Coach Mike Zimmer heads to Soldier Field on Monday night with a talented 5-1 Vikings team that entered Week 8 one game clear in its division, tied atop the conference and 7-1 in its past eight NFC North games, including Blair Walsh’s winning 36-yard field goal as time expired in Chicago a year ago.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold your Purple horns, Pollyanna.
Haven’t you heard?
The proverbial “blueprint” for beating the Vikings — for rendering a Super Bowl contender to nothing more than a 5-11 rubble in the making — was distributed last week in Philadelphia via the Eagles’ 21-10 slamming of Sam Bradford.
The Eagles entered that game blitzing at a league-low 18 percent of their opponents’ pass plays. But they played like a pack of hyenas charging a stationary deer and exited said game with full bellies in the form of six sacks, 13 additional quarterback hits and takeaways on two of Bradford’s four fumbles.
Yep, Jim Schwartz, the defensive coordinator who spent a year and a half practicing against Bradford in Philadelphia, had all the answers. And he shared it with the rest of the class. Good night, Minnesota. Turn out the lights and drive home safely.
We ran this popular “blueprint” notion past a number of coaches and players the past week. It fell mostly incomplete or got stripped during the pitching process.
“No, I never have believed in that because every team is different,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “You really have 16 one-game seasons in the NFL. You have one game. You handle it. Handle what that team does. Handle their personnel.
“You relax a little bit on Sunday night. You come in Monday morning and it’s an entirely different challenge, whether you won or lost. In fact, in my experiences, teams that try to emulate or copy someone else get themselves in trouble.”
Zimmer acknowledged that future opponents do attempt to kick down the same doors that fell the week before. But he did so while setting his jaw in a bring-it-on-Bears tone.
“If they [blitz more],” he said, “We need to make sure they pay for it.”
Defensively, things couldn’t be going much better for the Vikings. Their top-ranked unit is tied atop the league in scoring defense (14.0), has a league-high 16 takeaways and is facing a 1-6 Bears team that’s last in the league in scoring (15.8).
Oh, sure, Jay Culter returns from a thumb injury and is 6-1 against the Vikings at Soldier Field. But he’s also 0-2 this year, hasn’t played since Week 2 and is a carefree gunslinger with little reason for caution since he knows his days in Chicago are done after this season.
So defense shouldn’t be an issue. The issue, according to that darned blueprint, is a No. 31-ranked offense with a decimated tackle rotation that’s down to two young backups (T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles) and a rusty veteran (Jake Long) who’s trying to rebound from major injuries in midseason with a new team while on the wrong side of 30.
Certainly, somewhere inside Halas Hall, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has spent the past week watching Schwartz’s game plan on a perpetual loop. He’s got the 12th-ranked defense and decent pass rushing outside linebackers in Willie Young, who has a team-high six sacks; rookie first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd, who had two sacks, including a strip-sack and fumble recovery for a go-ahead touchdown in last week’s loss to the Packers; and Pernell McPhee, in his second game back from a knee injury.
Fangio has some creative looks that create mismatches. For instance, Floyd’s touchdown last week came when Fangio overloaded the right side of the Packers offensive line by moving Floyd and stacking him on the edge next to Young.
But there’s a limit to what the Bears can try to copy from Philadelphia, Fangio said.
“I think you have to be careful not to get outside what you do well and what your players are accustomed to doing,” he said. “If you start trying to do a bunch of new stuff because you saw it work for somebody else, that invariably leads to problems.”
Chicago coach John Fox wasn’t a big blueprint believer, either.
“The Vikings have lost one game,” he said. “I don’t know that I would say that’s a blueprint to wreck their season by any stretch. It’s one game. Usually, the victor is the one who executes the best. That does happen. Everything is about matchups, and our matchups are obviously different. We’re not the same team as the Eagles.”
Turner pointed to perhaps the best example in recent memory of a blown blueprint theory: the 2014 Patriots, when people called for Bill Belichick to bench Tom Brady after a prime-time 41-14 beatdown at Kansas City.
“There’s always a reaction [on your team] because you know you have to play better the next week,” Turner said. “When the Patriots lost to Kansas City, all the experts said, ‘Well, this might be the beginning of the end.’ And all Belichick said after the game was, ‘On to Cincinnati.’ ”
A week later, the Patriots beat the Bengals 43-17 while turning a 2-2 start into a 13-4 run to a Super Bowl title.
“They just fixed the things they had to fix,” Turner said. “There were things we had to address this week, and we’re going to address them.”
The Vikings are 3-1 against the Bears under Zimmer. They went 3-0 in road division games last season, including the 23-20 victory that stopped a seven-game losing streak at Chicago.
“We are very familiar [with the Bears],” Turner said. “We’ve had to deal with those guys. When we’ve played them, we’ve had a good plan for them.”
Monday night’s plan for the passing attack could include more screens and quicker throws, and more max-protection looks to help the offensive line. But what Turner and his players are looking for more than anything else is more victories in the one-on-one physical matchups that went Philly’s way last week.
“Most of the situations we were in, we had a guy on a guy,” Turner said. “You just have to win your matchup. We talked about it on Monday. We got to win our one-on-one matchups. We can obviously help with schemes. … But most of the things we had were self-inflicted issues.”
Turner said he doesn’t have to go back far in his memory bank to find a game in which the blueprint might have suggested future teams shouldn’t blitz Bradford.
“Before the bye, we played Houston,” Turner said. “The times they blitzed, we made big plays. When you’re playing good and handling the blitz, the other team is giving you opportunities to make big plays. That’s what we’re preparing for this week.”