Vikings fail to keep offense on field after bye

Unfortunately for the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday’s game at Chicago was reminiscent of many of the Vikings’ recent games at Soldier Field.

Minnesota fell behind early and couldn’t recover in Sunday’s 28-10 loss to the Bears, and Chicago’s defense causing turnovers was the big key. The Vikings (6-5) have lost six straight games to the Bears (8-3) and five straight in Chicago. Sunday’s defeat dropped Minnesota further behind in the NFC North, though their wild-card status (one game out) didn’t change after Seattle, Tampa Bay and New Orleans also lost.

But the Vikings didn’t offer much reason for optimism for a tough upcoming stretch. A look at how Minnesota graded out in each phase Sunday against the Bears:

Passing offense: F

Sunday’s performance might not register on the same low level as the Arizona and Seattle games, but the passing game was again unable to gain much yardage and couldn’t take advantage of a defense again focusing on Peterson. Quarterback Christian Ponder, in going 22 of 43 for 159 yards passing with an interception and touchdown, wasn’t completely to blame on Sunday, though, given that receivers dropped several big passes.

Jerome Simpson, who had one catch for one yard, dropped at least three passes. Stephen Burton dropped a pass that would have been a big first down that at the time was called an interception before a replay changed the call. Devin Aromashodu had zero catches on three targets. Even rookie Jarius Wright, who had a team-high seven catches for 49 yards, dropped at least two passes.

When receivers weren’t dropping passes, Ponder was again shaky handling the pass rush. He was sacked only twice, but the pressure directly influenced his one interception, an overthrow in the middle of the field. After a good effort in the last game, it was another step back for the entire passing offense, which was playing without leading receiver Percy Harvin for the second straight game.

Run offense: C

Running back Adrian Peterson continued his amazing stretch this season with his fifth straight 100-yard rushing game, but losing two fumbles was especially costly Sunday. The final stats, nearly across the board, don’t show much of a difference between Minnesota and Chicago on Sunday, but the spot on the field and timeliness of the Vikings’ turnovers were a big issue in the Bears winning by 18 points. Peterson’s first fumble led to Chicago’s first touchdown, a drive that went just 34 yards and gave the Bears the lead. With the offense struggling, he had seven carries for 25 yards in the first half.

In the second half, Peterson started to find more holes against Chicago’s eighth-ranked run defense and finished with 18 carries for 108 yards. His second fumble essentially sealed Minnesota’s fate late in the fourth quarter after the Vikings had gotten to the 50-yard line. Peterson still averaged 6 yards per carry and curiously didn’t get the ball on two straight plays in the red zone early in the fourth quarter when Minnesota needed two yards for a first down on third- and fourth-down plays as the Vikings turned the ball over on downs at the 8-yard line.

Pass defense: D

Returning from a concussion that had sidelined him in the Bears’ two previous games, quarterback Jay Cutler was 23 of 31 for 188 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But Cutler’s presence made the difference for Chicago. He extended plays while getting out of the pocket and found receivers when needed. He was sacked just once, when he tripped when his center stepped on his foot, behind a line that has taken its lumps lately. And maybe the biggest difference between the teams on Sunday was that Cutler completed his first nine passes on third downs to keep Chicago’s offense on the field. The Bears were 11 of 18 on third downs before a kneeldown to end the game and ended up with a 15-minute advantage in time of possession.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield had his team-leading third interception when Brandon Marshall couldn’t haul in a Cutler pass, the sixth interception for Minnesota this season. Marshall was nearly uncoverable Sunday because Cutler trusted him to catch the ball even when covered. Marshall was often blanketed by the Vikings but still hauled in tough catch after tough catch and finished with 12 receptions for 92 yards. More than half of Cutler’s 31 targets and almost half of his 21 completions went to Marshall, who had five catches on third downs.

Run defense: C

Minnesota allowed 113 yards rushing to the Bears, a total the defense won’t be happy with. But the effort wasn’t as bad as the issues the Vikings had for four weeks against Washington, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Seattle. With Matt Forte and Michael Bush each taking at least 14 carries, Chicago averaged only 2.9 yards per rush.

Forte had 14 carries for 42 yards and also lost a fumble. He was splitting carries with Bush throughout the game. Bush had 21 carries for 60 yards and took the majority of the chances when Forte left the game in the third quarter. Again, for Chicago, it wasn’t a matter of an outburst or big showing but sustained control of the ball and not giving Minnesota any chance at a comeback.

Special teams: C

Special teams is always an interesting aspect when it comes to Vikings’ games against the Bears, and Sunday was no exception. Both teams blocked field goals, and Chicago’s block caused just the second miss of the season for Minnesota’s Blair Walsh. And both teams were missing their star returners for much of the game. Harvin did not make the trip with the team, and Chicago’s Devin Hester was lost early in the game with a concussion.

While Hester was still in, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe shanked one punt, but he tweeted later Sunday the cause was a gust of wind. Kluwe also had a 53-yarder and averaged 40.5 yards per punt.  Hester and Earl Bennett combined for only one return for six yards. Minnesota punt returner Marcus Sherels didn’t get a chance at a return. Sherels had one kickoff return for 38 yards, and rookie Josh Robinson got his first chance at a return but made a poor decision to bring the ball out of the end zone on a 14-yard return that got back only to the 11-yard line. In more ways than one, the Vikings have to hope Harvin is ready to return for next week’s road game at Green Bay.

Overall: D

The stats are not a good reflection of what happened Sunday. Simply put, there weren’t many differences statistically between the two teams. But effort and determination settled Sunday’s game. Chicago was motivated to change its direction following a disappointing loss last week on “Monday Night Football” — and back-to-back losses — while coming home against a divisional opponent. Minnesota was coming off a bye week and didn’t seem ready to play. The dropped passes were lackadaisical errors, and the turnovers were costly. Minnesota’s defense couldn’t get past an offensive line that had struggled mightily. A slow start, combined with a minus-1 in turnover differential and a 15-minute disadvantage in time of possession won’t win a divisional road game. Sunday was an all-phases letdown, with the most frustrating thing being that the Vikings looked sluggish in an important NFC North game coming off the bye.

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