As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with Chicago at Mall of America Field, we asked Jeff Dickerson, who covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN-1000, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) Without a road win Sunday, the bottom could fall completely out of Chicago’s season.
Remember in Week 9 when the Bears went to Tennessee, put a 51-20 beatdown on the Titans and reached the midway point of their season at 7-1? At the time, the Bears were touted as a potential Super Bowl frontrunner. Suddenly, that seems like an eternity ago in Chicago.
Since then, the Bears have lost three of four with many of their core players suffering significant injury setbacks. Jay Cutler missed a game-and-a-half with a concussion. He returned to aid a 28-10 defeat of the Vikings in Week 12. But in that game, right guard Lance Louis was lost for the season after taking a massive blindside block from Jared Allen.
Standouts Charles Tillman, Matt Forte, Devin Hester and Lance Briggs all also left that game with injuries.
Then, in last week’s overtime home loss to Seattle, the Bears may have lost middle linebacker Brian Urlacher for the season with a hamstring injury. Cornerback Tim Jennings suffered a significant injury to his shoulder and hasn’t returned to practice. And receiver Earl Bennett suffered a concussion that will keep him out Sunday.
It’s a bit of déjà vu for the Bears who saw injuries to Cutler and Forte last season spoil a 7-3 start. The Bears then finished 8-8.
No wonder there’s been a sense of urgency and desperation creeping in at Halas Hall – especially with a Week 15 meeting looming against the Packers, whom the Bears have beaten only once in their last eight tries.
“I don’t think there’s any panic,” Dickerson said. “But I think there’s a very real understanding that if they don’t get right and win on Sunday, this whole thing could come crashing down. If they can’t beat the Vikings this week, it’s not inconceivable that they finish this thing at 8-8. Honestly.”
2) Chicago’s patched together offensive line remains vulnerable.
Here was the Bears’ opening day starting line from left to right: J’Marcus Webb, Chris Spencer, Roberto Garza, Lance Louis, Gabe Carimi.
Here’s their starting o-line now: Webb, Edwin Williams, Garza, Carimi and Jonathan Scott.
Poor play and key injuries have factored into the reshuffling. And it’s all left offensive coordinator Mike Tice looking for ways to keep Cutler on his feet and safe.
After a disastrous outing in San Francisco three weeks ago, Chicago has only allowed two sacks total in games with the Vikings and Seahawks.
But don’t translate that as a ringing endorsement of the line.
“The Bears are beating their chest a bit that they only gave up one sack against Seattle,” Dickerson said. “But the protection wasn’t that great. Cutler was under constant pressure. And it was his unbelievable ability to make guys miss that kept him on his feet. This offensive line is still a problem area.”
This should be good news for the Vikings as they welcome the Bears to a usually noisy environment at Mall of America Field.
“It’s definitely a legitimate fear having this offensive line inside that building,” Dickerson said. “You’ve got a group that’s still learning each other and has no continuity. And now what happens if they’re not able to hear?”
3) There are no secrets to the Bears’ offensive hopes.
Cutler to Brandon Marshall. Cutler to Brandon Marshall. Cutler to Brandon Marshall.
Since returning from a concussion two weeks ago, Cutler has thrown 31 of his 57 passes at Marshall. They connected 12 times for 92 yards against the Vikings and added another 22 completions for 165 yards against Seattle.
Dickerson said Cutler’s performances the last two weeks has been “just fantastic.” And A.J. Jefferson. Antoine Winfield and Jasper Brinkley can all attest to the notion that Marshall can consistently make plays even while blanketed in coverage.
“The craziest part?” Dickerson said. “Cutler doesn’t care if Marshall is covered. He knows where Marshall’s going to be. He throws it. And Marshall is so good, he completes the play. So the Vikings can do whatever they want. They can bracket Marshall, they can cover him any way they want. The ball is still going to him. So be ready. There’s rarely a Plan B. Cutler is throwing him the football.”
4) Last week’s home loss to Seattle was painful on so many levels.
Start with all the little errors that contributed to Chicago's 23-17 overtime loss.
Like the sure 62-yard TD pass that Bennett dropped in the second quarter.
Or the interception that safety Major Wright couldn’t secure.
Or head coach Lovie Smith’s failed decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in the first half rather than try a 33-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
“Three points would have been big right there,” Dickerson said. “It would have had the Bears to retain momentum. But Lovie decides to go for it, doesn’t run the quarterback sneak with Cutler and Michael Bush gets slammed and stopped. Big swing.”
Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson added to the Bears’ agony by leading a go-ahead touchdown drive late in regulation then winning the game with a TD march in overtime.
Still, most painful for Chicago was the injury suffered by Urlacher, leaving them to march forward without the linchpin of their defense. With Urlacher out, Nick Roach will move to middle linebacker in his place and Geno Hayes steps into Roach’s normal role on the strong side.
Said Dickerson: “Brian Urlacher, at age 34, is still very, very important to this defense. That’s a huge loss. When he doesn’t play middle linebacker, they just don’t win consistently. You can look it up. He dislocated his wrist the first game in 2009 and had to have emergency surgery. The Bears struggled (and went 7-9). Then in 2004, he had a hamstring problem that cost him five games and a leg injury too. The Bears struggled.”
They were 0-7 without Urlacher that year.