The Chicago Bears will attempt to get off to a 2-0 start to the Marc Trestman era when they tangle with the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field on Sunday.
If they are going to do that, as well as pick up their first divisional win of the season, then there are five things that they are going to need to do to ensure success.
Get Pressure Up the Middle
Last week, much of the negative attention paid to the Bears' defense was focused on the effort of defensive end Julius Peppers, who was held without a tackle or a sack in the Bears' 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Lost in that shuffle to a degree was the poor play of defensive tackle Henry Melton, who looked completely overmatched in one-on-one battles in the middle of the Cincinnati line. Fellow tackle Stephen Paea did a much better job of getting penetration, but it ultimately wasn't enough as Cincinnati was able to run their offense smoothly throughout the first half.
The Bears have to do a better job of winning those line battles this week, because unlike Andy Dalton, who is capable of getting rid of the ball quickly and effectively even under duress, Christian Ponder hasn't shown an ability to do so in his NFL career. In fact, last week against the Detroit Lions, Ponder threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in the Vikings' loss, so if the Bears are able to get in his face and cause him to throw the ball quickly, then Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings could be in for another fruitful week.
Will Tillman, Peppers Be Ready to Contribute?
The aforementioned Peppers sat out Thursday's practice for the Bears with flu-like symptoms, and although he is expected to play on Sunday, he likely won't be at 100% against the Vikings.
As for Tillman, he missed Thursday's practice due to an excused absence, but he also was limited in Wednesday's practice with a knee injury. Add to that the fact that he was vomiting on the Bears sideline against the Bengals, and you are looking at a guy who likely won't be at 100% either for Week 2.
What does this mean for the Bears then? For starters, it means that Corey Wootten is going to have to be ready to get some pressure going from the other defensive end position to take some of the emphasis off of stopping Peppers. As stated, it's especially critical to get pressure on Ponder because of his turnover issues, but it's also going to be important to get the line working in sync to stop Adrian Peterson, the most effective running back in the league at the moment.
As for Tillman, there isn't a lot that the Bears can do to help him out if he is struggling, but the one thing they'll have to do is have Major Wright help out over the top in pass coverage. This is especially crucial since the linebackers will largely be concerned with stopping Peterson, and the Bears will have to hope that Wright has a better game than he did last week, when he blew a coverage that led to a long AJ Green touchdown catch.
The Bears Must Win the Battle vs. Jared Allen
Last week, Bears rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills did a tremendous job in stopping noted pass rusher Geno Atkins, holding him to zero sacks and rendering him ineffective.
The line itself did a great job as a whole, keeping Jay Cutler from being sacked and drastically limiting the number of times that he even felt pressure in the pocket. They weren't fooled by the Bengals' varying looks up front, and they were also able to pick up just about every blitz that Marvin Lewis' defense could throw at them.
Against the Vikings this week, the challenge will be similar against Jared Allen. He is known for his ability to shed blockers and get to the quarterback with ease, so it's going to be imperative for the Bears to seal off whichever side of the line Allen happens to line up on. If it is the right, then Long is going to have to make sure to keep his feet under him.
If it's the left side, then Jermon Bushrod, who missed most of the preseason with an injury, is going to have to prove that he is ready to take on one of the league's best pass rushers.
Bears Have to be Willing to Grind it Out
Last season, the Vikings were one of the stingier teams against the run in the NFL, ranking 11th by allowing just over 105 yards per game on the ground. That ability to stop the run was on display for the most part against the Bears, holding Matt Forte to only 42 yards in the Bears' Week 12 victory.
That inability to break big runs against the Vikings would lead some to say that the Bears need to air it out, but the Vikings' secondary has much the same mentality as their run-stoppers do. It is a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, conceding short gains over the middle and preventing large gains over the top. The Vikings executed that plan well against the Lions last week, holding Calvin Johnson to only three catches, but they died a death by a thousand cuts in ultimately giving up 357 yards in the air in a losing effort.
If the Bears are going to effectively mount an offensive attack against the Vikings, then they have to be willing to vary up their play-calling, and they have to accept four and five yard gains instead of getting impatient and going for the deep ball.
Third Down Defense Must Improve for Bears
If there was one area in particular that the Bears struggled in last week, it was in their third down defense.
The Bengals seemed to have a field day against Chicago in the game, converting on third down seven times in 11 chances. Two of those failed conversions came thanks to James Anderson pass deflections, but the Bears have to do a better job all-around in trying to stop the Vikings from extending drives.
The Lions provided a nice blueprint in that regard last week, holding the Vikes to only two third down conversions in 10 chances. Most of that had to do with Ponder's struggles, but the Lions were also able to keep Peterson in check on those runs, and if the Bears can execute their game plan properly, then they should expect similar success.