EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings are trying to avoid an 0-2 start to the season, faced with the difficulty of playing the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
Minnesota knows all about the tough nature of winning in Chicago. All of the trends are against the Vikings heading into Sunday. Minnesota will be trying to solve its Soldier Field woes.
“Honestly, if anyone can figure that one out, let me know,” defensive end Jared Allen said of what’s needed to win in Chicago. “Because it just is tough, I guess. I don’t know. I wish I had the magic 8-ball with the answer, but I don’t. All we can do is focus on this year and get it done.”
Here are five things to watch as the Vikings face the Bears:
1. Break the streak
Only six players on Minnesota’s roster have won in Chicago as a member of the Vikings. Minnesota’s last win in Chicago was a 34-31 victory in 2007, which was Adrian Peterson’s coming-out party in the NFL. To get the win, it took 224 yards rushing and three touchdowns from Peterson. In subsequent visits, Peterson had progressively fewer rushing yards each game before getting 108 rushing yards last year in Soldier Field. Peterson has had big games against the Bears, but he’s also been held in check at times. He wants a win in Chicago.
Peterson called the current streak – which is now at five straight losses in Chicago – “frustrating.” Allen, who hasn’t won at Soldier Field, called it “annoying.” The Vikings had won five straight games in Chicago in the late 90s, but have now lost 11 of 12 at Soldier Field.
2. The offensive line
Minnesota’s offensive line is a prideful, confident unit and the group believes it will be able to move on from the struggles of the season’s first game. With the entire line struggling at times, quarterback Christian Ponder didn’t have much time to throw and running back Adrian Peterson didn’t have many running lanes. Minnesota has experience to build from, having played 17 regular season games in a row together and recognizes the mistakes made last week against the Detroit Lions.
Detroit features one of the league’s top defensive lines led by tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but Chicago isn’t a big drop talent-wise. The Bears still have end Julius Peppers and tackle Henry Melton leading the way. There was blame to be shared for the offensive inefficiency last week, but a rebound from the line would go a long way to helping the entire offense.
3. On the road with Ponder
If the offensive line is on top of its game, Ponder should be able to relax and have the confidence to make his reads and get the ball to the improved receiving corps. Ponder had time to throw at points last week, but still struggled. He was under duress, but even felt the pressure sooner than it arrived and pulled down the ball prematurely. As always, turnovers are the most important aspect to judging Ponder’s performance and he was charged with four turnovers last week.
Like the team’s history in Chicago, Ponder hasn’t enjoyed going on the road to face NFC North opponents. Ponder is now 1-5 in his career on the road at Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit following last week’s loss. His only win was last season on the road against Lions, and the effort was aided by two special teams touchdowns. Meanwhile, some of Ponder’s toughest games have been on the road against the NFC North. Last year at Green Bay was the low point Ponder’s inconsistent season and, perhaps, his career. He was 12 of 25 for 119 yards and two costly interceptions in a game Minnesota was winning. Then last week at Detroit he had the four turnovers. Ponder has a 53.7 quarterback rating in his career against the Bears. His one win in four games against Chicago was last season at home in which he passed for 91 yards and Peterson had 154 yards rushing.
4. Williams’ wall intact
At least the current part of the wall. The Vikings welcome back Kevin Williams this week after he missed last week’s game because of an injury. He was sorely missed in the middle of Minnesota’s defense as Detroit tried to take advantage of his absence and attacked the middle of the field, both on run plays and screen passes. Williams returned to practice this week and is expected to play Sunday.
Chicago might not vary much from what the Lions were successful doing. The Bears will try and run the ball with Matt Forte and get the ball out of quarterback Jay Cutler’s hands quickly, sometimes with the ball going to Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett. The onus is on the Vikings’ proving they can stop the scheme because they will see it replicated sthis season if they can’t. Williams should make a difference this week though. Having Williams allows the Vikings to go back to their expected D-line rotation with Letroy Guion and Fred Evans rotating at nose tackle and rookie Sharrif Floyd working behind Williams, with Everson Griffen coming on in the middle for passing situations. The Bears’ offensive line has been almost completely rebuilt with veterans Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson on the left side and rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills on the right side. Chicago only ran for 2.9 yards a carry last week, but Cutler wasn’t sacked.
5. The great one
Bears return man Devin Hester has long been a thorn in the Vikings’ sides. He has four career touchdown returns against Minnesota, his most against any opponent. Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Hester is the best returner he’s ever faced.
Punting to Hester will be Vikings’ rookie Jeff Locke, who struggled in his first regular-season game in the NFL. He admitted to being nervous and said he’s had a good week of practice in overcoming his bad game and preparing for Hester. Hang time and direction will be a key against Hester, just what Minnesota drafted Locke for this April.