It seems hard to argue, as the Vikings head into Week 17 needing a win to nudge their way into the playoffs, that any of their six losses this season did more to affect their collective psyche than the 25-20 defeat the Bears handed them on Nov. 18.
The Vikings came into the matchup a half-game out of first in the NFC North, with every reason to believe in their resume over that of the unproven Bears. “They’re not the reason this game was moved to prime time!” quarterback Kirk Cousins bellowed to teammates in a televised pregame speech. “We are!”
They left Soldier Field defeated and dismayed, after a 25-20 loss that probably wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. Cousins’ two interceptions and a Dalvin Cook fumble torpedoed the Vikings’ chances. The rift between coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, which had been brewing for weeks by that point, became public the day after the game when Zimmer mused about the volume of plays in the Vikings’ offense and their lack of commitment to the run game.
Even on Friday, 16 days after he’d fired DeFilippo, Zimmer offered a callback that indicated how much the Vikings’ offensive approach from the first game still bothered him.
“We are going to do whatever we need to do to win, if that’s throwing that a lot of times — hopefully not 46, and running it 14,” Zimmer said, mentioning the Vikings’ run/pass splits from the first game. “But we are going to do what we need to do to try to win the football game.”
In the end, any notion of a newer, cleaner identity for the Vikings’ offense under interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski will be measured by what happens against the Bears on Sunday. The Vikings breezed past Miami’s 30th-ranked defense in a 41-17 win the Sunday after Zimmer fired DeFilippo; they posted five yards on their first four possessions before scoring 27 points in the final 34 minutes against a 5-9 Lions team last Sunday.
Until or unless the Rams make it clear the Bears have no chance at a first-round bye, however, the Vikings should get a representative effort from Chicago’s No. 2-ranked defense, even though Bears safety Eddie Jackson and linebacker Aaron Lynch are doubtful for the game. And from here on out, the Vikings figure to face teams that either have staunch defenses, prolific offenses that require Cousins and company to match their output, or both.
The true test of what exactly has changed with the Vikings’ offense, in other words, is just beginning.
“They are impressive across the board from level one to level two to level three,” Stefanski said. “I have a ton of respect for [Bears defensive coordinator Vic] Fangio and his staff. I think they do a great job. Reminds me a lot of our defense, honestly, just in how sound they are.”
Among the Bears’ greatest defensive strengths, Zimmer said Friday, is their ability to disguise their coverages before the snap, or play complementary coverages from one side of the field to the other that make it difficult for a quarterback to diagnose exactly what he’s getting.
Jackson’s interception return for a touchdown in the first matchup came after Cousins threw for Laquon Treadwell, expecting Jackson to be in a different spot than he was.
“A lot of times it’s [reading the defense] post-snap but it’s always continually looking for tips, where you can see things pre-snap,” Zimmer said. “But they do a really good job with that. The corners are sometimes are off and pressed and playing man. Sometimes they’re squatting. There is a lot of different things that they do. A lot of the time it has to happen post-snap.”
As Stefanski said this week, the second Vikings-Bears matchup doesn’t figure to be fundamentally different from the first, since the players and schemes haven’t changed much since Nov. 18. “Certainly, having been part of the staff, I was a part of the game plan [and the group] that put it together,” he said. “So I think it’s useful to go back and look at it. The nice part is we can see who we were, we can see what they were doing in that particular game.”
The ability to improve on that effort, in what could be the first of two consecutive games against the Bears should the Vikings win on Sunday, would deliver a surer sense of vindication for Zimmer’s decision to switch coordinators than perhaps anything that’s happened so far.
Staying the path
In an interview with the Star Tribune last week, co-owner Mark Wilf said Vikings ownership has “all the confidence” in Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, adding, “We’ve had our ups and downs, but I thought [the win over the Dolphins] was very encouraging, and it’s exciting to be involved with important games here in December.”
When asked if Zimmer consulted ownership before firing DeFilippo after the Vikings’ Dec. 10 loss to the Seahawks, Wilf said, “We are speaking to Coach Zimmer and Rick at all times, and we’re fully aware of everything that’s going on. We communicate constantly on a regular basis, so that’s no issue. We all talk things through, and things are done in that way, where we communicate.”
A win Sunday would put the coach — whom sources have said is heading into the final year of his contract in 2019 — into the playoffs for the third time in four years.
To reach the postseason, and certainly to make any kind of a playoff run, the Vikings will have to show their retooled offense is ready for the big stage.
“I feel like Kevin’s done a great job,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “We’ve all said it: It’s simplifying things, allowing us to go out and play fast, but also getting everyone involved. … We’ve got to stay on the field, because the more opportunities he has, the more balanced we can stay.”