CHICAGO – The Vikings’ 2018 loss to the Bears at Soldier Field — a game in which Kirk Cousins committed two of the team’s three turnovers after the Vikings ran the ball only 14 times for 22 yards — was the kind of defeat their latest offensive overhaul was designed to fix.
They rebuilt their offense around a prominent running game designed to take some of the load off Cousins and help put their star-studded defense in better situations. They invested their top three picks on offensive players, signed guard Josh Kline and brought in Gary Kubiak to help Kevin Stefanski orchestrate the whole thing.
But on Sunday, when the Bears played without six starters, the most alarming thing about the Vikings’ 16-6 loss was how similar it all felt.
Spared from facing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebacker Roquan Smith, the Vikings could this time run for only 40 yards on 16 carries. Given a reprieve from Mitchell Trubisky’s scrambling ability when a left shoulder injury forced the quarterback from the game in the first series, the Vikings let backup Chase Daniel work from clean pockets. Cousins and Stefon Diggs each lost a fumble, and the Vikings — who’d held the ball for only 25 minutes, 31 seconds in Chicago last November — possessed it for only 24:31 on Sunday.
For the second consecutive year, the Vikings will have to look to Detroit for their final opportunity to win a division game on the road. They are 2-2, a game behind the two division foes who’ve already beaten them, and after running for 581 yards in the first three weeks of the season, they looked again like a team in search of an offensive identity on Sunday.
“I think that’s probably the most frustrating thing — we knew that was going to happen at some point,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL. That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to make plays. You have to be able to hit the deep balls. You have to do that, because otherwise, it’s too easy for teams to just tee off and rush the quarterback. We have to be able to run the ball and pass the ball. In this league, you can’t be one-dimensional. It’s just too easy to defend.”
Before a fourth-quarter drive that netted 92 yards — and required the Vikings to go 109 in 13 plays, while overcoming 17 yards of penalties — they had posted only 95 yards in the game’s first 53 minutes.
Cousins, who overthrew Thielen on what would have been a touchdown in the first quarter, had only 49 yards in the first half, as the Vikings fell behind 10-0 at halftime. The quarterback was sacked six times, losing one of his two fumbles, and completed three more passes to his running backs (12) than to Diggs and Thielen.
“One time we tried to take a shot to Adam and they doubled him, and he was covered. And I checked it down to C.J. Ham,” Cousins said. “Another time [in the third quarter], Kyle Fuller plays a trail technique and tips the ball. And Adam is open, but he comes underneath it and tips the ball. And [Danny] Trevathan was coming off the middle push route, so I couldn’t lead Adam too far in there. So that was a tough one. Again, good job by the Bears.”
Cousins’ two fumbles give him an NFL-high six for the season, a year after he fumbled nine times in his first Vikings season.
“We talked about it last night in the meeting; said we’ve got to protect the football in the pocket,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “They’re big stripping the balls in the pocket. We got to do a better job there and we got to make sure we do that. We didn’t do that today.”
Zimmer was at a loss when assessing the running game, as well.
“I’ll have to look. It’s hard to say. They probably just overpowered some of our guys,” he said.
While the Vikings had only two possessions in the first half, the Bears were able to cash in on two peculiar drives it appeared the Vikings had stopped.
Danielle Hunter forced a Trubisky fumble on the play that knocked the quarterback from the game, but the Bears got to keep the ball because of an Anthony Harris holding penalty. Later on the same drive, Harrison Smith tried to scoop up a Trey Burton fumble instead of falling on it, and James Daniels came up with the ball, before a review showed Burton never had possession. Tarik Cohen beat Anthony Barr to the corner, catching a 10-yard pass from Daniel for a touchdown on the next play.
In the second quarter, the Bears appeared ready to kick a field goal from the Vikings 34-yard line before deciding to punt, leaving the Vikings scrambling to switch their personnel as the play clock ticked down. The Vikings called timeout, ostensibly to avoid a penalty for 12 men on the field, but the Bears appeared set to take a delay-of-game penalty instead of snapping the ball. Zimmer’s timeout spared Chicago the penalty, and on fourth-and-3 the Bears converted a first down to keep their drive alive, leading to an Eddy Pineiro field goal.
“That was a bad mistake — my fault,” said Zimmer, who declined to elaborate on why he called timeout. “I’ll take the blame for it.”
On a day where the Vikings lost at Soldier Field for the 10th time in 12 tries, the laments felt all too familiar.