Reserves — regardless of the definition — had their fingerprints all over the Vikings 17-9 win over the Bears in Chicago on Monday Night Football.
Rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette caught his first career touchdown and one of two thrown by Kirk Cousins on a night the Vikings were without Adam Thielen, Dede Westbrook and Dan Chisena.
True, the Vikings did have Justin Jefferson. The budding star led Minnesota with four catches for 47 yards while passing a team record set by Randy Moss hours after catching up with the Hall of Famer and receiving the news he was heading to his second consecutive Pro Bowl. Jefferson caught Minnesota's first touchdown, and the attention he drew after lining up in the backfield enabled Smith-Marsette to find space all alone in the end zone.
"From what I could tell on the Surface tablet pictures, they basically triple-teamed Justin," Cousins said about his second touchdown. "I'm sure that was a mistake. I'm sure they wanted to at least double [Jefferson], but it probably was a miscommunication. I don't think Ihmir really did anything except they just dropped him. He did a great job getting to his spot and then making a play, finishing a play. But I think they got a little bit focused on Justin, which opened up Ihmir."
Opportunities knocked, and multiple Vikings answered.
Kene Nwangwu, a draft classmate of Smith-Marsette's, rushed three times for 33 yards while stepping in for Alexander Mattison as Dalvin Cook's backup.
On defense, Cameron Dantzler moved back into the starting lineup and forced the first of three fumbles by the Bears. Dantzler joined Patrick Peterson as Minnesota's cornerbacks two days after Bashaud Breeland was waived.
The Vikings have been in the process of replacing the production at defensive end that has been missing without Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who have combined for 140 career sacks for Minnesota.
D.J. Wonnum started his seventh consecutive game in place of Hunter and totaled 3.0 sacks of rookie Justin Fields. Sheldon Richardson, who was ideally going to be a situational interior rusher when the Vikings returned him this offseason, made his fourth consecutive start in place of Griffen.
Richardson forced and recovered a fumble to end Chicago's third possession and first trip to the red zone. Although David Montgomery was initially ruled down after a 2-yard loss, Richardson made a compelling argument to convince Head Coach Mike Zimmer to challenge the call.
The ruling was overturned for Richardson's 11th forced fumble and sixth fumble recovery.
Minnesota denied Chicago a touchdown on its first four trips inside the 20-yard line including twice after linebacker Eric Kendricks was ejected with 9:30 left in the game.
Officials ruled Kendricks had intentionally struck Fields as the quarterback was sliding to give himself up. Fields' torso was upright, so his head was higher than some QBs when they give themselves up.
"I didn't get a good explanation, really," Zimmer said. "[The officials] came over late and said they thought he had an elbow to a head. I thought I saw it pretty cleanly, and I thought the quarterback slid and kept his head up, and Eric was going down and kind of raised his head to try to avoid it, and I thought they bumped heads. I didn't think it was anything real … real … I don't know what word I'm looking for."
Nick Vigil stepped in to work with Anthony Barr at linebacker and teamed with Michael Pierce to tackle Montgomery for a loss of 2 on the following play.
Peterson followed with an incredible diving pass breakup and also forced an incompletion on the next snap. A pass for Darnell Mooney on fourth-and-goal from the 9 was ruled out of bounds, enabling Minnesota to protect its 17-3 lead with 8:30 remaining.
View game action photos between the Vikings and Bears during the Monday Night Football matchup at Soldier Field.
It was the first time in all of 2021 that the Vikings had not allowed a touchdown when the defense faced a goal-to-go situation for an opponent.
Zimmer's team improved to 7-7 and moved into the No. 7 seed for the NFC Playoffs with three games remaining. He has a long list in mind.
"Every week, we need to continue to get better. It's not just playing better. It's getting better," Zimmer said. "It's getting better in run defense. It's getting better in pass coverage. It's getting better in protection. It's getting better in running the ball. All those things. We're trying to get better where we can get to the spot we're trying to get to. That's the important part."