When the Minnesota Vikings face off against the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon with a playoff spot on the line, there will be a few differences from the first matchup between the NFC North foes.
The Vikings will be at home and indoors, so conditions will be improved from the team’s 25-20 loss at Soldier Field on November 18, and they will have new offensive coordinator calling the shots.
Minnesota’s loss in Chicago felt like the beginning of the end for John DeFilippo, who was fired after a 21-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. His offense struggled mightily against the Bears’ top-ranked defense, posting only six points through three-and-a-half quarters. They sputtered in the run game, couldn’t slow down Chicago’s pass rush and saw one miscommunications and another mis-read cause interceptions.
In the two weeks since DeFilippo was let go, the Vikings’ offense has produced 68 points and quarterback Kirk Cousins has a 126.9 rating. Of course, the back-to-back wins came over opponents far inferior to the Bears.
If the Vikings are going to beat the NFC North champions to earn a spot in the postseason, interim OC Kevin Stefanski will not only have to bring the elements of the offense that have pushed them to big numbers over the last two games, he will also have to find ways to prevent Chicago’s stars from ruining his gameplan.
Let’s have a look at a few ways the Vikings can avoid another implosion against the Bears…
Akiem Hicks might not be a household name around the country, but Vikings fans became very familiar with him in the first go-around. The Vikings only rushed for 22 yards, in part because the Bears’ defensive tackle repeatedly blew up runs up the middle.
Cousins opened the game with a 9-yard completion, but the next two runs up the middle were shut down, including the one in the opening clip in the video below.
It isn’t easy to avoid one player on such a talented defense, but running directly at Hicks when he is blocked one-on-one with right guard Mike Remmers is not anywhere close to a matchup the offense should be trying to achieve.
The Vikings did find some ways to work around Hicks during the game. In Clip 2, Remmers and center Pat Elflein double team Hicks on an outside run by Dalvin Cook for six yards.
In the third clip, we see the offense use a fake jet sweep, which draws the attention of the linebackers, and the right guard pulling. Generally the assignment of the defensive tackle is to follow the pulling guard. When Hicks steps inside, tight end Tyler Conklin has just enough time on the crack back to nudge him out of the way, allowing Latavius Murray to rush through a big hole for six yards.
The New York Giants — whose head coach Pat Shurmur clearly influenced Stefanski — found ways to create a number of successful runs against the Bears in Week 14, rushing for 141 total yards.
In Clip 4, the G-men run outside with two tight ends pinning the Bears’ D-linemen while the tackle and guard pull. Hicks is unable to fight through the fray to impact the play and Saquon Barkley picks up an easy first down.
The Vikings should consider running to the edges on pitch plays. As good as the Bears have been against the run this yea , according to Football Outsiders, they rank 14th in yards per carry off the left tackle, 11th off the right tackle and 15th off the right end.
Clip 5 shows a pitch with the fullback as the lead blocker. The Giants double team Hicks and get a solid block from the fullback and receiver Odell Beckham Jr., allowing for an explosive run.
Over the last two games, the Vikings have seen Dalvin Cook rack up 209 yards at 6.0 yards per carry. Many of those runs came on outside zone plays that could work for creating cutback lanes inside Chicago’s outside linebackers.
Whichever way they do it, we know the answer to creating a successful run game is not stuffing the ball up the middle in Hicks’ direction.
There have been times this year in which Khalil Mack has been triple teamed in key situations. The Vikings did not pay him the attention he deserved on November 18, allowing him to routinely pressure Cousins, sack him once and strip Cook of the ball in the red zone.
On the strip, he went one-on-one with tight end Kyle Rudolph. In Clip 1, you see in slow motion how he simply threw Rudolph and hammered the ball out of Cook’s hands. Considering most starting tackles can’t handle him along, it’s puzzling that any play run to his side would allow for a tight end to have that assignment.
We also saw Riley Reiff get left out to dry against Mack on a number of occasions, including the next two clips in the above video. Reiff has been the Vikings’ best offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus standards, but that night he gave up five hurries and a QB hit to Mack.
In the fourth clip, we see one way to combat Mack’s game-breaking ability: Bootlegs.
The Vikings not only used Cook to help as a blocker against Mack, they rolled Cousins the opposite direction, giving him time to find receiver Adam Thielen over the middle. Since taking over as OC, Stefanski has increased the number of rollouts and used extra tight ends or running backs to buy time for Cousins. He will need to continue to do so in order to slow down the Bears’ pass rush.
An offshoot of the rollouts is using Cousins under center.
It’s a little counterintuitive to think that having him closer to the line of scrimmage would help in protection rather than putting Cousins in shotgun, where he spent nearly the entire first matchup, but the use of play-action can slow down the rush and/or allow him to move away from pressure by design.
This year his numbers have been quite a bit better under center.
And as has been noted many times, he is one of the best play-action QBs in the NFL.
The Vikings’ win over Detroit should serve as evidence that a team doesn’t have to be running the ball successfully to go to the play-action game. Head coach Mike Zimmer said on Sunday that he requested more play-actions in the second half, which ultimately helped open up the run game.
One thing that both the Giants and 49ers used was deception with tight ends.
In Clip 1, former Viking Rhett Ellison appears to be a blocker, then sneaks across the field wide open in the flat.
The Bears expect teams to chip Mack, which opens the door for tight ends to have the opportunity to pretend to chip Mack and then go out for a pass. Clip 2 is In each of he final two clips, we see different ways of showing the tight end as a blocker that the Vikings used in their 2017 win over the Bears at Solider Field.
One of Chicago’s core strategies appears to be to force teams to march down the field. They have only given up 39 pass plays over 20 yards this season. This Football Outsiders piece looked at how they kept the Rams from creating big plays, in part by mixing coverages and using two deep safeties in passing situations.
So the Vikings may have to be patient and take 6-yard throws to the tight end throughout the game until opportunity arises for a deep shot.
The New England Patriots put up 38 points against the Bears in Week 7. Their leading receiver in catches that day was running back James White.
The Pats found ways to isolate White with outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who is much more known for his pass rushing ability than coverage.
In the first clip below, New England floods the left side of the field, sending the two receivers to Tom Brady’s right on routes across the field, leaving Floyd as the lone linebacker to cover White. As you might expect, Floyd had no chance.
In Clip 2, the Pats cleared space in the middle of the field for White, who again was only covered by Floyd. The result is a solid gain.
While the Vikings will want to use Cook as a blocker at times, getting him away from explosive middle linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith in the pass game should be a priority.
That might mean lining up Cook as a receiver. He was only outside once in the first matchup and caught a pass for six yards on an out route.
The bottom line
The Bears have a fantastic defense, but they aren’t the ’85 Bears. If the Vikings can correct some issues they had in the November 18 loss, Stefanski will end up calling plays for a playoff game in two weeks. If they let Hicks and Mack dictate, it will be tough sledding.