The Chicago Bears will hit the gridiron on Sunday at Mall of America Field as they take on the Minnesota Vikings, and there will be more than just divisional bragging rights on the line.
The Bears will also be trying to keep pace with the Detroit Lions in the NFC North race, as the Lions walloped the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving in a 40-10 laugher. The Bears are also going to be trying to keep up with the teams that they are trying to chase in the Wild Card race, including the Cardinals, Panthers, and 49’ers.
With that in mind, here are three keys to the game for the Bears as they try to run their record to 7-5 on the season:
Bears Must Stay Disciplined
The Bears were regarded as one of the more disciplined teams in the league in the early going this season, getting plaudits from all corners for their ability to avoid pre-snap penalties and for their ability to block at the offensive line without picking up the holding penalties that can kill drives.
In the past two weeks though, the Bears have regressed horrifically to the mean. In Week 11 against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bears committed 13 penalties for 111 yards in the game, and despite the victory, they made their own lives really difficult by committing several infractions on third downs that extended Ravens drives.
The problem continued in Week 12 against the St. Louis Rams, as the Bears committed 10 more penalties, and worse than that, ended up erasing THREE touchdowns with the penalties. Craig Steltz’s holding penalty was one of the worst of the bunch as it erased Devin Hester’s touchdown return, and Earl Bennett’s block in the back on a Matt Forte touchdown run was equally pointless.
The Bears have got to be able to get back on track Sunday if they are going to win, and the dome in Minneapolis isn’t the ideal place to start. The loud confines of Mall of America Field make pre-snap penalties pretty much a fact of life for opponents, but where the Bears are going to have to be especially careful in this game is on the defensive side of the ball as they try to cope with Adrian Peterson and company.
If they can play a smart defensive game, then they should be able to get enough stops to give their offense a chance to succeed against a weak Vikings’ defense, and that’s about all one can ask from the Bears’ defensive corps any more.
A Fast Start is No Longer Optional
For the past several weeks, Bears head coach Marc Trestman has talked candidly about the team’s need to get off to a fast start on offense, but he has to be disappointed with the results he’s received for all that talking.
The Bears looked completely lost against the Ravens before Mother Nature intervened at Soldier Field, and things were even worse against the Rams the next week, as Forte coughed up the football on the Bears’ first play from scrimmage, and the resulting short Rams’ drive gave them a 14-0 lead just a few minutes into the contest.
On Sunday, the Bears’ offense simply has to be better in this area. Getting off to a fast start is a key against a team like the Vikings, who thrive when they are able to deploy their run game at will and can pass sparingly to back that up. If the Bears can get on the board early and put serious pressure on the Vikings’ defense, then the game should open up quite a bit for them on both sides of the ball, and victory in this one would be within reach.
Conte Has to Step Up at Safety
With Major Wright likely out for the Bears on Sunday, the team’s woes at the safety position will only get worse. Anthony Walters has already been ruled out for the game against the Vikings, and unless Mel Tucker is planning on using newly elevated Sean Cattouse at safety this week, then odds are that Steltz is going to be the guy replacing Wright at the strong safety position.
Knowing that, the guy who is going to have to step up the most in the absence of Wright is Chris Conte. He hasn’t exactly been a beacon of hope for Bears fans with his awful angles he takes in stopping the run, and his pass coverage skills leave something to be desired as well. To say that he has had a bad season up to this point wouldn’t be much of a stretch, and Conte himself surely knows that he has to be better.
With the circumstances facing the Bears today in terms of their depleted safety group, this could be Conte’s big chance for a game-changing performance. Against a weak Vikings passing attack, Conte can hopefully focus more on helping out in run-stopping, and if he can make strides in making improvements to his approach in that area, then the Bears could get a pleasant surprise out there on Sunday.
If he doesn’t, then it’s going to be a long afternoon at the Metrodome.