EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings trudged off the grass at Soldier Field in mid-November disappointed after a 25-20 loss to the Bears.
Minnesota was hampered by three turnovers and a handful of mistakes as Chicago remained in first place in the NFC North. The Bears would clinch the division in Week 15.
The teams meet again on Sunday with the Vikings facing much higher stakes, as a Minnesota win gets the Vikings into the postseason.
But Minnesota will have two key players in uniform Sunday in linebacker Anthony Barr and tight end David Morgan, both of whom missed the Week 11 game on the road.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Friday each player brings a much-needed dynamic on each side of the ball.
“Barr has done an outstanding job this year. He has played very, very well,” Zimmer said. “He is really an extremely bright kid, and Morgan adds a little bit of toughness to the offensive unit, so that is always a good thing.”
Barr missed three total games with a hamstring injury earlier in the season, but has been a force since returning in Week 12 against Green Bay.
The former first-round pick ranks fifth on the Vikings with 68 total tackles (team stats) along with eight tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble.
The former UCLA standout said it was frustrating to sit out the Week 11 game against the Bears.
“Of course. I definitely want to play regardless of who the opponent is, but the situation was as such where I couldn’t,” Barr said. “I’m ready to go this week, though.”
Barr said he hoped he could chip in and help the Vikings defense get past a Chicago offense that features a bevy of skill players.
“I don’t want to speak too much on game plan stuff, but we’re going to focus on slowing their offense down and stopping the run,” Barr said. “Hopefully we can get them in third-and-long situations.”
Morgan said he, too, is chomping at the bit to play the Bears after sitting out the initial meeting.
“Division games are double-hitters … games you really have to win,” Morgan said. “Just sitting out and seeing the guys battle … it’s rough sitting home watching those games, so I’m excited about this week.”
Morgan missed four games with a knee injury, but returned in Week 15 against the Dolphins. His presence in the run game has helped the Vikings run for 320 total yards in two straight wins.
Minnesota will likely need Morgan’s efforts Sunday against a Bears defense that currently ranks second in rushing defense at 81.1 yards allowed per game.
“They’re a great front,” Morgan said. “They’ve got a lot of big guys with big talent.”
The Vikings are ready for a win-and-in scenario on Sunday, and they should benefit from two players who couldn’t help out the first time around.
Do Barr and Morgan embrace the opportunity that waits them Sunday?
“I hope so,” Barr said. “If not, then you probably shouldn’t be here. It’s simple.”
Zylstra could get chance to return punts
Th spotlight could be on Brandon Zylstra on Sunday when the Vikings punt return unit is on the field.
Marcus Sherels and Chad Beebe, two of the top options at punt returner, have already been ruled out against the Bears.
“I caught a few more during the actual periods and stuff,” Zylstra said of his practice reps this week. “I spent a few extra minutes out there today, just catching different punts that we might see.”
“It’s probably been pretty similar because I always sit back there with Marcus after practice and catch them,” Zylstra added. “I’ve been catching them for weeks now, so I feel comfortable back there.”
The rookie has three career punt returns for 22 yards, and also drew a 15-yard personal foul last week when the Lions interfered with one his attempts to field a punt.
Zylstra, a Minnesota native, played in the Canadian Football League in 2017. He said he’s had to adapt to different punt return rules in each league.
“In the CFL, you get a 5-yard halo around you, so nobody can touch you within those five yards because they don’t allow fair catches up there,” Zylstra said. “So that gives you a little bit of extra time. So that is a little bit different.
“And when I was up there, too, I was never the starting guy. It was the same thing – kind of when all the guys got hurt, they just wanted somebody who was what they called ‘sure-handed’ back there. My job was always to catch it and go down,” Zylstra added. “They said, obviously, ‘If you have a little bit of room,’ but they never wanted me taking hits, so I never did too much. I probably only averaged five yards a return, maybe. It was literally just catch, find a little hole and then dive on the ground.”
A chess game
Chicago’s defense has been among the league’s best units in 2018.
The Bears rank fourth in yards allowed per game (308.7) and are third in points allowed per game (18.2). Chicago also leads the league with six defensive touchdowns.
Zimmer credited the Bears secondary for being sneaky at times, saying the unit does an excellent job disguising what the coverage is and getting into it at the last possible second.
“I think they do a really, really good job on the back end of playing complementary coverages where it’s hard to recognize exactly what you’re getting all the time,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes it’s 2 Strong and Quarters Weak. Sometimes it’s Quarters, sometimes it’s 3 Weak, sometimes it’s 2 Man, sometimes it’s 11, 1 Robber. But I think they do a really nice job.
“It’s hard to tell pre-snap what they’re doing. That part, and they got good cover guys,” Zimmer added. “The two corners [Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara] are good corners. The two safeties [Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, Jr.] are good safeties. That part is really good schematically. The front guys, they just kind of maul you.”
The Bears listed Jackson as doubtful for Sunday’s game with an ankle injury.