The Vikings came into Sunday’s game against the Bears vowing to run the ball, even as they faced a run front ranked by Football Outsiders as one of the best in a generation last year.
Without Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith on Sunday, the Bears controlled Dalvin Cook to the point the Vikings weren’t rewarded for their reliance on the run game for the first time this year. He gained only 35 yards on 14 carries, running into a Bears scheme that seemed primed to slow him down in a 16-6 loss.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bears put eight or more defenders in the box on five of Cook’s 14 carries, forcing him to face heavy fronts more frequently than all but six running backs in the league during Week 4.
His longest gain of the day was a 9-yarder in the fourth quarter that came out of a three-receiver set with the Vikings trailing 16-0. Other than that, Cook found himself searching for room, rather than being able to make a decisive burst through the line. According to Next Gen Stats, Cook was behind the line of scrimmage for an average of 3.01 seconds Sunday, longer than he has needed to hit a hole the entire season. Per Pro Football Focus, 21 of Cook’s 35 yards came after contact.
“Very difficult, especially when you’re trying to make plays and get a first down, just get something going,” Cook said of the lack of running room. “But Chicago did a great job of doing what they do.”
Cook ran behind a fullback or an extra tight end on 10 of his 14 carries Sunday. That’s part and parcel to the Vikings offense this season, and it has helped open holes for Cook so far. It could, however, invite more defenders into the box, rather than forcing them to defend the run from a wider angle, especially as teams scheme to stop Cook and force the Vikings to throw the ball. The Vikings won’t face many run fronts as talented as the Bears’ group (though the Eagles could present a challenge in two weeks), but they’re likely to see teams gearing up for Cook until they make opponents pay for it.
There were two other areas of concern following the Vikings’ 16-6 loss.
The first was the passing game production.
The fact that Kirk Cousins was sacked six times — including two that forced fumbles — is a well-established part of the Vikings’ problems. But the issues extended further than that, as the Bears forced Cousins to escape the pocket or check the ball down without options developing downfield. According to Next Gen Stats, Cousins held the ball for an average of 3.05 seconds before throwing Sunday — a game in which his average completion traveled just 4.02 yards.
The Bears took away some of Cousins’ downfield looks with coverage, and their pass rush forced him to speed up his timetable on other occasions. But Cousins missed what could have been a touchdown to Thielen on the Vikings’ first drive, and appeared to have him open on another check down to C.J. Ham. The Vikings offense seemed to find a rhythm late when it was forced to simplify things and Cousins needed to get the ball out of his hand quickly.
“There’s times where you just have to pull the trigger and believe you’re going to make the throw,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “There was times that he got the ball out really good, the one behind Adam [Thielen in the third quarter], just a little bit behind him, he got that ball out good. There was some other ones. We just have to keep working on it.”
The second area of concern is offensive line penalties.
The Vikings were penalized seven times for 68 yards Sunday, and their offensive line was one of the main culprits against the Bears. Riley Reiff was flagged for a false start late in the third quarter, and his holding penalty on the following series wiped out a big gain from Cook. He was also called for a holding penalty that the Bears declined on Roy Robertson-Harris’ third-quarter sack.
Dakota Dozier was also called for holding on the Vikings’ fourth-quarter touchdown drive.