Simply put, the Vikings dropped the ball

The Minnesota Vikings were coming off their bye week refreshed and positive heading into the final stretch of the season, while the Chicago Bears were recovering from an embarrassing Monday night loss and wondering whether quarterback Jay Cutler would be in the lineup.

Then, Minnesota went dormant in the first half of Sunday’s NFC North showdown at Chicago and the Bears took advantage, motivated to bounce back from back-to-back losses with Cutler back in the lineup. The Vikings couldn’t take advantage of their one early chance to seize momentum, fell behind by double-digits in the first half and couldn’t recover in Sunday’s 28-10 loss to the Bears.

Minnesota (6-5) is now two games behind Chicago (8-3) in the NFC North with five games remaining and still trails Green Bay or Chicago, Seattle and Tampa Bay in the race for a wild-card spot after a costly and disappointing loss.

Five things we learned Sunday:

1. Minnesota’s defense still has a problem on third downs.

The Vikings have talked all season about its struggles stopping teams on third downs and getting the defense off the field. Chicago had a 37:30-22:30 edge in time of possession on Sunday, in part due to the turnovers by Minnesota’s offense. But the Vikings’ defense repeatedly failed to stop the Bears on third down. Chicago converted seven of 10 third downs in the first half while building a 25-3 halftime lead and was 11 of 19 for the game. The final missed attempt was a kneeldown by Cutler to end the game.

Receiver Brandon Marshall was repeatedly the target on third down, and even when covered by Minnesota defenders he was able to make tough catches and extend drives. Marshall had 12 catches for 92 yards. He had five catches on third downs, gaining four first downs in the process. Meanwhile, Cutler was 9 of 12 passing on third downs, going 9 of 9 to start. Running back Michael Bush had three first-down runs. Along with struggles to get takeaways this season, Minnesota’s defense also can’t get off the field on third downs.

2. The Vikings need to find receivers who can catch the ball and definitely need Percy Harvin.

Harvin wasn’t able to make the trip, missing his second straight game with a sprained ankle. In his stead, rookie Jarius Wright continues to show some flashes. But the success without Harvin in the last game wasn’t there Sunday. There were repeated miscues by Minnesota’s receivers, specifically from Jerome Simpson, who dropped at least three passes. Wright — despite a strong performance with seven catches for 49 yards — dropped at least two passes.

Simpson’s drops were especially tough. Twice he would have had first downs if he simply would have hauled in catchable passes. The first drop led to the Vikings having to settle for a field goal to open the scoring after the Bears fumbled on their first possession. Simpson simply dropped a ball on a basic slant that would have given the offense a first down in the red zone. Simpson says he’s completely healthy after struggling with a back problem, but he’s had little to no impact this season after coming into the year with promise. He had one catch for one yard on Sunday on five targets. Michael Jenkins had just two catches, and Stephen Burton dropped his only target. Jenkins’ target would have been a first down but was temporarily an interception before a review declared the ball had hit the ground. Receiver Devin Aromashodu had zero catches on three targets.

3. Christian Ponder can’t carry the team or bring it back without help.

Without Harvin in the Vikings’ win against Detroit, Ponder came through with one of his more impressive performances by spreading the ball around. Harvin’s absence was definitely felt Sunday, and Ponder tried to rally the team and didn’t get the help from receivers dropping the ball. Ponder struggled again, and again seemed hesitant in his decision-making against an opportunistic Bears defense. Adrian Peterson was strong again, but the early deficit somewhat took the league’s leading rusher out of the game plan.

One thing Ponder hasn’t shown this year is the ability to rally the Vikings from an early big deficit. Peterson’s effectiveness drops and when the game is on Ponder’s shoulders, and the quarterback hasn’t been able to rally the team back. Ponder doesn’t have a deep threat and seems hesitant to throw the ball into coverage, which leads to a lot of short passes. Ponder was 22 of 43 passing for just 159 yards, a touchdown and an interception for a 58.2 quarterback rating and was sacked twice. Peterson is actually the biggest threat for a big play on the team, and that threat is running the ball. Minnesota’s offense has shown no ability to overcome a deficit of more than a score.

4. Adrian Peterson can beat any defense.

Peterson was slow to get going against the Bears’ eighth-ranked run defense, and his early lost fumble was especially costly, setting up Chicago to assume momentum and take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Peterson then lost a second fumble Sunday, reminiscent of the ball-security issues he had earlier in his career. Peterson lost 13 fumbles his first three years in the league. Entering Sunday, he had lost only fumbles in the past three seasons. With the offense as a whole unable to get going in the first half, Peterson had just seven carries for 25 yards.

Peterson wasn’t able to bring back Minnesota, but he did finish with his fifth straight 100-yard rushing game. He finished with 18 runs for 108 yards and added six catches for 30 yards. As brilliant as Peterson has been this season, he hasn’t been able to carry the Vikings’ offense solely on his own. He needs the passing game to be more effective for the Minnesota offense to truly score with other teams.

5. Jay Cutler makes a difference, maybe even for the offensive line.

Chicago’s offensive line has been maligned for several seasons, much of that time with Cutler as the quarterback. But having Cutler makes a difference for the line and the offense’s efficiency. After Jason Campbell was sacked six times in last week’s loss to the 49ers, the offensive line underwent changes at left guard and right tackle and Cutler was sacked just once on Sunday. Defensive tackle Fred Evans was credited with the sack when Cutler’s foot was stepped on by his center causing him to fall backward.

Much of the protection could be attributed to shorter routes, improved line play and Cutler escaping a bit of pressure, but Minnesota’s defensive line couldn’t supply any pressure on Cutler. Defensive end Jared Allen, who has had big games against Chicago, was held without a sack. Brian Robison, going against new right tackle Jonathan Scott, couldn’t get to Cutler. Meanwhile, feeling the front four could do the job, the Vikings didn’t blitz much and paid the price as the defensive line couldn’t apply the pressure.

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