8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Vikings -3.5, Over/Under: 40.5
Quarterbacks dominate the headlines coming into tonight’s clash between bitter NFC North rivals, as the Minnesota Vikings travel to Solder Field to battle the Chicago Bears, with the former hoping the return of their Starting Quarterback will fix what ails them, while the latter will be unveiling what they hope to be the future of their franchise at that position. Dating back to last season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that has been more unfortunate than the Vikings (2-2, 3rd in NFC North), who have been ravaged by injuries at some of the most significant positions in the game, particularly at Quarterback, Tailback, and along the Offensive Line. With a quarter of the campaign already in the books, it doesn’t appear that those issues will be going away anytime soon; Mike Zimmer’s charges just lost promising Rookie Tailback Dalvin Cook (74 CAR, 354 YDS, 2 TD, 11 REC, 90 YDS), who suffered a torn ACL in last weekend’s 14-7 loss at home to the Detroit Lions for the season, robbing them of a core component of the Offense in this Post-Adrian Peterson Era. Behind a rebuilt Offensive Line, Minnesota’s ground game appeared vastly improved from it’s predecessor in 2016, averaging 108.0 Yards per Game (15th Overall) on 4.0 Yards per Carry (19th Overall), with Cook’s versatility as a pass-catcher out of the Backfield providing a welcome additional dimension to this unit that lacked balance in such a serious manner a year ago. Filling the void left by the Second Round Pick is Latavius Murray (14 CAR, 38 YDS), who was signed during Free Agency to initially lead the rushing attack in the wake of Peterson’s departure, though offseason ankle surgery slowed his acclimation to his new home, ultimately relegating him to backup duty behind Cook. While certainly enjoying his share of highs in his three years with the Oakland Raiders (12 TD in 2016), inconsistency was also a hallmark of his tenure, which ultimately made him expendable in the long run, leading to his destination in Minneapolis. Though he isn’t the threat in the passing game that Cook had proven to be, the fourth-year veteran has the size (6-3, 225 lbs) and toughness to move the chains between the Tackles, while also flashing breakaway speed on occasion, having averaged 4.2 Yards per Carry in Oakland. The need for balance is imperative as Zimmer and Co. welcome back Sam Bradford, who has missed the last three games after suffering a bone bruise in his Right Knee during the Season Opener. Of course, Bradford, who is no stranger to knee injuries, was acquired at the eleventh hour last season after Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury threatened his career. Despite performing behind a sieve of an Offensive Line, and operating on an abridged playbook (not to mention the resignation of Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner), the former No. One Overall Pick played the most inspiring football of his career, posting career-highs in Completion Percentage (71.6%), Passing Yards (3,877), and QBR (59.0). When last we saw him, Bradford was torching the New Orleans Saints on Opening Weekend, shredding them on 27-of-32 passing for 346 Yards and three Touchdowns in the 29-19 victory. Given his injury history, it’s understandable why Zimmer and his Training Staff were as cautious as they were in handling this latest ailment, but with the Vikings going 1-2 since the Opener with Case Keenum doing his best to keep the Offense afloat, the clock was clearly ticking for this franchise that so desperately needs some form of stability at Quarterback. Thankfully, the Defense has been a completely different story altogether, continuing their play that made them one of the league’s most fearsome units a year ago; through four games Minnesota is allowing just 19.0 Points (9th Overall) on 318.1 Total Yards (9th Overall), including 246.8 versus the Pass (24th Overall) on 6.4 Net Yards per Attempt (19th Overall), and another 71.3 against the Run (3rd Overall) on 3.1 Yards per Carry (3rd Overall), while also racking up a healthy eleven Sacks. Loaded with Pro Bowlers at all levels, look for Edge Rusher Everson Griffen (16 TKL, 5.0 SK) and his cohorts along the Defensive Line to bring the heat on the Bears’ young Rookie Quarterback.
Meanwhile, the future is finally now for the Bears (1-3, 4th in NFC North), who are finally making the switch to Mitchell Trubisky at Quarterback, the Number Two Overall Pick in this past NFL Draft, whom they’ve invested heavily in having traded up to select. Now we can debate all day as to whether or not this change under Center needed to happen at this point, but there are a number of factors influencing John Fox’s decision, none more so than the clock ticking on the veteran Head Coach, who after last year’s miserable 3-13 campaign desperately needs to inject some life in this lengthy rebuilding project. Make no mistake, this franchise wasn’t going to be remade overnight, for while it may not appear to be so, the Bears current state is the face of a renovation that is every bit as extensive as the Cleveland Browns or San Francisco 49ers. Fox knew that when he took the job, and Management knew that when they hired him, but in a league where patience is so often used as a shield and discarded at the first opportunity, something needed to change for a team that has gone 4-17 since appointing the man who resurrected both the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos in relatively short order. After all, Fox took the Panthers to the brink of a Super Bowl Championship in his second season in Carolina, while taking the Broncos from 8-8 to 13-3 in successive terms, so maybe patience should be the mandate for the faithful in the Windy City. Of course, there is also the play of Mike Glennon (66.4%, 208.3 Y/G, 5.10 NY/A, 4 TD, 5 INT), who for lack of a better word has certainly underperformed as Chicago’s Starting Quarterback thus far. The longtime Backup was signed to a three-year deal during the Offseason (though it’s really a one-year deal) well before the Bears had settled on moving up to draft Trubisky in the first place, leading to a Quarterback Competition that lasted throughout Training Camp and well into the Preseason, before Fox ultimately anointed the veteran as the Starter for the Season Opener. While he played relatively well in the 23-17 loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons, his play continued to slip into oblivion, committing a staggering eight Turnovers (Five Interceptions) over the following three contests, mercifully concluding with a perilous performance in last week’s humiliating 35-14 defeat at home to hated foe Green Bay. The fact that that particular game was played on a Thursday Night helped precipitate the move to Trubisky as well, for the extra four days of preparation made it possible for the prodigy to get ready to face one of the nastiest Defenses in the league. A one-year starter at North Carolina in which he wowed scouts with his mobility and accuracy, Trubisky performed well during the Preseason, and will hopefully improve upon the things that Glennon struggled with in this Offense; points have been at a premium for this unit (15.3 PPG, 31st Overall), while struggling to consistently stretch the field vertically, averaging a meager 5.1 Net Yards per Pass (30th Overall), and giving the ball away ten times (32nd Overall). Granted, Chicago’s Receiving Corps is hardly intimidating, but the thought is that Trubisky’s ability to potentially avoid the rush and get outside of the Pocket, coupled with his accuracy on the move, will buy his targets enough time to shake their coverage. However, it’s far more likely that we’ll all see a steady diet of the Bears’ Backfield, with Tailbacks Jordan Howard (63 CAR, 252 YDS, 4 TD) and Tarik Cohen (331 Total YDS, 1 TD) being utilized in a multitude of ways; Howard no doubt has fond memories of trampling the Vikings, having rushed for a career-high 153 Yards and a Touchdown on twenty-six Carries in last year’s meeting at Soldier Field, a 20-10 victory on Monday Night Football no less.