie Roquan Smith. The Bears are showing speed, power, and some swagger that’s been lacking in Chicago for a long time.

But to be honest, none of those guys makes this team run like it’s now humming on defense. The Bears’ third-down pressure package is the best in the league and Khalil Mack is making the difference.

Rarely does one player wreck an offensive plan like Mack, but as we have had the privilege of witnessing, an extraordinary edge pass-rusher (like young Danielle Hunter), can often break a game open with pure athletic ability.

If fans never called this guy ‘Mack Daddy’, they ought to.

When Minnesota came to Soldier Field in years past they were accustomed to facing their biggest challenge from the guy in Chicago’s quarterback pocket. He was a jerk named Cutler who would kill you if you gave him the chance.

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On Sunday night it will be the Vikings quarterback pocket that fans will be watching. In it will be our new guy named Cousins, who despite being a really nice person, sometimes kills us when he’s not given the chance.

Best advice for beating the new and improved Bears?  Watch out for number 52.