Few Minnesota Vikings fans would complain about a 3-1 record to start the season. The Vikings have been lucky in their two close games, escaping the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints in Weeks 3 and 4. But the best way to ensure success is to never have a close game in the first place. For that to happen, Minnesota must improve — and they’ll have a perfect opportunity to sharpen their skills against the Chicago Bears.
Chicago’s offense has been awful. The team ranks only 31st in both points scored and yards gained. Justin Fields has had a historically bad season. Through four weeks, he ranks 32nd in passing yards (471), 32nd in completion percentage (50.7), has twice as many interceptions as he has touchdowns (two to four), and is 32nd in passer rating (58.7). Their leading receiver, Darnell Mooney, has only three more receiving yards than K.J. Osborn.
The Vikings’ defense, meanwhile, has been statistically sound — they’re 12th in points allowed — but also streaky and a bit baffling at times. You expect some blown coverage with a new scheme and a new coordinator, but the issues go deeper than that. Even when correctly played, the coverage has been soft and allowed offenses to march down the field with easy passing plays, supplemented by busted coverages that go for big gains.
Ed Donatell’s scheme partly sacrifices the run defense to better slow down the pass and mitigate big plays. But the secondary has failed to keep up their end of the bargain, meaning that teams have had success regardless of their options. Even the pass rush, which was supposed to be one of the unit’s greatest strengths, has struggled mightily.
That will make for an interesting matchup with the Bears’ run game, which has been the lone bright spot on their offense. They rank third in the NFL in rushing yards per game. Starting running back David Montgomery is questionable with an ankle injury and missed last week. Still, backup Khalil Herbert has been arguably better in that time, averaging 6.1 yards per carry for the season.
Given this offensive profile, the Vikings’s defense has an excellent opportunity to figure a few things out. The secondary can be much more aggressive when Fields drops back, attacking short passes and closing gaps in coverage with less hesitation. If a defender makes a mistake and the coverage busts, Fields tends to tuck and run early into a progression, meaning that he is less likely than other QBs to punish a mistake.
The run defense has much to gain against the Bears. Chicago’s ground attack may initially look like it can exploit Minnesota’s weaknesses, but the opposite may the true. The Bears are so reliant on their run game that the Vikings can gameplan it away to some extent.
Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell can pick his spots to stack the box on first and second down since the passing attack poses such a minor threat. In doing so, the Vikings can practice implementing run fits and attacking the rusher while also keeping an eye on Fields, who has the fifth-most rushing yards among quarterbacks this season. By doing so, the run defense can grow and learn for the rest of the season.
If the Vikings’ defense can do its job in the early downs, it could set up yet another area of improvement: pass rush. If the Bears’ defense is forced into clear passing situations, Minnesota can send pressure, execute stunts, and set up Chicago’s offensive line in any way they want.
The Vikings have not blitzed much this season, likely because they don’t want to take away from coverage. However, Minnesota should have free reign to blitz Fields as much as they want.
The next three weeks will be essential to the development of the Vikings’ defense. With games against the Bears and the possibly Teddy Bridgewater-led Miami Dolphins, followed by a bye week, the team has plenty of opportunity to adjust and steady the ship for the rest of the season. Minnesota can go from a team that has escaped some close games to a surprise contender in the NFC. The Vikings have a chance to show how much they can improve against the Bears.