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Vikings Run Game Ready to Break Through Against Stout Bears Defense

EAGAN, Minn. — In the Vikings 2018 road game at Soldier Field, Minnesota's offense churned out just 22 rushing yards on 14 attempts. It was the Vikings second-lowest rushing output of the season.

And in 2019, Minnesota compiled just 40 yards on the ground on 16 attempts. That total was the same as the year before as it was the Vikings second-lowest rushing total of the entire year.

It's no secret that the Vikings have historically struggled in Chicago, with just four wins in the past two decades.

But in the most-recent losses, an area that is supposed to be a strong focus — Minnesota's ground game — has sputtered.

"We haven't done it. Since I've been here in the backfield, we haven't done it," Dalvin Cook said of the disappointing performances of the rushing attack. "I think we always kind of like, I don't want to say play at their pace, but we go in and ease our way into the game.

"I think this year, it's about something different. It's about us knowing our identity. Knowing who we are and going out there and playing football," Cook added. "I give the utmost respect to the Bears but I think we're going to have a good week of practice, a solid week of practice and it's going to be about us and how we play."

In the Vikings past 10 trips to Chicago, their offense has just three combined rushing touchdowns. And Minnesota has hit the 100-yard mark on the ground just four times, with two of those coming in 2015 and 2017, seasons in which the Vikings got a road win and also won the NFC North.

"I think the biggest struggle is they're really good. They're guys are really good," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who is 2-4 in his career at Soldier Field. "They've got good players and they're coached well. That will be the biggest struggle for us, playing against a really good football team."

Cook talked Thursday about being the more physical team, something he also mentioned a season ago. But in 2019, he tallied just 35 yards and a score on 14 carries. In 2018, he had 12 yards and lost a fumble on nine attempts.

But there is a sense within the Vikings that this time will be different, with a large part of that belief founded on how Minnesota's offense has operated in back-to-back wins over Green Bay and Detroit.

Cook was the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after each of those games, racking up 52 carries for 369 yards and five touchdowns.

The fourth-year running back leads the NFL with 858 rushing yards and 12 rushing scores despite playing in just six-and-a-half games in 2020.

"I think it's good for us up front," Cook said of his gaudy stats. "Getting that confidence going into the back end of the season, knowing what we're trying to get done, knowing the identity of who we are.

"I think that's key for us up front, for the guys up front. It's always good to be out front in statistics, it just shows the hard work you put in," Cook said. "I'm big on letting my guys know up front that this thing can be done … 'Y'all just get on guys, and I'm going to make a play.' …. I think being first in some of the statistics just shows that to the O-line, gives them that confidence."

Chicago will counter with a ferocious defense. And although the Bears rank 14th at 116.9 rushing yards allowed per game, the unit just proved what they are capable of when going against a top-tier running back.

In Week 9, Chicago limited Derrick Henry to 21 carries for just 68 yards, 26 of which came on one run. Henry, who recorded his second-lowest rushing total of the season, had 15 carries that gained 3 or fewer yards.

Chicago will be without defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19. But the Bears still feature a strong cast of characters, many of whom have had success against Cook and the Vikings in the past.

"They're a really good defensive front," Zimmer said. "[Defensive tackle Akiem] Hicks is a load. Roquan Smith is a great linebacker. I think they do a good job on the back end with their run support and the way the tackle. Eddie Jackson does a really good job [at safety]. I think they're second in the league in three-and-outs, so we're going to have to try and sustain some drives."

The Bears also added Robert Quinn as one of their 3-4 outside linebackers to go along with Khalil Mack on the other side. Zimmer said that pairing "makes it difficult for opposing offenses."

Cook said: "We've just got to continue to build on from the previous weeks. We know the identity of Chicago. They're a great defensive team. They have some great players over there. But we've just got to keep this thing about us and how we play football. I think if we play to our standard and keep holding guys accountable, we'll come out with a victory."

Minnesota's recent surge in the run game has catapulted Cook into the potential MVP race. But it has also opened up the Vikings passing attack, especially in the play-action game.

Over the past two weeks, Kirk Cousins has completed seven of 13 play-action attempts for 122 yards and two scores. His passer rating on such throws is 122.4.

"It's very exciting to see them fill up the box a little bit and leave us 1-on-1 or with the safeties in the secondary," said Vikings rookie receiver Justin Jefferson. "So, the run's definitely opened up the pass game, and our pass game will open up the run game."

But even Cousins said Thursday that both teams likely know what Minnesota's first offensive priority will be on Monday night.

"We want to run the football well against anybody we play, but the Bears are a really good defense, but our chances of being successful and having a strong day against them from an offensive perspective, certainly a large part of that will be how we run the football," Cousins said. "If we can run it effectively and consistently throughout the game, certainly, it gives us a much better chance to have a strong day on offense."

Added Cook: "We've got to go in there and match their physicality. Not shying away from anything. I think this year, this Monday night game, is going to be about who's going to be more physical. I think we got to bring out lunch pail Monday night."