They say games like the Vikings often play at Soldier Field are ones to forget. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes claims he really can’t remember much from last year’s embarrassing 20-10 defeat in Chicago to the Bears.
“I just know we lost and 24 had a long run, right?” Rhodes asked.
Bears running back Jordan Howard, or ‘24,’ set up Chicago’s opening score with a 69-yard run. It was just the third snap for the Vikings defense. And it was all downhill from there for the Vikings. Howard, meanwhile, finished with a career-high 153 rushing yards that Monday night.
Preventing a repeat is about all Rhodes and the Vikings need to remember. So taking away rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s top backfield threats — Howard and Chicago’s new complementary receiving back, Tarik Cohen — topped the Vikings’ to-do list in preparations this week.
“Because they’re going to try to come in and run the ball with this rookie [quarterback],” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “Play-action [passes] and protect him and do all that. Our number one thing is stopping the run.”
An Achilles’ heel in the Vikings’ top-five defense last season was its occasional struggles against the run, which flared up in games against the Bears. The Vikings allowed a combined 288 rushing yards (nearly 25 percent of his 1,313 rushing yards last season) to Howard in the two-game split with Chicago. Coach Mike Zimmer turned those poor performances into bulletin board material this offseason, prioritizing better run defense among other emphases.
Ahead of Monday night, Zimmer has put on the full-court press to prevent another drubbing by Howard (252 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per rush average through four games) and the Bears. He sounds ready to warn officials about Chicago’s offensive linemen. The Bears’ nine offensive holding penalties are tied for second most in the league.
“Their offensive line does a really good job of getting guys where they’re supposed to be,” Zimmer said. “The receivers do a good job on the perimeter blocking, holding, grabbing and the offensive line does the same thing. We can’t allow them to hold us and grab us the way they’ve been doing in other ballgames.”
In the Vikings’ view, stopping Howard and Cohen is the best route to forcing Trubisky into bad situations and, in turn, rookie mistakes.
“Make him uncomfortable,” Griffen said. “He’s a rookie, so he’s staring down one receiver. Hopefully we put some pressure on him, move in the pocket, make some bad decisions with the ball and get some turnovers.”
Previous issues can be chalked up to the standard woes — missed tackles, blown assignments — but defensive tackle Tom Johnson credited the Vikings’ improved run defense to simplifying the game plan. So far, the Vikings have been one of the league’s best defenses against the run, ranking third in yards per carry (3.1) and rushing yards per game (72.2).
“Last year, we had guys trying to do too much,” Johnson said. “We had too much in the game plan, so right now we’re just trying to simplify and let guys play fast.”
Zimmer declined to elaborate how the Vikings have simplified things. Changes have worked, against a range of various backs, too, which is a challenge the Bears will present.
Cohen is the ‘2’ in Chicago’s 1-2 punch, complementing the bruising, 6-foot, 224-pound Howard as a light (5-6, 181 pounds) and quick slasher best suited in passing situations. Cohen, not a Bears receiver or tight end, is Chicago’s leading receiver with 24 catches for 150 yards, which can stress the Vikings defense if he escapes the backfield.
“He’s a guy you can put in the slot a little like a receiver,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He runs great, catches well, so yeah you obviously have to be aware of where he’s at, especially on passing downs.”
The Vikings might not know his name yet, but Cohen, who also has 181 yards rushing on 30 attempts for a 6.0 average, has their attention.
“Who is that? 29?” Griffen said. “Yeah, he’s very quick. 5-7 dude, he’s very fast. We have to put a body on him as well.”