The Vikings head to their own personal haunted house — Soldier Field — on Sunday to face a Bears team with some familiar faces and unfamiliar offensive and defensive systems under new coach John Fox.
Early returns indicate it will take some time for Fox and General Manager Ryan Pace to infuse more young talent into a roster that can support the switch to a 3-4 defense and surround quarterback Jay Cutler with more talent, assuming, of course, Cutler remains the team’s quarterback of the future. But as we all know by now, the Vikings (4-2) haven’t won at Chicago since 2007. So who the heck knows what will happen at noon on Sunday.
For a closer look at the Bears, we threw these five questions at Dan Wiederer, the former Star Tribune Vikings beat writer who now covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune:
MC: Most of us can’t determine whether Jay Cutler is one of the league’s worst upper echelon quarterbacks or one of its best second-rate quarterbacks. What have you seen from Cutler this season and is he any different in this new offense compared to last season?
DW: “In my estimation, Cutler isn’t much different. But the offense is. In his seventh year in Chicago, Cutler remains the same quarterback he’s been for so long, productive enough to remain the obvious starter but error-prone enough to kill the team with costly decisions. In each of his five starts this year, he has had a costly turnover. And yet he has also led game-winning fourth-quarter drives to beat the Raiders and Chiefs as well as delivering a clutch game-tying field goal at the end of regulation in Detroit. He’s strong-armed, tough and maddeningly inconsistent. All of those things we’ve known for years. What’s different this season is that new offensive coordinator Adam Gase has installed a system that establishes the run first and doesn’t put too much pressure on Cutler to carry the load. The Bears have a goal, with their talent deficiencies on both sides of the ball, to chew clock and shorten games as much as possible. And they’ve been highly successful at doing so, owning time of possession in the first half of their first five games. (Thanks, Matt Forte). Cutler, meanwhile, is being asked to be smart and efficient. And he’s succeeding for the most part because Gase tailors his game plans and his play calling each week to keep the offense out of unfavorable situations. As a unit, they’re playing within themselves. And Cutler has shown an ability to do that well this season. That said, I’m not sure I can answer your riddle. Is he a lower-tier upper-echelon quarterback? Maybe. Is he a solid second-rate quarterback? Probably. Enjoy your weekend sample of that whole experience.”
MC: What happened with Jared Allen and Brock Vereen, and how long do you think it will take the Bears to make the transition to a 3-4 defense they can win consistently with?
DW: “Let’s make this one as simple as possible. Allen didn’t fit the scheme. Vereen wasn’t tough enough. End of story.
As hard as Jared tried to adapt to an unfamiliar role at outside linebacker in a new 3-4 scheme, it just wasn’t the right fit for him. He is most comfortable and most confident as a hand-in-the-dirt, ears-pinned-back right defensive end. And as that became more apparent to both he and the Bears, a separation made sense for all parties. The Bears were just lucky that Carolina had a sudden need at the position and were willing to part with a late-round 2016 draft pick.
“Vereen, meanwhile, was on the wrong end of big plays too many times on both defense and special teams over the past two seasons. And with this new regime, there’s not a lot of wasted time once it’s determined that a player doesn’t fit.
“I do think the Bears can make a relatively quick transition to the 3-4. Vic Fangio is a reputable and accomplished coordinator who has drawn raves here for his ability to teach and his ability to use players’ strengths within the defense. Now, it’s just a matter of the Bears replenishing their talent pool on defense. And it will take a few offseasons to find more guys who are fit for the 3-4. Already, though, after the last two seasons were completely disastrous on defense, the Bears have made obvious strides back toward respectability.”
MC: What early signs are there that John Fox and General Manager Ryan Pace are the right guys to turn this team around and is there anything other than coincidence to explain why Fox is 10-3 in games directly following a bye week?
DW: “It’s easy to point out that two years ago at this time Marc Trestman had the Bears at 4-2 and everyone was singing the praises of a new coach who had won over his players. So there has to be caution used with any new regime in prematurely forecasting a can’t-miss turnaround. That said, Fox has an established track record that gives him more credibility than Trestman ever had. He’s been to the Super Bowl twice and ushered quick turnarounds in both Carolina and Denver. And there’s a widespread belief that he has the formula to produce a similar revival in Chicago. For starters, Fox did a terrific job of surrounding himself with smart coordinators and an accomplished staff of assistants. He also has a knack for connecting with players and finding ways to bring out their best. That means a lot in the locker room. And week in and week out, after wins and losses, players talk openly about how well prepared they feel for each opponent.
“Pace, just 38 years old and a rookie GM, is still noticeably green in his role. But he has shown confidence in his vision and an assertiveness to make roster moves with confidence. Whether it was the early-October trades of Allen and Jon Bostic, the release of Vereen or last week’s release of defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff, Pace is determined to identify players who fit the long-term vision and cast off those who don’t.
“As for Fox’s record following the bye, it may be mostly a coincidence. But I do think it speaks to his nature as a coach who knows how to prepare his teams well.”
MC: The Bears had an interesting bye week, to say the least, with the odd situation involving defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff. What kind of impact will his release have on the field and in the locker room ?
DW: “For starters, it removes a tenacious presence from the defensive line. And while Ratliff had his issues, he was well respected in the locker room. He also has been injury prone since he arrived in Chicago, playing in only 18 of a possible 30 games since joining the Bears two years ago. So it’s not like the Bears haven’t been used to playing without him before. More than anything, this coaching staff and front office is determined to retain accountability throughout the building. And when Ratliff arrived at team headquarters last week in no condition to work and then became combative and belligerent when asked to go home, the Bears felt they had no choice but to part ways, unwilling to tolerate any threats to the team’s building positive energy. That, in many ways, sends an important message and they’ll fight to replace Ratliff’s presence on the field.”
MC: The Vikings have an inconsistent run defense that, to me, is at the root of their problems in the games they lose. It creates bigger issues with the pass defense and then the offense gets out of whack because there is less time of possession to establish a run-pass rhythm. Is stopping Matt Forte the No. 1 priority for the Vikings, and is Forte’s value less, more or the same as it was in last year’s offensive system?
DW: In many ways, Forte is maybe the most important part on the team and the linchpin of the offense. In his eighth season here and heading for his 30th birthday in December, he remains productive, durable, consistent and low-maintenance. Both Gase and Cutler have made numerous remarks this season noting how much easier their jobs become with Forte in the offense. For starters, as mentioned earlier, the Bears’ ability to establish and commit to the run has been notable. And while Forte’s yards per carry average is down and he no longer has that home run pop, he also has been running behind an O-line this year that’s been in constant reshuffle mode since the regular season began. His reliability as a pass catcher and pass protector are also underrated.
“The formula, as simple and straightforward as it is, will stay the same Sunday. The Bears figure to feed Forte early and often with an aim on controlling the clock and shortening the game. And there’s no reason they can’t be successful doing so.
“That said, I do believe the Vikings D has to be equally worried about the big-play potential of Alshon Jeffery, whose return to the offense after a four-game layoff lent a spark to a unit that was lacking a field-stretching receiver. Jeffery adds a dimension to the offense. It will just be up to the O-line to give Cutler enough time to take a few shots.”