What Went Wrong: 5 Vikings-Bears Takeaways

Posted Sep 15, 2013

Losing stings, there’s no way around it. Some losses are tougher than others. Some games are lost by the middle of the 3rd quarter. Some losses are blowouts. And then there are the losses that make you shake your head. The losses that, at some point down the road later in the season, you look back at and know you could’ve sealed the deal and you know that had that loss been a win it could’ve set forth an entirely different set of circumstances going forward.

Sunday at Soldier Field may just be that kind of loss for the Vikings. It’s not often when a team scores on special teams, scores on defense, has a 100-yard rusher and wins the turnover battle, and then still loses the game. In fact, teams that score on special teams and on a defensive fumble return in the same game have lost just 12 times since 1940.

So what went wrong? Let’s take a look…

Momentum-killing moments
It seemed every time the Vikings made a play to generate momentum and sap the energy out of Soldier Field, the Bears would do something equally significant to shift the momentum back in their favor. Cordarrelle Patterson’s 105-yard kickoff return touchdown was answered by a Devin Hester 76-yard return that set up a Bears touchdown just five plays later. Brian Robison recovered a fumble and returned it 61 yards for a score, but Hester answered with an 80-yard return. To end the ensuing drive, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was intercepted by Kevin Williams, but then Tim Jennings took a Christian Ponder interception back 44 yards for a touchdown. Ponder found Kyle Rudolph for a touchdown with 1:17 to play in the 1st half, but the Bears drove down for a last-second field goal to answer right before halftime. That’s just the 1st half – the list goes on in the 2nd half.

It’s hard to win, period, in the NFL. But it’s even more difficult to win on the road. So when you can steal some momentum and get things going in your direction, you need to capitalize on that and score two, three or four times in a row to build a nice lead, which will cushion the advantage to compensate for a the inevitable comeback that home teams naturally produce by virtue of playing in their own building. The Vikings didn’t score consecutive times until late in the 3rd quarter, and even then it was three consecutive field goals, which is nice because it puts points on the board but it’s also unfortunate because you need touchdowns to win on the road. In addition, it’s hard to believe a team could register a defensive touchdown, a special teams touchdown and win the turnover battle, but still lose the game. That’s what the Vikings did on Sunday in Chicago, and a lot of it had to do with Chicago’s ability to answer a big Vikings play with a big play of their own.

Jay Cutler played well, and deserves credit for it
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and Jay Cutler’s performance on Sunday is yet another illustration of that point. The Vikings did a good job of putting the Bears in some difficult 3rd downs – in fact the Bears averaged 5.6 yards to go on their 3rd downs. Yet Chicago converted 58% of those 3rd downs. The Vikings did a nice job of pressuring Cutler and forcing him to move from his spot in the pocket. Jared Allen had a sack, which resulted in a fumble and the Robison touchdown. So it’s not as if the Vikings defense played poorly on 3rd downs – they were pressuring Cutler and they were able to pin their ears back and rush with Chicago facing to-go yardage of 10 (three times), 9 (twice) and 5 (twice). It’s just that Cutler played well, maybe slightly better, than the Vikings defense on those crucial downs. Two of Cutler’s three touchdowns were 3rd down throws – both went to tight end Martellus Bennett.

When things go wrong, it’s easy to search out someone to assign blame. Maybe on this one it’s appropriate to single out Cutler and give him credit.


Forte feasted
Last week Reggie Bush posed major problems for the Vikings as he rushed for 90 yards and collected 101 receiving yards and a TD, for a total of 191 yards and one score. This week the Vikings encountered a similar problem with Chicago’s running back, Matt Forte. He ran for 90 yards and had 71 receiving yards for a total of 161 yards; Forte was targeted 11 times in the passing game and had 11 receptions. So the Vikings two game total for yards allowed to Bush and Forte comes out to 352 yards and one touchdown. And against all Detroit and Chicago running backs, the Vikings have surrendered 485 total yards (rushing + receiving). It’s hard for a defense to cover everything up at once, but these yardage totals are just too high.

Leaking yardage on special teams
I wrote twice this week that Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer and his coverage units have done an outstanding job against Devin Hester over the past three seasons. On Sunday, though, it was Hester who did the outstanding job. He racked up 249 kickoff return yards on five attempts. As mentioned above, Hester responded to Patterson’s opening touchdown with a 76-yarder down to the Vikings 32, which led to a Bears touchdown. Hester went for 80 yards on his next return, then there was a touchback, then a 20-yarder, then a 31-yard gouge and a 42-yard dash in the 4th quarter. They didn’t all lead to scores, but they put the Vikings defense on a shorter field and it took away opportunities for the Vikings defense to set up the offense with short fields. It’s a trickle-down effect and it’s an unusual problem for Priefer’s group. I’m not concerned about this long-term because the body of work over Priefer’s three seasons here is too good. But it was an issue on Sunday at Soldier Field.


The running game can be better
Yes, Adrian Peterson reached the 100-yard mark once again, the 38th time in his illustrious career, but overall the running game left something to be desired. The Vikings remain committed to running on early downs, something that frustrates some but also something I think is important for this team to continue doing. The Vikings have the MVP in their backfield, the best running back in the NFL – use him! When it doesn’t work, it’s not necessarily time to change course, it’s time to fix what’s not working. Here are the numbers on the Vikings 1st-down rushing: 54 yards (and one fumble) on 15 carries (3.6 yards per carry). To further illustrate my point that the Vikings need to continue working on improving their 1st-down rushing, here’s a running tally of the yards they gained on each 1st-down attempt: -3, 4, 3, 3, 0, 36, 2, 4, 2 (fumble), 6, 4, 4, -13, 0, 2.

To be clear, I believe the Vikings are on the right track with their 1st-down running frequency and I support the strategy. It’s just that a few corrections need to be made to ensure those early-down runs are more productive. Once they are, the 3rd downs will become more manageable and then the offense will sustain longer possessions, score more points and give the defense more rest.