The Vikings faced a rookie quarterback who holds the ball longer than most QBs in the league — and did so again on Monday night — but in sacking the Bears' Justin Fields three times, the defensive front continued its remarkable run of productivity minus its best two pass rushers.
In the 17-9 win, the Vikings became the first team since the 1974 Raiders to post multiple sacks in each of their first 14 games. The NFL season, of course, was only 14 games long when the Raiders set that record, so if the Vikings sack Matthew Stafford — no stranger to the U.S. Bank Stadium turf — twice on Sunday, they'll have the 15-game mark all to themselves.
D.J. Wonnum's career-high three sacks Monday mean he's now tied for the team lead with Danielle Hunter, who has been out since Nov. 1. Armon Watts and Eric Kendricks have five each, tying them with Everson Griffen, who hasn't played since Nov. 21. Both Harrison Smith and Michael Pierce have three.
There are 62 players in the league that have at least five sacks this season. The Vikings have five of them; the Bengals (with four) are the only other team that has more than three.
"I feel like it's been consistent," Wonnum said. "Danielle and Griff are great players. Next man up, you've just gotta keep going and getting better. Coach Dre [co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson] challenged us each and every week, and we're gonna go out there and do it each week, so we can keep going."
Patterson is also quick to say that sacks don't tell the whole story, and that's where things get a little more complicated without Hunter and Griffen for the Vikings. They had a season-high 22 pressures on Monday night — likely benefiting from the fact Fields held the ball for an average of 3.18 seconds, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — but their night of chasing the quarterback around the Soldier Field turf came after weeks of declining pressure rates.
After pressuring an opposing quarterback at least 30% of the time in each of the season's first six games, the Vikings have only done it four times in eight games since, according to Pro Football Focus.
On Monday night, though, they were able to affect Fields while blitzing him only nine times in his 47 dropbacks. Their defensive tackles consistently won matchups against the middle of the Bears' line; the group had half of the Vikings' 22 pressures, according to PFF.
"They stop the run, but guys don't see that they rush the passer as well," Wonnum said. "That second sack I got, DT [Dalvin Tomlinson] was a big part of that because he forced the quarterback my way. But those guys are great players, and I'm just excited to be playing with them."
Their edge rushers, Wonnum in particular, persevered when the Vikings didn't send extra pressure. Fields was quicker to get rid of the ball when the Vikings did blitz, but all three of Wonnum's sacks came when they sent only four pass rushers.
"Honestly, I didn't know that he had the three sacks. I mean, I was just happy we had some," coach Mike Zimmer said. "D.J.'s a kid that continues to try to get better each and every week. He's very athletic and can do a lot of things, and I think he's starting to come a little bit where he's being a little more freelance-y a little bit, and not so robotic. So I think maybe that's helping him."
They will try to keep their season alive against Stafford and Aaron Rodgers in the next two games before getting another shot at Fields in Week 18. The rookie quarterback has the NFL's second-highest pressure rate this season (42.8%, according to PFF). Stafford and Rodgers are among the four lowest.
It will require the kind of group effort they've cobbled together for much of the season. On Monday night against Fields, they kept their remarkable sack streak alive.
"He was really scrambling. Like, loose and fast. So I missed him one time, I shoulda had four. Really shoulda had five," said Wonnum, a fourth-round draft pick in 2020. "He was squirmy. I gotta break down better. He's a great athlete, but I got him on the ground, and I had to keep going, keep going, keep getting better."
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Michael Pierce: In addition to his four pressures, Pierce controlled the middle of the Bears' offensive line for much of the night, beating center Sam Mustipher while either stopping running back David Montgomery or forcing him to run laterally. Sheldon Richardson's strip of Montgomery came after Pierce broke through the line, spilling the run toward Richardson for him to make the play.
Kene Nwangwu: In just five snaps from scrimmage, the rookie running back showed the electrifying speed that makes him deserving of a larger role. He had carries of 19 and 11 yards — the Vikings' two longest runs of the night — and continued to make a difference on special teams, taking a Cairos Santos kick out from a yard deep in the end zone and returning it to the Vikings' 32 in the second quarter. The Vikings haven't truly tapped into Nwangwu's speed on offense yet; he's shown that even in a few runs, or plays designed to get him the ball, he can make a big difference in close games.
TWO AREAS OF CONCERN
Interior offensive line: Short of putting third-round pick Wyatt Davis on the field, the Vikings have tried almost every center and right guard combination available to them at this point. On Monday night, they stuck with Garrett Bradbury at center and Mason Cole at right guard, putting Oli Udoh on the bench with Christian Darrisaw back from an ankle injury at left tackle. Akiem Hicks dominated his matchup with Cole, as he's done to Vikings interior linemen for years, but the matchups the Vikings face in the next two weeks — Aaron Donald and Kenny Clark (assuming he's back from the COVID-19 list by then) — aren't going to be any more forgiving than the one they faced on Monday night. Davis continues to be inactive, and hasn't impressed coaches for much of the season; the fact he's still in street clothes in Week 15 tells much of the story.
The Vikings' offensive slump: In their last six quarters, they've had 19 possessions. Those 19 possessions have gone as follows:
- Nine punts
- Three field goals
- Three touchdowns
- Three interceptions
- One turnover on downs (after Kirk Cousins threw out of bounds on the final play of the first half on Monday night).
Adam Thielen has missed most of the Vikings' last three games with a high ankle sprain, and his absence (especially in the red zone) has become more obvious. He should have a decent chance to play against the Rams on Sunday. But the Vikings again struggled to open space for Dalvin Cook (who generated 65 of his 89 yards after contact, per PFF) ,and Cousins reverted to holding the ball while playing tentatively again. Zimmer said he thought the Vikings threw too much (a familiar refrain after games at Soldier Field, it seems), and until Cousins connected with Justin Jefferson on a 13-yard pass on the Vikings' final drive, they didn't have a first down in the second half. They'll have to figure it out quickly, and they might need a brief refresher on their offensive identity.
ONE BIG QUESTION
How realistic are the Vikings' playoff chances? In short, without beating the Rams on Sunday or the Packers the following week, they're not very good.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the Vikings have a 29% chance of reaching the playoffs; they're technically in possession of the No. 7 seed right now on a tiebreaker with the Saints, but have a tougher schedule during the final three weeks than does New Orleans. A loss to the Rams on Sunday would drop the Vikings' chances to 10%; if they lose on Sunday while the Saints beat the Dolphins, their chances would drop to 8% while the Saints' odds increase to 69%.
Beating the Rams on Sunday makes things essentially a toss-up between the Vikings and Saints, and Minnesota would have the inside path to a playoff spot if the Saints lose. Washington and Philadelphia factor into the mix, as well, but the fact those two teams still play each other twice means they could come out with a split that helps both the Vikings' and Saints' odds.
The Vikings, even after a Monday night game, have a longer stretch of preparation than the Rams, who'll play the Seahawks on Tuesday night in a game postponed two days by COVID-19. But even with the Rams making a tighter turnaround, the Vikings will have their hands full with a talented roster that's been bolstered by midseason moves.
Even as expected as the win over the Bears was on Monday night, for the Vikings to reach the playoffs, they'll have to beat at least one playoff team in the next two weeks. Any other path involves a lot of wishful thinking.