The thing the Minnesota Vikings want to do the most on Sunday may prove to be the most challenging against a tough Chicago Bears defense, yet it may be the consequential factor in whether they qualify for the postseason.
Running the ball ineffectively caused the Vikings offense to stutter in their 25-20 loss at Soldier Field on Nov. 18, but they’ve got reason to believe they’ve turned a corner in that department since switching to interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.
The Vikings are coming off back-to-back wins thanks to a balanced offensive approach that has generated 41 and 27 points, respectively. After a four-game post-bye drought where the Vikings failed to rush for 100 yards as a team, they’ve strung together two 100-yard rushing performances while carrying the ball 19 more times than they’ve passed it over the previous two games.
The Bears have the No. 2 rushing defense in football and have allowed the league’s fewest rushing touchdowns. Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd create an all-pro-caliber front that has deterred opponents’ rushing attacks all season, especially Hicks, who leads all interior defenders with 33 run stops. Meanwhile, the Bears secondary has grabbed the lion’s share of Chicago’s league-leading 27 interceptions when teams have resorted to the passing game.
Pick your poison.
“They have a very good run defense and a very good pass defense,” said Stefanski. “So I think you have to go into it and put a plan together that you feel is going to have the most success, whether that is running the ball or throwing the ball, but certainly have our work cut out for us.”
The Bears are 10-1 when they hold opponents below 100 yards rushing; 1-3 when they allow 100 or more. The Vikings are 5-0 when rushing for 100 yards or more. The correlation between rushing well and winning is obviously strong because teams run the ball most once they’ve grabbed a lead, but Minnesota has looked to set the tone early in games with the run. In their win against Miami, the tactic worked perfectly as the Vikings jumped out to a 21-0 lead. Against Detroit, they went three-and-out four straight times to start the game as the Lions went ahead 9-0.
“We’ve got to convert third downs because we won’t get opportunities to run the ball if we’re going three and out,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The Vikings went 5 of 12 on third down at Soldier Field, but three of those conversions came late against a Bears defense that was leading comfortably. Chicago has the fourth-best third-down defense in the NFL, thanks in part to edge rusher Khalil Mack, who pressured Kirk Cousins five times back in Week 11. He has eight of his 12.5 sacks on third down this season.
Left tackle Riley Reiff struggled against Mack in the first meeting, and the Vikings will certainly provide help from their running backs and tight ends to get “four hands” on the Pro Bowler, according to Rudolph.
“You have to use everybody. It’s not just something where you can say, ‘Hey, you’re responsible for him.’ Well, what if he’s not on your side?” Rudolph said. “He’s not just gonna let you double-team him. He’s gonna try to pick one guy and beat you.”
Mack has just four sack-free games this season and is the second-highest-graded edge rusher, per Pro Football Focus. While Mack is still dangerous against the run with six forced fumbles on the year, slowing his pass rush may be the easiest way to set up optimal run situations.
“He is a great combination of size, athleticism, power, effort,” said Stefanski. “Just turn the tape on. He is an impressive player. He certainly is someone that we have to account for in a bunch of different ways.”
The Vikings rushed it 14 times and passed it 46 while playing from behind against the Bears on Nov. 18. On a first quarter carry, Dalvin Cook was stripped by Mack in the Vikings’ first trip to the red zone. Their running backs carried it just five times after that, much to Zimmer’s chagrin. Chicago led 14-3 after three quarters.
“This team is going to be hard to run against,” said Zimmer, “but you can’t run it 14 times.”
The Vikings have rushed it at 4.7 yards per carry over the last two games, but they were facing the 31st and 15th-ranked rushing defenses. Chicago’s front is likely to put the pressure on the Vikings early — as the Lions did — and force them to choose whether to continue persisting with the run.
“We are going to do whatever we need to do to win,” said Zimmer. “If that is throwing it a lot of times — hopefully not 46 and running it 14. But we are going to do what we need to do to try to win the football game.”