Running back Dalvin Cook wants to turn Monday night into a heavyweight fight.
But Cook knows a surging Vikings offense needs to live up to the nationally televised billing against a Bears defense that has bullied them through four losses in two years.
The difference, the Vikings hope, is an offense confident in its identity, which is focused on Cook as he runs like an MVP candidate and sets up an explosive play-action passing game. It’s the Vikings’ best hope of emerging from this matchup with the more competent offense in the game.
“This year, it’s about something different,” Cook said. “It’s about us knowing our identity, knowing who we is and going out there and playing football. I give the utmost respect to the Bears, but I think we’re going to have a good week of practice, a solid week of practice, and it’s going to be about us.
“We got to go in there and match their physicality. Not shying away from anything,” he added. “We got to bring our lunch pail Monday night.”
Cook, the NFL’s rushing leader in yardage and touchdowns entering Sunday, generates that kind of confidence for a Vikings team that hasn’t earned much of it against the Bears. But oddsmakers still have the Vikings as three-point favorites while the Bears are losers of three straight and just changed offensive play callers. Bears coach Matt Nagy said their backs are against the wall.
Lights, camera, “Monday Night Football.”
“It’s for real,” Nagy said. “Not that the other ones aren’t. But we’re at the point right now, 5-4, and have a division game against a good football team. Right now, with the way things have gone, with losing three games, we’re willing to do whatever we need to do collectively together to get that win.”
Exorcising some demons
The Bears defense has a way of stressing the Vikings offense, from the often-replayed sideline exchange between Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen to tensions including receiver Stefon Diggs and coordinator John DeFilippo, now the Bears’ quarterbacks coach.
Coach Mike Zimmer questioned complexities in DeFilippo’s playbook after the 2018 trip to Chicago, and a month later he was fired. Gary Kubiak, the Vikings’ current offensive coordinator, oversaw last year’s loss at Soldier Field as assistant head coach. In both losses, the Vikings were shut out in the first half. Diggs, unhappy with the offense, didn’t show up to work for a few days after last year’s defeat and was fined $200,000 by the team.
“We got behind the 8-ball on some third downs, and you start holding the ball against this team and bad things happen,” Kubiak said of last year’s 16-6 loss in Chicago. “It did for us in that game. We’ve got great respect for them schematically, and for their players as well. We know what we’re up against and are going to have to play really well.”
This 10th-ranked Vikings offense can exorcise some demons with Cook’s pace of 147 yards from scrimmage per game. He has turbocharged the offense, which can be explosive with Cousins, Thielen and Justin Jefferson if play-action passing works effectively. That progress caught Kubiak’s attention.
Cousins leads the NFL with 8.9 yards per throw in the second year of a system that asks him to maximize the league’s fewest passing attempts per game.
“I’m excited of where I think we can get to. The thing that I’m really excited about is our yards per play,” Kubiak said. “It’s really hard to nitpick your way down the field for 10-, 12-, 14-play drives. You have to have the ability to make some big plays, and we’ve done that.”
Knifing through uneven Packers and Lions defenses is one thing. The Bears bring an overpowering front that wins in key situations — No. 1 in third downs (31%) and within the 20-yard line, where opponents get touchdowns on just 42% of red-zone drives, according to Football Outsiders.
Previous meetings with the Bears have fueled the offense’s identity crisis, and Zimmer knows Monday night is a heat check for his team.
“I have a lot of confidence in our offense,” he said. “Kirk has been playing really well the past couple weeks. We’ve got skilled receivers, tight ends, and then our offensive line, I think, is getting better and better. I don’t know about anything in the past. I just know our offense feels very confident about what their capabilities are. It’ll be a good test for them this week, though, with the Bears, because they’re really good.”
Defensive struggle ahead?
As the Vikings try to keep rolling, the Bears offense is trying to pick itself up.
Zimmer has long struggled with the decision to hand over play-calling, as Nagy did. Zimmer often mulled whether to delegate defensive play-calling so he can better manage on game days. But his grip on the play sheet hasn’t loosened much.
Nagy said his decision wasn’t easy despite the Bears stumbling with a 29th-ranked offense.
“Is it hard to do? Absolutely,” Nagy said. “I’d be lying to every one of you guys if I told you that this is easy. It’s not easy. It’s one of my favorite parts of coaching. I love calling plays. I love it. … But guess what? If this is what’s best for the team, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Coordinator Bill Lazor takes over with the expectation he’ll try to kick-start a last-place Bears rushing attack that could lean on former Vikings first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield because of injuries.
Quarterback Nick Foles, reunited with DeFilippo as members of the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl team, hasn’t found the same spark in Chicago under a pass-happy approach that, while DeFilippo was the play-caller in Minnesota, led to tension with Zimmer.
Safety Harrison Smith said he doesn’t have to look too far back to recall Foles’ potential, regardless of the play caller.
“You can’t start guessing and creating new things because they say someone else is calling the plays,” Smith said. “We played against Foles a couple of times. He’s played well against us. I think we all remember the NFC [Championship] Game.
‘‘We know they’re capable of doing a lot of things and stretching the [field] and scoring points.”
Scoring points always seems to be difficult whenever the Vikings and Bears meet, and Cook has spent the week telling his offensive linemen it’s their badge of honor, too, so wear it Monday night.
“I’m big on letting my guys know up front that this thing can be done,” Cook said. “Y’all just get on guys, and I’m going to make a play. I think being first in some of the statistics just shows that to the O-line, gives them that confidence.”